On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, there has been a flurry of commentary about the controversial announcement, contained in a letter sent by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild. A Conservative parliamentarian, Rothschild was also a leading British advocate for the establishment of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. As an expression of “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations,” Balfour wrote on November 2, 1917, the Cabinet had authorized him to convey a statement pledging to assist in “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Amidst all the exegesis of the text, it is worth adding to the mix a consideration of what has changed since Balfour’s day, and what remains the same.

One hundred years ago, the busy custodians of the British Empire were looking for friends as they sent young men in the millions to die in World War I. The Balfour Declaration was part of a ploy to gain the support of Zionists worldwide for the Allied war effort. In promising to facilitate a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine, who made up about 10 percent of that country’s population at the time, Balfour gestured only broadly toward the Arab majority, stipulating that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” His statement did not mention Palestinians as a people or indicate that they, too, had a political right to national self-determination. In 1922, the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine, the League of Nations legal-administrative instrument that articulated the principles by which Britain was to govern the territory (as well as Transjordan) after the Ottoman Empire’s demise. According to this document, securing a Jewish national home in Palestine was a priority, while local autonomy, a shrugging afterthought in Article 3, was to be encouraged “so far as circumstances permit.” The Zionist’s Jewish Agency, a proto-state institution, was the explicit partner of the British. The Mandate was to safeguard “the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion,” but the political rights and aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs went unspecified.

Although Great Power politicians at the time could not name or recognize Palestine’s Arabs as people with political rights and freedom demands, from the moment the Balfour Declaration was issued, Palestinians have vocally and eloquently rejected it, arguing against its legitimacy and proposing alternatives for a democratic polity in Palestine. The Palestinians’ repudiation of the Declaration is not surprising, since it stood in absolute opposition to their national interests and objectives. And since it utterly contradicted what they heard President Woodrow Wilson promise to them in his widely publicized “fourteen points” speech before the US Congress in 1918. Wilson assured the Arabs in the unraveling Ottoman Empire that they would have “an absolutely unmolested opportunity of an autonomous development.” He also called for the formation of a “general association of nations…under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” But the Palestinian protests against Balfour are little known, as are their quite reasonable bases for doing so, and their recommendations of democratic alternatives, for most authors covering the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate write the Palestinians out of history just like the Declaration did.

Over the ensuing century, Palestinians and those advocating for Palestinian national rights have pointed out the hubris and injustice at the heart of the Balfour Declaration, enumerating the reasons why the British had no right to promise anyone a national home in Palestine in the first place. As Palestinian educator Khalil Totah recorded in 1937, schoolchildren struck on every anniversary of the hated British policy statement. Consistently and continuously, Palestinians have called attention to the contradiction between the Declaration and the League of Nations’ pronouncement that the “communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized,” and “the wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.” Palestinians have argued that British adherence to Balfour’s promise is inconsistent with the League of Nations’ noble agreement “to secure just treatment of the native inhabitants of territories under their control.” When the British investigative commission (known by the name of its chair, Lord Peel) recognized this contradiction in 1937, the final report justified the British Mandatory control of the country in a particular reading of history. While “Palestine had virtually dropped out of history” in the past, its future could not “possibly be left to be determined by the temporary impressions and feelings of the Arab majority in the country of the present day.” Hardly worth the hefty price of £4,050 plus £815 for printing that the government shelled out for it.

From the beginning of this British “experiment,” Palestinians tried to find a language of objection and resistance that the world’s powers would respond to. In letters of protest sent to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Palestinian representatives wondered how the British could, in essence, arrogate to themselves the right to give away an Arab nation. They called for a united Arab nation-state under a constitutional monarchy in which all citizens of every faith would have equal rights and responsibilities. All of this was duly recorded in the King-Crane Commission report, published in 1922, and then ignored. [1] Years later, the authors of a pamphlet entitled “Analysis of the Balfour Declaration,” issued by the Arabic-language newspaper Filastin in Jaffa, acknowledged the boredom induced by so many iterations of these same arguments. But, they said, with a flair for understatement:

We owe no apology for introducing to the public this discussion, which a friend called ‘flogging a dead horse.’ It would have been well, if the horse had been dead and buried, but, unfortunately for everyone concerned, it is very much alive and is making things very unpleasant.

The pamphlet ridiculed the claim that Zionist immigration to Palestine would benefit the Arabs, which popped up persistently in attempts to justify the settler-colonial project.

Great hopes were built on the future progress of the country and the benefit which would result to the Arabs. Co-operation, Education, Economic and Political Progress, all were being painted in rosy colours. Such was the extravagance of these pious artists, that it seemed that if the Jew were not willing to come, the Arab should go and compel him to come into Palestine by force.

Not only did Zionism fail to bring progress to the Arabs, the pamphlet noted, it engendered political deterioration. The British Mandate’s discriminatory regime of governance, one that favored Zionists and their political institutions, left the Arab population “distinctly a loser.”

While Iraq and Palestine were both under the Turkish rule Palestine was certainly the more progressive of the two; yet we find that Iraq has been offered its independence, while even mere conversations going on about a shadowy parliament for Palestine have been suspended. The subject of representation, it seems, cannot bear talking of in Palestine. This is, of course, a retrogression from the Turkish times, when the Arabs could send a deputy of their own to Constantinople. The differentia is again “The Balfour Declaration.”

