The 2nd November is a day of significance across both the Jewish and Muslim worlds, but for very different reasons. ‘Balfour Day’, celebrated by the former and denounced by the latter, marks the anniversary of perhaps history’s most notorious letter. On 2nd November 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour penned his historic words, written to Walter Rothschild. This was no casual exchange of pleasantries from one individual to another, but rather a meticulously crafted statement of national policy delivered to the representative of a state-in-waiting. It was in effect foreign policy being conducted in the public theatre and preserved on the page of this infamous letter.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of the letter, what it exposed about British policy in the region and how it relates to the problems that still persist to this day, we must first understand something of the background to the letter and the recent history of the time.
Britain’s political situation
In 1917, Britain was of course still in the depths of WWI, the outcome of which was still far from certain. She also had her own imperial ambitions to fulfil, and hence while keeping one eye on the war effort, the other was busily scanning the horizon to see how to secure the spoils of eventual victory at the expense of supposed ‘Allies’ such as France. With this in mind, Britain’s policy towards Palestine was primarily influenced by the following factors:
- It was felt that the war campaign would be best supported with the Zionists on-side, and specifically would be a good tactic to bring the support of the Jews of America and Russia into the war effort against Germany. In a war cabinet meeting on 31st October 1917, Balfour stated that ‘The vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as, indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be favourable to Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America’.
- It was known that Germany was herself courting the Zionist Entity with promises of support, increasing the need for a clear and public statement of intent, Balfour himself stating in a war cabinet meeting on 4th October 1917 that ‘German Government were making great efforts to capture the sympathy of the Zionist Movement’.
- Neighbouring Palestine is, of course, Egypt, and control of the Suez Canal was of the highest strategic importance to Britain. Having either France or Russia dominant in Palestine brought them too close to a vital British interest, so this had to be prevented at any cost.
These factors made the establishment of a British-controlled Jewish homeland to be run by the Zionist Entity a strategic priority which was seen as being absolutely in the national interest. It is worth noting that neither a sudden bout of sympathy for Jewish suffering nor mass conversion to the Zionist cause are likely to have influenced British policy in any meaningful way. Like many European countries, Britain had a history of anti-Semitism and there was little internal appetite, particularly in this time of war, to sacrifice anything for the sake of the Jewish people. Britain did then, as it still does now, acted entirely out of political and economic self-interest in order to secure what it saw as its national interests.
In order to secure these interests, Britain brokered three secret deals with international ‘partners’, each of which was either slightly misaligned or in some cases completely at odds which the other. The first of these was with the ‘Sharif of Mecca’ Hussein bin Ali in 1915, documented in a series of letters between him and Sir Henry McMahon in what is now referred to as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. Acting on behalf of the British Government in his capacity as the High Commissioner to Egypt, McMahon agreed that ‘England to acknowledge the independence of the Arab countries, bounded on the North by Mersina and Adana up to 37 degrees of latitude, on which degree fall Birijik, Urfa, Mardin, Midiat, Jerizat (Ibn `Umar), Amadia, up to the border of Persia; on the east by the borders of Persia up to the Gulf of Basra; on the South by the Indian Ocean’. Essentially the lands of Arabia were promised to Hussein, in exchange for rebellion against the Ottomans.
The second agreement was the now infamous Sykes-Picot, signed in May 1916. This treaty between Britain, France and Russia carved up the conquered lands between each other, with Palestine (according to the agreement) to be shared between both Britain and France.
The final agreement was that between Britain and the Zionist Entity and documented in the Balfour Declaration. This was to be formalised in 1922 by the League of Nations in the British Mandate.
These agreements expose Britain’s true nature, devious and duplicitous and willing to sell out even its own war-time allies for self-benefit. She promised Palestine, a land over which she had no right nor any control at this time, simultaneously to traitorous Arab rulers to ensure their support against the Uthmani Khilafah, whilst also agreeing to share the land with France, in order to pacify an ally on whom she was still reliant until the war was won. All the while, negotiations were ongoing with the Zionist Entity to secure her true aim, of establishing a permanent presence in this strategically important land, through a partner who she hoped would be entirely reliant and subservient to her.
