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100 years since the Balfour Declaration: Symbolic humiliation and the creation of tragedy

November 3, 2017 at 3:46 pm

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with British Prime Minister Theresa May (R) during his official visit in London, UK on November 2017 [United Kingdom Prime Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) was a prominent statesman in the eyes of his compatriots through his eminent positions. However, for the Palestinian people, he remains a clear embodiment of injustice and arrogance, being one of the major figures responsible for the Palestinian tragedy.

The Palestinians did not hear Arthur Balfour speaking. They only know about him through a rigid black and white picture. Each time they see this picture, in which he appears with his rectangular face and his extended moustache, it reminds them of the tragedy that this minister inflicted on them using a few lines in his infamous letter to the Zionist leadership through Lord Rothschild.

The British Foreign Secretary wrote his letter on 2 November 1917 and it has become known as the Balfour Declaration. It was a profound humiliation to the Palestinian people, and its moral repercussions are still affecting the Palestinian collective consciousness, which considered it a metonymy of moral subjugation and humiliation.

Balfour used the Palestinian people’s homeland as a private farm for “his Majesty’s Government” and gave it to a third party to be a national homeland. At that time, the British Government did not want to listen to the Palestinian people and did not care about their concerns while it looked with sympathy to the Zionist movement that most boycotted by most European Jews when its conferences began.

Read: Why the Balfour Declaration did not promise a Jewish state

Back then, the British Government did not consult Jewish communities in Europe and the world to probe their willingness to leave their countries and head to the Middle East. The undeclared arrangements were made with the Zionist leadership, which, at least at that time, was not supported by most of the Jews of Europe and the world.

It is easy to assume that the planned establishment of a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine somewhat stimulated the uprooting of the local Jewish communities from their European countries in waves of persecution, ethnic cleansing and extermination which culminated in the Nazi era.

Although the declaration’s text stressed that it should not detract from the “rights or political status enjoyed by Jews in other countries”, many Jewish communities were displaced from their homelands, blurring their diverse cultures – including the Yiddish language – in favour of melting into the monolithic cultural mold imposed by Zionist ideology. It is another side of the arbitrariness of the Balfour Declaration. It is no exaggeration to conclude that the idea of a national homeland for the Jewish people was an abusive European invention to create a permanent colonial base in various areas that were proposed; Palestine being one of them.

One hundred years later, her Majesty’s Government decided to celebrate the centennial of the “ominous” Balfour Declaration, as it is considered by Palestinians who feel that this celebration is another stab in the back by Theresa May, an act which has revived the memory of Balfour’s first stab.

What is happening gives the impression that history has apparently not changed for the British Government, and that with regard to Palestine in particular, it has not evaded the colonial spirit until this day, and has not yet decided to conduct a serious and responsible historical review out of moral awakening.

The pain that Balfour and his government caused to the Palestinian people was not just moral. The 67 words in his statement were followed by a serious “physical tragedy” that is increasing. The Zionist organisation was granted a national state that is like a huge military base established upon an utterly armed settler society which ideologically leads to a complex system of apartheid in Palestine. Balfour’s Declaration and her Majesty’s Government’s policies caused the tragic circumstances of the displacement of millions of Palestinians, generation after generation, in the aftermath of the occupation of their lands, taking over their homeland and uprooting them.

A whole century has gone by and Balfour is still standing in the rigid picture with his extended moustache as if he was saying that “I did it and then I left!” None of the subsequent ministers dared to issue a word of apology or regret for the conflicts and tragedies caused by the Balfour Declaration.

Read: UK must recognise Palestine to rectify Balfour’s mistake

Arthur Balfour is entitled to be astonished today if he were able to see the Palestinian people’s actions a century after his repressive statement. The former foreign minister did not even want to mention this people in that letter. He contented himself by naming them the “non-Jewish communities now residing in Palestine”. It is one of the most contemptuous expressions that the Palestinian people sensed early on and it is still engraved in their collective memory. The statement denied the existence of the Palestinian people in their own homeland. This statement was a clear simulation of the language of the Zionist leadership at the time.

The United Kingdom will not win morally by continuing to shirk its historic responsibilities for decisions and policies that have been responsible for a long-running conflict and have ignited fires that have not yet been extinguished. The issue did not stop at the limits of Balfour’s text, but rather made it possible for his few words to rise above the ground and exceed what Balfour had allowed in his statement. As a result, several Palestinian towns were destroyed and their inhabitants were forcibly displaced and prevented from returning by force of arms. This took place after Britain occupied Palestine for 30 years and left it in 1948, handing its keys to an armed settler state that did not hesitate to try out the launching of an ethnic cleansing experience and deny recognition of the existence of the Palestinian people.


The Palestinian people lost their homeland despite popular movement, uprisings and strikes. However, in spite of the deep shock, Palestinians did not succumb to the unjust reality that has been imposed on them. It was expected that the story would end decades ago and that generations of Palestinians would give up their inalienable rights and simply forget about them.

However, the surprise which Balfour did not expect is that the ones who were displaced because of his document would rally against the words 100 years later in different cities where they are in exile around the world, including near the headquarters of her Majesty’s Government, which had not expected the case to last this long.

It is shocking that Balfour’s Declaration, with all of its meaning and symbolism for the origin of the Palestinian cause, has not been subject to serious public debate in Britain for a century now. The issue here is broader than the United Kingdom’s apology for issuing this statement, which has brought with it all the tragedy and suffering of the Palestinian people and, in some ways, the local Jewish communities forceful uprooted from Europe and the world so as to provide the state of settlers with the necessary human resources. One should not fail to raise questions such as: Does the UK’s policy towards Palestine during Balfour’s time and its aftermath not deserve an in-depth historical inquiry through the formation of a committee that would consist of independent historians?

Theresa May’s government is celebrating Balfour’s centennial. Palestinians consider this a symbolic and renewed message of humiliation for the people and the victims over the past century. It would be interesting, however, to see how her Majesty’s Government can convince a miserable boy in a refugee camp of how ethical this declaration was, which uprooted his family and people from his homeland. This Palestinian boy has the right to whisper to her: “How would you react, Mrs. Theresa May, if you were in my mother or grandmother’s shoes? Would you throw a party and celebrate the Balfour Declaration?”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.