At almost every meeting with British Mandate officials, Palestinian representatives challenged the justice and legality of the Balfour Declaration. [2] In 1945, on the anniversary of the letter, Filastin reported that a general strike took place in a number of Palestinian and Arab cities in protest. Again, in 1946, the Arab League argued against the Declaration on legal grounds. The League asserted in a memorandum to the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry that the Declaration was a “personal message” and “a mere expression of sympathy towards the Jewish aspirations” with “no definite meaning in International Law.” A statement addressed to an individual (Lord Rothschild) who represented neither a state nor a government could not become the basis of Britain’s policy toward Palestine. [3] For good measure, the memo reminded the Committee that the Balfour Declaration contravened the terms of pre-existing pacts between the British and the Arabs, a point that Palestinians and their representatives had been making for quite some time.

But the central Palestinian grievance was the damage done by the Declaration to the Palestinians themselves. The “arbitrary declarations given by irresponsible and incompetent authorities” could not override the “natural national rights” of the Palestinian people in their country, wrote Fayez Sayigh in a 1946 memorandum to the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry.

The Balfour Declaration is, thus, invalid, by virtue of the incompetence of its issuing authorities; it is consequently an unjust document, an eternal symbol of injustice and transgression, an eternal sin against humanitarian conscience, as well as against the principles of national existence and international behaviour and cooperation. The unanimous and persistent rejection of the Declaration by the Palestinians demonstrates its illegitimacy and invalidity.

The British may consider themselves bound by this illegitimate document, Sayigh conceded, “but it certainly does not bind the Palestinians at all; and the Palestinians have rejected the Declaration, and will continue to reject it, backed by the support of the whole Arab World.” Sayigh concluded that the solution to the conflict is not a Jewish state based on “racialism,” but an independent Palestine and democratic system of self-rule. [4]

In other testimony to the same Commission of Enquiry, Palestinian representatives impressed upon the investigators that “no power in the world is entitled to promise a nation’s territory to another,” as Ahmad Shuqayri, future head of the PLO, asserted. The document must be abrogated, he said, “in the interests of peace, to say nothing of moral standards and the dictates of justice.” [5] And Albert Hourani spelled out to the Committee that the alternative

just and practicable solution for the problem of Palestine lies in the constitution of Palestine, with the least possible delay, into a self-governing state, with its Arab majority, but with full rights for the Jewish citizens of Palestine. A state which should enter the United Nations organization and the Arab League on a level of equality with other Arab states; a state in which questions of general concern, like immigration, should be decided by the ordinary democratic procedure in accordance with the will of the majority.

But Palestinians’ repeated calls for true democracy were just as repeatedly cast aside. The Balfour Declaration’s promise to facilitate the development of a Jewish national home in Palestine had taken on a sacred aura. British diplomats and politicians treated the Declaration as a commandment carved in stone, and their American counterparts likewise held it up as a decree solemn and irrevocable. Throughout the Mandate period, the British built up the foundations for the future state of Israel, passing laws to ease Jewish immigration and economic dominion. Most other British promises, especially the guarantees of independence to Arabs, were malleable and even breakable. But not Balfour’s pledge, which became a red-line reference point for all future conversations about the status of Palestine, a bubble of colonial-nationalist ambition that could not be pricked by logic or legal argument, and which remained the compass of British action in the Middle East until the Zionists achieved the establishment of Israel as a state.

In the words of the unnamed authors of the 1929 Filastin pamphlet: “The Mandatory Power, in this case, is open to the charge that it has given away the rights of the Arab and may well be arraigned before the court of history as a culpably negligent guardian, who has wasted the wealth of its ward, by giving it away to a favourite.”

And today, as the unelected British prime minister, Theresa May, expresses pride in what the British did one hundred years ago, as she beams with enthusiasm for celebrating the Balfour Declaration in the company of her right-wing Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinians still take a seat far to the back. May nodded to “the sensitivities that some people do have about the Balfour Declaration.” She offered no recognition of Palestinians’ continual, vociferous, and just decrials of Britain’s original sin that gave historic Palestine away to an alien population. Even if she uttered lip service to the two-state solution, she said nary a word about what it will take to change the political arrangement that promotes the continuous trampling of Palestinians’ rights in Palestine and in Israel. And no mention of the violation of Palestinians’ rights in her own country and in Trump’s, where Palestine is a regular exception to normative rules of free speech and academic freedom.

In modern politics, one hundred years normally sees as much upheaval as the earth experienced in the thousands of millennia bridging the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. At a century’s remove from the Balfour Declaration, however, we look over our shoulders to see where we have come from, and how far—or how little—we have moved. In this case, it seems we are stuck in geologic time, barely emerged from the age of monstrous reptiles.



[1] Lori Allen, “Determining Emotions and the Burden of Proof in Investigative Commissions to Palestine,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59/2 (April 2017).
[2] Sir Alan Cunningham Collection, GB165-0072, Box 5, File 1, November 23, 1945
[3] Memorandum, Secretariat-General of the Arab League to the AACI, March 1, 1946
[4] Fayez Sayigh, “Note on the Palestine Problem: Submitted to the Anglo-American Inquiry Committee,” prepared on behalf of the National Party, Beirut, March 19, 1946.
[5] Testimony of Ahmad Shuqayri to the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry, March 25, 1946

How to cite this article:

Lori Allen "A Century of Refusal," Middle East Report Online, November 17, 2017.

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