What does the Balfour Declaration mean for students today?

This November 2nd marks 100 years since the issuing of the Balfour Declaration. However, 100 years on, what relevance does this Declaration have for students on campus?

The Balfour Declaration was a letter sent to Lord Walter Rothschild by  British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declaring support for the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in what was to become the British Mandate of Palestine.

It was the first official declaration of political support for Jewish independence and it paved the way for the legal foundations of the modern State of Israel. In the context of WWI which was still raging at the time, it offered Britain the opportunity for a stake in the Middle East in the expected wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It also marked one of the first major successes of the political Zionist movement which had officially been established with the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

The Declaration today should serve as a reminder of the legal founding of the State of Israel, evident in the level of international diplomacy that went into securing the letter. The Balfour Declaration was not a unilateral document on behalf of the British, but rather something which had been agreed upon privately by allied diplomats before it was issued. It marked the beginning of a legal process, which involved the San Remo conference of 1920 where the Declaration was officially adopted by the allied powers, and the creation of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1922. The Declaration should also serve as a celebration of the Christian Zionism which influenced Lord Balfour’s support for Jewish independence then and which is very much alive in Britain today. On November 7th the Royal Albert Hall will host a celebration of the Declaration which marks the commitment of Christians to support for Jewish national self-determination in their historic homeland of Israel. There is no doubt that today in the UK, many groups will mark the Balfour Declaration by celebrating the national movement for the self determination of the Jewish people that is Zionism.

However, on campus and in the media, the meaning of the Balfour Declaration is being widely distorted.

Palestinian Societies across campuses in London are misrepresenting the letter by hosting events designed to put forward the Balfour Declaration as evidence of the ‘settler-colonial’ nature of Israel’s founding.

Recently, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson authored an article in the Telegraph expressing his concern with a clause in the Balfour Declaration not being fulfilled. He writes: ‘I see no contradiction in being a friend of Israel – and a believer in that country’s destiny – while also being deeply moved by the suffering of those affected and dislodged by its birth. The vital caveat in the Balfour Declaration – intended to safeguard other communities – has not been fully realised.’ The exact wording of the document in its reference to Arab communities is as follows: ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’.

Both of these actions misrepresent the Balfour Declaration. Palestinian Societies on campus, in seeking to correlate the Balfour Declaration with colonialism ignore the importance of the document as a multilateral agreement between the allies of WWI.

Boris Johnson in his statement ignores the complexity of the conflict and the fact that Hamas in charge of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is the agent stripping Palestinians of their religious and civil rights by preventing democratic elections and suppressing the religious and civil freedoms of Christians, atheists, and the LGBT+ community in those areas.

Under the Palestinian Authority Palestinians are killed for things which should be within their basic rights, such as selling land they own to Jews. Arabs and other minorities within Israel have full democratic, religious and civil rights. Representatives of Arab and other minorities play a full and active role in the state, including as ministers in the government, justices of the Supreme Court, members of parliament, senior academics, ambassadors, members of the civil service, and in the military. Christians, Druze, the Baha’i community and more have important centres of their faith in the country and participate in civic institutions.

Furthermore, Johnson misses the fact that there are many other aspects of the Declaration which certainly remained unfulfilled or even that were reneged.

The first aspect is the commitment in the Declaration to the fact that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice… the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. In the years to follow, Arab leadership in the region, including the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini whose appointment was overseen by British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, used the anniversary of the Declaration to legitimise violence against Jews. This included Arab riots in the 1920s in Jaffa, Hebron and elsewhere, as well as the Farhud in 1941 in Iraq and those that followed in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Aden and Morocco.

Not to mention the way in which the British reneged on the Declaration in 1939 as they decided in the run up to WWII that they wanted to placate the Arab leadership in the Mandate. They issued a White Paper limiting Jewish immigration to the Mandate to fifteen thousand every year for five years, ultimately refusing thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe, many of whom would tragically die in the Holocaust.

In terms of the impact that the British had in helping to implement the Declaration over the coming years afterwards, there is not much to celebrate.

I believe that instead, the celebration of the Balfour Declaration should focus on the importance of the letter in establishing a legal framework for the State of Israel to be created in the accordance of the international community. The Balfour Declaration is also a significant emblem of the Christian Zionism which remains today a crucial aspect of the friendship between Israel and the UK. CAMERA on Campus is proud to be marking the anniversary of the Declaration and to celebrate Israel’s achievements in honoring its clauses.

About the Author
Tamara Berens is a second year undergraduate student at Kings College London and a UK Campus Associate for CAMERA.