100 Years after Balfour: Nothing to Celebrate

On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, wrote a letter that would forever change the course of history in the Middle East. Addressing Lord Walter Rothschild, an influential friend of Chaim Weizmann’s, Balfour wrote that his government looked favourably at the creation of a Jewish Homeland in what was then Palestine.  The move was celebrated by Jews in the diaspora who now saw the world’s biggest superpower, Great Britain, support their cause. Today, after 100 years, many Pro-Israel groups are planning galas and celebrating his legacy. Balfour’s career, one that spanned over half a century, including a stint as Prime Minister of Great Britain, will forever be associated with his letter to Lord Rothschild.

100 years later, the aspirations of the Jewish people are still not achieved. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians experience full political rights in their homeland. Neither experience full freedoms of movement within their homeland. Neither side  experiences full sovereignty as their economies rely on corporate interests and military aid and are subject to these interests on internal policy decisions. Both sides are subject to a government that demolishes homes on land significant to its residents.

Instead of viewing this as a poor execution of Balfour’s intents, let’s examine this situation as a product of the Balfour Declaration. Contemporary narratives around this document often whitewash its colonial aspirations with liberal desires to give a “poor oppressed people” land. The British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson, told Benjamin Netanyahu this week that he was proud of the Balfour Declaration and for the role it played in creating the State of Israel. This view is not an isolated one and is, indeed, the view taken by mainstream pro-Israel activists around the world. In fact, for this year’s anniversary, Netanyahu will be in London to commemorate this historical document.

This understanding of the British involvement in the creation of the State of Israel is a poor reading of history at best and a nefarious attempt at erasure at worst. The narrative that the British gave the Jewish people a state ignores the historical context of the document and the methods of the British Empire’s colonial expansion. It is also a core cause as to why Jewish students are losing a war about Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty rights in progressive universities.

By 1917, the Middle East was a changing landscape. The British, furious that the Ottomans sided with the Germans in the First World War, allied themselves with Arab Nationalists, promising them independence if they could overthrow the Ottoman Empire. In the McMahon-Hussein correspondence (1915-16), the British made their promise and expectation clear. The British had little intention of keeping their promise. As this correspondence was bringing false hope to the Arabs and fruition to the British, with the Arabs revolting against the Ottomans, the British and French were quietly carving up the Middle East for themselves. North of the infamous Sykes-Picot line was for Picot’s French while the South, including Palestine, was given to the British. It was the modus operandi of the British Empire. Conflicting promises helped divide peoples, allowing British colonialism to thrive.

Decades later, in 2002, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had this to say:

A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past … The Balfour Declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis — again, an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one.

The next myth that must be dismantled is the notion that the Balfour Declaration had anything to do with the creation of the State. The British had little interest in ever leaving Palestine. The British did not give the Jews a land, the Jews fought against the British occupation to liberate their homeland. In their final White Paper, upon stepping away from Palestine, the British did not cite their desire to fulfill their promises made in the Balfour Declaration but rather that “Jewish Terrorism” drove them out.

On campus, telling our narrative like this is essential. The vast majority of students, certainly activists, who will influence tomorrow’s policies recognize that Great Britain never had any legitimate authority to give Palestine to anyone. This is something that we can align ourselves with, not only with college students, but with Palestinians in the Middle East.

When we begin telling our narrative, accounting for historical context, acknowledging the wrongs of our alliance with the Western occupiers, acknowledging that that we were not given Israel but shed blood for her, we will begin winning again. We will be speaking the same language as our perceived enemy and will have a chance to create a true peace, united in one struggle. A celebration on Thursday is not in order but perhaps one day, the 13th of Heshvan 5778 will be known in Hebrew history as a day our people made its biggest stride towards telling our narrative like the other indigenous peoples of the Middle East.

About the Author
Shai Reef is a Political Science student at York University.
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