To the Zionists, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 laid the foundation for the formation of the State of Israel. To the Palestinians, however, it was an act of dishonesty and betrayal by Britain. So who is Balfour? What was the declaration? And why does it remain contentious?
The Balfour Declaration was a brief letter dated 2 November 1917 by Lord Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary at the time, addressing Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, a British Zionist peer, expressing the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The letter read as follows:
“His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
British liberal public opinion at the time felt that the West had a responsibility to enable a Jewish homeland due to historical injustices suffered by the Jews for which they believed the West was to blame. In the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, the push for a Jewish homeland intensified amidst growing international support for the Zionist Movement and the creation of the State of Israel.
In 1920, Britain was assigned the temporary administration of Palestine in accordance with the “mandate” system shaped by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Britain was thus entrusted to work on behalf of Palestine’s both Jewish and Arab residents.
An Act of Dishonesty and Betrayal
The Arabs felt betrayed by the declaration, as Britain had promised Arab leaders complete autonomy from the Red Sea to the Arabian Gulf in return for their cooperation during WWI to defeat the Ottomans. Britain guaranteed “the setting up of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous populations.”
However, when the war took a bad turn in 1917, Balfour wrote to leading British Zionists in the hopes of securing Jewish support for the allies. Chaim Weizmann, a leading figure in the Zionist movement in Britain, as well as Rothschild were also lobbying to achieve this. As such, neither the rights of the indigenous population of Palestine nor the promises made to the Arab leaders were upheld.
Controversies and Contradictions
The Declaration’s controversy also lies in part in its vague wording, which some argue was deliberate, leaving Britain’s commitment to an independent Jewish state open to interpretation.
The declaration did not explicitly declare support for a sole Jewish state in Palestine, rather a homeland for the Jewish people where they would live alongside the Palestinians and other Arabs who have lived there for centuries. The second part of the declaration regarding the protection of the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities has also been seen as an acknowledgment of Arab autonomy and rights, an endorsement comparable to that extended to the Jews.
The Impact of the Declaration
The Balfour Declaration and the Zionist aims behind it paved the way for the mass immigration of Jews from all over the world to Palestine, and later the Nakba, the Catastrophe of 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were either killed or forced out of their homes to make way for the establishment of the State of Israel.
At the time of the Balfour Declaration, the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine constituted about 90 per cent of the population. The Jewish population went from 50,000 to 600,000 by the time Israel declared independence, three decades after Balfour’s letter.
Whereas Zionists were seeking a homeland and a Jewish right to self-determination, the creation of a Jewish state directly contradicted the very principles of that right, costing the Palestinians their own.