Debating the Legacy of the Balfour Declaration

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

November 9, 2017

One hundred years have passed since the government of the United Kingdom declared its support for Jewish claims for a home in Palestine. The centenary of the Balfour Declaration has been marked by violent protests in the Occupied Territories, while many debates on the actual significance of the document have taken place on the editorial and op-ed pages of regional dailies.

According to the Palestinian website Ma’an News, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration was marked by protests in various Palestinian quarters, including Bethlehem, where demonstrators were confronted by Israeli forces: “Clashes erupted between Palestinians and Israeli forces in Bethlehem city on Wednesday following a march commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 document which supported establishing a Jewish state on what would become British Mandate Palestine, and paved the [way] for the establishment of Israel…. Israeli forces quickly suppressed the protest, using live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas, injuring one with a rubber-coated steel bullet in the foot, while several others suffered from severe tear gas inhalation.”

Echoing the main message of those protests, Iran’s Press TV reports that leaders of Hamas “slammed” the century-old British document: “The Israeli occupation of Palestine will not last for the regime to celebrate a second centennial of its creation, the Hamas leader tells an international conference on the Palestinian cause. Delivering a speech to the international conference of resistance scholars in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Wednesday, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said the Zionist project on the Palestinian territory had no future…. Haniyeh further slammed the declaration and said it could not distort historical and geographical realities.”

Looking beyond the decisions made by the British a century ago, some regional commentators, including Al Ahram’s Manal Lotfi, turned their attention toward the current government in Westminster, considering what actions, if any, should be taken in light of the centenary: “Not only did some politicians and religious leaders decline invitations to attend the commemorative dinner with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s call to celebrate the Balfour centenary with “pride” evoked a more reflective mood and raised many questions about British political and moral responsibility for the historic injustice against the Palestinian people…. The call for Britain to apologize for the Balfour Declaration and its role in igniting the conflict made by MPs, politicians, religious leaders and human rights activists, was met with silence. Earlier this year Britain said there would be no apology for the declaration, adding it will continue to work for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Clearly, there will be no British apology. Equally clearly there is guilt.”

Hasan Abu Nimah, writing for Jordan Times, pushes this argument a bit further, arguing that, apology or not, the damage caused in part by the Balfour Declaration can only begin to be addressed by putting an immediate halt to further injustices to Palestinian people today: “On its own, the Balfour Declaration could not have precipitated the outcomes that prevail in the region now. Israel was not created by the declaration alone. But the Balfour Declaration was the perfect precursor for initiating a devastating process…. Would an apology reverse a century-long tragic record of misery, aggression, conspiracy, eradication, occupation, persecution and severe suffering, not only of the Palestinians, but of many others in the region as a result of compounded complications and massive consequences over the years, feeding on that initial gross injustice? Apologies make sense when the committed wrong is corrected, not while arduously in progress.”

Jerusalem Post’s Gil Troy, on the other hand, pushes back against declarations and comments by some who consider the declaration as having laid the seeds of the future state of Israel: “The Jews’ legitimacy as a nation doesn’t depend on one Balfour declaration from 1917 – or many of them. Jews didn’t need an international permission slip: not in 1917 nor even in 1947 from the United Nations, and certainly not today…. And Jews don’t need a Balfour hug to prove what Israel has proved since 1948 – that the Jews are a people, fully justified in building a state in the Jewish homeland, and impressively capable of making that state a refuge for the persecuted and an oasis of idealism, a liberal democratic stronghold in the undemocratic illiberal Middle East and a source of old-new Jewish pride to a once depressed, now liberated, people.”

Hussein Ibish also considers that, in some respects, the declaration wasn’t as decisive as some have suggested. However, writing for The National, Ibish is quick to point out the dangerous and discriminatory language of the declaration with regards to the non-Jewish population in Palestine at the time: “On the other hand, the declaration wasn’t as decisive or definitive a turning point as is sometimes claimed…. What is far more telling in the declaration is the language used to describe the Palestinians and implicitly, but unmistakably, highlight their role and rights. Palestinian Muslims and Christians constituted well over 90 per cent of the population, and yet the declaration refers to them, bizarrely, as ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. They are primarily identified as not Jewish rather than having any identity of their own. The wording seems almost intentionally designed to obscure the fact that these ‘communities” were, in fact, a vast majority’.

Finally, in an op-ed for Arab News, Manuel Hassassian points out that, despite the debates about the past, one hundred years later the Palestinian question remains as central to the current and future stability of the region as ever: “democracy and freedom in the whole Arab world is inextricably intertwined with the fight for justice for Palestine…. Israel will be at peril if it does not see these signs, and believes instead that it can survive through pure brute force. It may believe it can use the present chaos in the region to bypass the crux of the Palestinian question through other regional relations. This will not work in the end and there is no evidence that Israel is in fact succeeding in this, despite numerous Israeli media leaks. Any gains it makes will be short lived. If Israel wants to survive as a nation it has to relinquish its exceptionalism and be an ordinary nation building good relations with all its neighbors.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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