100 years on from the Balfour Declaration, it is a pledge that continues to spark controversy.
This November it became a century since Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, first published the document which would become known as the Balfour declaration. At just 67 words long, its short length belied its importance;
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.
For the Zionists in Europe, this promise was a milestone. Although Zionist Jews across Europe had been advocating a Jewish homeland for decades, this was the first time that a major power, Britain, had thrown its weight behind the project. After centuries of Jewish persecution in Europe, Zionists in Britain were therefore delighted with by this declaration. Palestine for them was theirs by right, an ancient homeland given to them by God. However, from another point of view, this document was nothing less than a betrayal. From the beginning, the local population of Muslim and Christian Arabs was strongly opposed to the declaration. When the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas spoke out earlier this month, he said this of Balfour: ‘He promised a land that was not his to promise, disregarding the political rights of those who already lived there’. From the beginning, then, Jewish and Arab views on the declaration were sharply opposed.
In 1917, Palestine was still part of the Ottoman empire, which had allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the First World War. However, in the months that followed the declaration, Britain occupied Palestine, taking over Jerusalem on the 9th December 1917. This put Britain in a position to make good on its promise to the Jewish people. Under the British mandate, thousands of Jews immigrated to Palestine. It was not until 1948 that the British left and the State of Israel was created, and in the process, millions of Palestinians were displaced, setting the stage for the antagonism between Israel and the Arab world that continues to this day.
In 2017, then, how far has the vision put forth in the Balfour declaration come to pass? On one hand, the national home for the Jewish people envisaged by Balfour now exists in the modern nation we know as Israel. On the other, as the current foreign secretary Boris Johnson pointed out in an article on the 30th October this year, ‘The vital caveat in the Balfour Declaration – intended to safeguard other communities – has not been fully realised.’ At the present moment, despite years of negotiations, Palestinians have still not been able to realise their aspirations for self-determination and there has been an endless cycle of violence around the issue. The answer to the question of progression is that sadly, a century on, a peaceful solution to the Israeli -Palestinian conflict seems as far away as ever.
Alice McMahon went to school in Devon and is a graduate in Languages from Oxford University. She spent a year teaching English in Alsace, France on her year abroad and has also taught English in Oxford and Sierra Leone. She has recently returned from Senegal, where she spent several months teaching English to students from across Africa.