100 Years Since Balfour: A History of the Balfour Declaration From 1917 to 2017
November 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which established the British government’s formal support for the Zionist movement and the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The motives behind this declaration varied, from a genuine support for the Zionist movement to a hope that such a declaration would increase support for the Allies of World War One in countries with a significant Jewish population (namely the United States and post-tsarist Russia). The text itself was approved by then-US president Woodrow Wilson before publication and the French and Italian governments of the time publically endorsed it less than a year afterwards.
Two years after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration and under the new League of Nations mandate system, Britain was given temporary administrative control of Palestine. The international support for the ideas enshrined in the Balfour Declaration were cemented in 1922 when the League of Nations issued as part of the Palestinian Mandate that one of its main purposes would be to assist in the “establishment of the Jewish national home” within Mandatory Palestine in conjunction with a newly created Jewish agency. This document as well as the Balfour Declaration were both cited in the Israeli Declaration of Independence as one of the factors demonstrating the legitimacy of the Israeli claim to a Jewish homeland in Mandatory Palestine.
One hundred years later, the impact of the Balfour Declaration continues to be felt throughout the Middle East and across the globe. In Ramallah, the anniversary was marked with protest and the chant “we will not give up our right to exist” while in Bethlehem, protestors burned an effigy of Arthur James Balfour, the original author and namesake of the Balfour declaration. Also in Bethlehem, artist-satirist Banksy responded to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ demand that British Prime Minister Theresa May apologize for the Balfour Declaration by procuring an individual dressed up as Queen Elizabeth II to offer said requested apology with a side of cake.
Furthermore, outside the British consulate in East Jerusalem, Palestinian schoolchildren delivered letters addressed May protesting the declaration. Manuel Hassassain, the chief Palestinian diplomat to the United Kingdom, stated that the British government should take this opportunity to recognize a Palestinian state. This sentiment was echoed by an Arab member of the Knesset, Zouheir Bahlool, who said in an interview that the declaration “buried the existence of the Palestinian people,” and ignored the desires and rights of those already living in Palestine, which he cited as his reason to boycott the parliamentary celebration of the event and to threaten to leave his current party, the Zionist Union.
Countering these accusations, Martin Kramer, a history professor at Shalem College in Jerusalem, stated that “what Palestinians do when they focus on the Balfour Declaration as the root cause is to absolve themselves of all they did after,” stating that more effort could have been made to reach a settlement with the Zionists and that focusing on the declaration itself ignored actions taken by those already in Palestine to fan the flames of conflict. Israeli commentators further stated that if Palestinians truly want a state based on 1967 borders, the Balfour Declaration would be the wrong document to challenge as it does not mandate the borders of a Jewish homeland, just the existence of one and thus the challenge would be against the existence of Israel, not its boundaries.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom itself, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson celebrated the 100th anniversary of the declaration by stating it “paved the way for one of the greatest political triumphs of the 20th century, the creation of the State of Israel”. Prime Minister May celebrated the anniversary with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli and British dignitaries, stating her pride in Britain’s “pioneering role in the creation of Israel”. She and Prime Minister Netanyahu further took the occasion to reaffirm their mutual support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the spirit of the planned peaceful co-existence laid out within the Balfour Declaration. He also made sure to celebrate the modern day relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom, who he described as “strong allies and partners,” a relationship and friendliness that could be said to have begun with the Balfour Declaration itself.
The divisive reactions and views of the Balfour Declarations are perfectly exemplified at two academic conferences hosted in Jerusalem, a city that itself can be said to be divided along similar lines. In central Jerusalem, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities hosted a conference on the Balfour Doctrine that saw it as the produce of World War One geopolitical necessity and international law, supported by the Wilsonian ideals of self-determination that had been growing in influence at the time. Meanwhile, in East Jerusalem, a conference hosted at the Palestinian National Theater saw the declaration as the product of imperialism and racism. These two different views exemplify the two perceived legacies of the Balfour Declaration, with some seeing it as a document finally granting the Jewish people the right to their own self-determination while others view it as doing the same but at the expense of the population in Palestine at the time of the mandate. Those aligned with the latter idea similarly see the statement that while the Jewish homeland in Palestine should be created “nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” as not protecting the rights to self-determination held by those same communities.
The Balfour Declaration is 67 words long and contains the same amount of characters as approximately five tweets, but it helped to begin and legitimize, at least in the eyes of the international community, the establishment of the State of Israel and despite its short length, the declaration exemplifies the central conflicts dividing Israeli and Palestinian communities today. While the document is 100 years old today, in terms of the lifespan of milestone international declarations it is still quite young and despite what the Balfour Declaration has already helped create, it will likely continue to be impactful for many years to come.