Zionist political ambitions
Zionism was a movement aimed at establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, led by the World Zionist Organisation under the presidency of Chaim Weizmann, who took over in 1904 from the founding father of Zionism Theodor Herzl. The movement was active in the early 20th century, particularly in London. Fundamental to Zionist doctrine was the belief that all Jews should ‘reclaim’ Palestine and bring it under the authority of the Jewish people. They justified this claim by echoing traditional Jewish mythology about the centralism of Jerusalem to Jews. Thus, Zionism encouraged global Jewish allegiance to the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine. One can see that Zionism was a political movement with a political motive. It is therefore evident that Zionism was not a religion – some of the movement’s ideas were simply justified using Judaism.
Incidentally, Zionism was seldom adopted by Jewish communities. British Jews, for example, had fought for generations to gain acceptance and were starting to integrate into British society. They struggled for decades to be accepted and it was only with the arrival of Disraeli that Jews entered Parliament to take positions of power. For these people, their struggle to demonstrate their place in British society meant that Zionism, with its claims that Jews were a separate people apart, were anathema. Critically, however, Zionism was adopted strongly within the Jewish elite. Thus, giving the impression that this was a powerful movement that had influence across the globe.
Balfour’s letter declaring support for the Zionist Federation’s objectives meant Zionism became an official objective of Britain’s foreign policy and this was the first public approval by any country in the world for Zionism, bringing this fringe movement into the political mainstream.
The text of the letter
The text itself is as follows:
“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.”
Some of the points of note are as follows:
The declaration introduced a new concept: the national home of the Jewish people. The phrase ‘national home’ had no precedent in international law, and was seen as intentionally vague as to whether this referred to a Jewish State, or merely the mass relocation of Jewish people into a new land. This allowed the British to claim the latter to concerned Arab rulers (who believed the land was promised to them), while still maintaining the long-term aim of statehood with their Zionist partners in private. The desire for a Jewish State was an open secret, and often commented upon by senior politicians, perhaps most starkly in an Imperial Cabinet meeting in 1922 in which Churchill stated in reference to a question about the meaning of the term ‘national home’ that ‘If in the course of many years they become a majority in the country, they naturally would take it over…’.
A significant part of the drafting process focussed on terminology that referred to the Jews as a race (figure 3). After some deliberation, any references to race were removed. The dialogue, however, did reveal that British officials wanted to use terminology that highlighted the Jews of the world as being a racial group i.e. a racial group that could be inspired as one unit to rally behind the cause of Zionism. The final draft still identified and referred to the ‘Jewish people’ in a clear way. This stands in stark contrast to how the text referenced the existing population of Muslim and Christians, using the catch-all term of ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. Not directly naming who these communities are is itself demeaning and dehumanising (a trend that was to characterise the treatment of these people at the hands of the Zionists in the decades to come), but the document takes a step further and references them only by again referring back to the Jewish community, ie that they are ‘non-Jews’, in essence reinforcing that the Jews are the only show in town now in Palestine.
The statement talks here of their civil and religious rights, which by inference neglects to raise their political rights, essentially stripping the resident Muslim and Christian populations of any political rights. When you consider that Muslims represented around 91% of the population at this time, this could only be interpreted as promoting the mass enslavement of the Palestinian people. They would have no political power, but their masters promise to treat them well as long as they don’t cause trouble.
‘Best endeavours’ is a recognised legal terminology for the most effort it is possible to make. It confirms that British policy is to support this to its utmost, which is beyond a simple statement of support. It clearly confirms that Britain is willing to take any action within its means to ensure that this outcome is achieved, a bold statement for any state to make. As has oft been quoted since, this amounted to one people promising a second people the land belonging to a third.
Finally, directing the letter to Lord Rothschild was a clear signal of Britain’s approval of Zionist political aims. Lord Rothschild was closely allied to World Zionist Organisation President Chaim Weizmann and was seen as a go-between between the WZO and Britain.
The final draft was issued on 2 November 1917, Arthur Balfour sent the letter to Lord Rothschild declaring Britain’s support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine (see below).
Legacy of the Balfour Declaration
The Balfour Declaration initially had very little international standing. Treaties tend to have little significance in the international political arena. Governments often issue policy statements of intention, but these are not enshrined as law. For Britain, the Balfour Declaration was a statement of intent, were it to ever take over Palestine.
