One hundred years ago on November 2nd, 1917, the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour publicly issued the Balfour Declaration. The short statement read:
His Majesty’s Government view 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.
Despite its seemingly innocuous and considered tone there are few more controversial documents in modern history. However, it is important to be aware of what preceded the declaration, not just what followed it. There needs to be a correction of the subtle rewriting of history that goes on under the surface when British motivations for the Balfour Declaration are discussed.
Many in Britain still like to offer some congratulatory remarks to the British government’s selfless aims in issuing this declaration. That Britain sought to protect the persecuted Jewish people is seen as a mark of our country’s great compassion. Daniel Hannan’s article ‘Like any parent, Britain should take pride in Israel’ in The Telegraph is an excellent example of a misplaced admiration taken from Britain’s motivations. History tells a rather different story. Whatever humanitarian concerns motivated the Balfour Declaration, they are irrevocably tainted by the British government’s self-interest as a colonial power. If aiding the foundation of a Jewish national home in Palestine had not lined up with the aims of the British Empire in WWI, it is likely that no such promise would have been made.
When Theresa May delivered a speech at the Balfour Centenary Dinner on November 2nd she spoke proudly of the Arthur Balfour’s vision and leadership in seizing the moment to restore a persecuted people to their homeland in the context of Britain’s involvement in WWI. It was suggested by May that Balfour was sensitive to the needs and concerns of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. In reality no such care was taken beyond the words of a declaration these communities had no say in. The Balfour Declaration was irreconcilable with the concerns of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. The historian Ilan Pappé convincingly argues that the native Palestinians were not interested in British imperialism, Zionism, or even emerging nationalism, and yet they were caught in the midst of all three.
Balfour’s vision for a ‘peaceful co-existence’ is a modern invention. By forwarding Zionist aspirations for a Jewish homeland, Balfour knew that this could be used to appeal to powerful Jewish lobbies in America and Russia to aid in the British war effort. While speaking to the war cabinet, Balfour said ‘we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America’ where ‘the vast majority of Jews … appeared to be favourable to Zionism’. It should also be noted that all of these considerations came after the determined Zionist Chaim Weizmann had conducted meetings with Balfour in December 1914 and David Lloyd George in January 1915 to push his agenda forward, securing their support in the process. Before these meetings the Zionist cause had met a disinterested reception in the British government. Rather than genuine sympathy for the Zionist cause, Lloyd George and Balfour were motivated almost entirely by the benefit they believed Zionist support could bring. Palestine was an area of great territorial interest for Britain’s empire in the Middle East, particularly as it served as a buffer zone to protect the Suez Canal. The British government was unhappy with the secretive Sykes-Picot agreement between themselves and the French, which left Palestine as an ill-defined area of international commission. Zionist support allowed the securing of the Palestine Mandate in the post-war settlement that finally satisfied British aims in the region.
When one looks back at the actions of Britain in the twentieth century it is important to not lose sight of the power this country once was. For all that came after the Balfour Declaration – the horrors of the Holocaust or the tragic plight of the Palestinian refugees – It is essential that we do not paint Britain’s past intentions with a rose-tinted brush. There is no attempt here to present Britain as the sole founder of the world’s problems and nor should there be. It is important to look at these matters objectively. However, in so far as we should admire Israel’s role in the Middle East, Britain cannot take pride in it ‘like any parent’ would. What kind of parent can take pride in the achievements of a child whose concerns were merely an afterthought to their own self-interested aims?