Bordering Celebration and Contrition: 100 Years of the Balfour Declaration

On 2nd November 1917, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour scribbled out a signature which would culminate in one of the most divisive geopolitical disputes in modern history. Described as ‘arguably the most contentious 67 words ever written’, this short document has redefined the physical and imagined borders of the Middle East for a century, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. In this, its centenary month, age-old debates about the implications of the Declaration for human rights in Palestine and Israel have resurfaced with an enlivened ferocity. British politicians have walked the tightrope between polarised Palestinian and Jewish sentiments towards the Declaration in the present and have looked tentatively on to see what the future may hold for the State of Israel and its inhabitants.

Ever since its conception, the Balfour Declaration has been a point of deep political and religious contention between Zionist Jewish and Palestinian interest groups. For the former, Balfour’s (albeit vague) assertion that the British government looked favourably upon, and would endeavour to achieve, ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ was the glorious culmination of a long sought after sense of recognition of their proclaimed rights – deeply entrenched in cultural and religious history – to re-establish the community in the Holy Lands documented in the Biblical scriptures. For the Jewish people, the religious symbolism underpinning the decision which, in 1948, resulted in the creation of the State of Israel, represented a ‘national re-birth’. It gave them, for the first time in centuries characterised by persecution, a sense of belonging. As such, the current and 4th Lord Rothschild, great grandson of the original recipient of the crucial document, has declared it to be ‘the greatest event in Jewish life for thousands of years’.

One of millions of Palestinian refugees to have lost their homes as a result of the Balfour Declaration. Source: The Independent.

The document may, on the one hand, have represented a hope of transforming Zionist idealism into a reality. But on the other, for Palestinians, the Balfour Declaration was nothing short of what president Mahmoud Abbas describes as ‘the darkest day in our history’- a history since defined by hostility, oppression, and exile. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, Palestinians felt that, through the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the British government was parcelling up land which was not their own to give away. At no point was there a consultation process and a territory comprising 700,000 people, 90% of whom were non-Jewish, found itself in the hands of a significant minority. Initial tensions were only exacerbated by the dramatic influx in Jewish immigrants to Palestine throughout the following decades.

Simply pitching one historical narrative of Jewish triumph against another of Palestinian submission would, however, be a naïve oversimplification of the realities of the conflict. Drawing the distinction between Judaism, the religion encompassing a way of life, including some Zionist beliefs, and Zionism, a nationalistic movement seeking the return of the Jews to the Holy Lands, is absolutely essential, and yet far too often overlooked through generalisations, stereotypes and prejudices. Some of the most prominent examples of this hark from Nazi Germany, with Heinrich Himmler expressing in 1943 that ‘our party sympathises with the fight of the Arabs, especially the Arabs of Palestine, against the foreign Jew’. The depth of the hypocrisy in such a statement is particularly stark when it is considered that only a decade earlier, in 1933, the Nazi Party signed the Haavara agreement, encouraging the emigration of over 52,000 Jews to Palestine in order to remove them from Germany. Nonetheless, the Nazis used a small minority of overly zealous nationalist forces within Palestine – ‘The foreign Jew’ – as representative of an entire religion and cultural foundation in an attempted ‘justification’ of the atrocious human rights abuses committed towards the Jewish people during the 1930s and ‘40s. The occupation of Palestine was warped into an unfounded example of Jewish ‘greed’ and attempted world domination. No matter how unjustified, though, there is a sense in which Balfour provided Nazi snipes at Jewish stereotypes with fresh ammunition. Therefore, the success of the Zionist Jews, in a sense, dealt a heavy blow to their pan-European image and exacerbated hostilities, the target for which significantly traversed the confines of Palestine. Speaking at the Balfour Centenary lecture on 1st November, however, the Historian Simon Schama asserted that ‘the life of Israel is Hitler’s failure’. He argued that the creation of Israel in 1948 and the 6 million Jews living there in the present day was the ultimate retort to the perpetrators of genocide, demonstrating the ability of the Jews to thrive in their homelands, regardless of the atrocities of their past. Such a transformation is indeed, undoubtedly, a cause for celebration. But the Declaration’s indirect exacerbation of anti-Semitism, both historically and in the present day, cannot be side-lined.

Regardless of the extent to which the Jewish people have been negatively affected by the Balfour Declaration, the repercussions for the Palestinian people have been indubitably severe. For although a mere 67 words in length, it appears that the majority of them have been wilfully ignored. The document goes on to stress that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. These rights have been persistently abused. Over the past century, the Balfour Declaration has resulted in the exile of over 6 million Palestinians from their native lands. For those who remain in Israel, Human Rights Watch have reported a regime characterised by ‘repression, institutionalised discrimination, and systematic abuses of the Palestinian population’s rights’, each justified on the basis of being carried out ‘in the name of security’. While missile attacks and other forms of retaliatory violence on the part of a small minority of Palestinian Arabs have been levelled against Israel, blatant human rights abuses, including the unlawful imprisonment of thousands of people, cases of torture, executions carried out without fair trial, and the killing of over 2,000 Palestinian citizens during the Gaza conflicts surely cannot be justified under any circumstances. They certainly cannot claim to even come close to full compliance with the terms of the Balfour Declaration.

Britain’s position – floundering in no man’s land between the two sides – has been reflected by the muted political response to the centenary, with the government itself keen to ‘mark’ the occasion, but without festivities. It is certainly not an event which can or should be ignored, by any means, representing a milestone for many different groups of people. Whether or not ‘pride’ is an emotion which Britain can justifiably associate with the past 100 years of conflict over Palestine is much more contentious. But while it is essential to understand the deeply rooted historical context of the conflict, attempting its resolution is a far more pressing concern. Emily Thornberry has been one of several to call for the centenary to be marked through the recognition of Palestine as its own independent state, despite the voluminous geopolitical complications which this would entail. The least which can be done is to work towards a day when refugees – be they Palestinian or Jewish, or of any other faith or ethnicity – are made to feel welcome in our own country, regardless of the extent to which Britain was or was not involved in their present plight.

The Balfour Declaration, selfishly conceived by a war-torn Britain desperately seeking diplomatic allies in the form of the Zionist Jews, has been slated on all sides. Balfour’s Frankenstein had all the components of an idealistic act restoring an oppressed people to their homeland, which aimed at preserving the rights of everyone, everywhere. But the result of its incompatible parts has made it incongruous and even, in the eyes of some, hideous. The first clause of the declaration has been accepted with open arms, but the conditions rendering it acceptable have been entirely rejected. In the much-omitted final line, Balfour calls for the protection of ‘the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. One hundred years later, and the number of anti-Semitic incidents has been on the rise, particularly since the decision to leave the EU was made in June 2016, and exacerbated by the continued expansion of Israeli occupation of Palestine. The first half of 2017 saw 30% increase in anti-Semitic incidents compared to the same period last year. Here stands a stark demonstration of the intolerance which nationalistic ideologies, and fear of ‘the other’ can breed, calling into question how much we have really learnt over the course of this divisive century.

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