After the leaders of the Arab revolt betrayed the Uthmani Khilafah during the First World War, Britain finally gained control of Palestine. The League of Nations subsequently gave Britain a mandate to control Palestine in June 1922 (with Sykes dying of flu between these events), and the wording of the mandate was identical, in fact it went a step further and explicitly recognised the Zionist Entity as the chosen partner to represent the Jews in the region, as stated in Article 4:
‘An appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognised as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine, and, subject always to the control of the Administration to assist and take part in the development of the country. The Zionist organization, so long as its organization and constitution are in the opinion of the Mandatory appropriate, shall be recognised as such agency’.
In 1917, only 8% of the population of Palestine was Jewish. For much of the two decades up to 1940, the British facilitated Jewish immigration to Palestine. Jewish immigrants were automatically granted Palestinian passports. Britain soon started to see the fruits of its policy. Jewish and Palestinian nationalism had now started to exacerbate. As the demographics changed, resentment and anger grew between the Jewish and Arab communities.
The reality was now that a Zionist entity was tenable, the Jewish population was sufficient in number and strength to support it. Furthermore, the provisions of the Balfour Declaration now became enshrined in international law; the majority of Zionists now expected statehood. The Balfour Declaration was thus well on its way to fulfilling its intended purpose, it had started a chain of events which was now leading inevitably to the creation of the Zionist entity.
The reality of the situation could no longer be concealed from the public, and Muslims of Palestine and the wider world responded in anger at the changing situation. Arab nationalists now started mobilising against Zionism. Arab dissent led to the 3-year revolt between 1936 and 1939. An uprising against the British administration demanded Arab independence and the end of Jewish emigration.
A rivalry was now established between two incompatible nationalistic movements: Jewish and Palestinian Arab. Britain saw its opportunity and proposed to solve the problem through a partition plan, by dividing Palestine into two states.
Britain finally decided to withdraw from Palestine in May 1948. By this point, the Zionist paramilitary army was ready with a plan to colonise Palestine and the newly established United Nations was ready to take over the role of legitimising the occupation. Through large-scale ethnic cleansing, more than 700,000 Palestinians lost their ancestral homes. Hundreds of Arab villages were razed to the ground and 15,000 Palestinians were killed in several massacres. Much of these events took place whilst streets of Palestine were still being patrolled by tens of thousands of British soldiers.
The moment had now come for the Zionists to declare their own state – the 12 million descendants of Palestinians refer to the Zionist Entity’s violent birth as Al Nakba (“the Catastrophe”).
Neighbouring Arab nations declared war, but they predominantly sent untrained volunteers. However, through the armistice of 1949, the Arab nations agreed with the Zionist Entity to draw lines in Palestine. Palestinians were given two regions that were ultimately controlled by Egypt and Jordan: The West Bank and Gaza. Many Palestinians now live in The West Bank under permanent Zionist occupation, cut off by Zionist security barriers. Although they have some autonomy in their cities and towns, they are surrounded by Jewish settlements. Others are trapped in the Gaza Strip, the scene of repeated wars and uprisings.
Balfour’s 67-word letter has left a mark on the world that perhaps even he had never thought possible. But the events following its publication were most certainly not the result of unfortunate timing or lack of foresight on the part of the British. Rather, this is just one of many examples of the shameless pursuit of self-interest through interference in foreign lands that have come to typify British foreign policy over the last few centuries. The lives and property of millions of innocent Muslims were weighed against the potential gains of securing strategic access to the Suez Canal and a foothold in the Middle East and was found wanting. But if a lesson is to be learned from history, it is not perhaps one about the ethics of British foreign policy, as this is a well-told story. The lesson we are bound to repeat unless we learn from the past is one of putting our fate in the hands of those who have no regard for our interest, to put our trust in those who have no honour. We see UN resolutions, watch one initiative after another and still, the settlements encroach further, the bombs continue to fall. We must not forget Britain’s role in architecting the cancerous entity to be established in the heart of our lands, and the UN’s role in ensuring it has lasted to this day.
أَمْ لَهُمْ نَصِيبٌ مِّنَ الْمُلْكِ فَإِذًا لَّا يُؤْتُونَ النَّاسَ نَقِيرًا
“Or have they a share of dominion? Then [if that were so], they would not give the people [even as much as] the speck on a date seed.” [An-Nisa: 53]