There are numerous interpretations as to why Britain issued the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917. It is important to recognize that Palestine is only the location, and not the explanatory core of these theories. Indeed, they tend to view Britain’s commitment to Zionism as the by-product of a larger, global British agenda.
Most explanations focus on Britain’s challenges during the First World War. As such, they view the Balfour Declaration as an initiative to maintain US participation in the Great War, or to reduce anti-war sentiment in Europe. Others view the Balfour declaration as the outcome of successful maneuvering by the Zionist leadership, and Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Organization in particular, during the first two decades of the twentieth century.
At some level each of these theories, like most interpretations of international affairs, has a basis in reality. But they share a collective shortcoming. They not only assume that British elites believed that Jews were a more powerful force in world affairs than the British empire, but also that London acted accordingly. And in the absence of evidence other than the Balfour Declaration, such explanations cannot be sustained.
The most compelling explanation for the genesis of the Balfour Declaration was in my view put forward by the late Palestinian scholar Ibrahim Ibrahim. To briefly summarize, Ibrahim points out that Britain was a global power; that India was its most prized possession; that the Suez Canal formed the jugular vein of this empire; and that Ottoman forces based in Palestine had in 1915 attempted to seize the Canal by marching across the Sinai Peninsula, threatening Brittania with sunset. The establishment of a British protectorate in Palestine in the form of a Jewish national home, loyal to and dependent upon London on account of Arab opposition, was therefore, according to Ibrahim, primarily an exercise in British imperial consolidation by securing the eastern approach to the Suez Canal. Zionism and Palestine were thus essentially supporting actors in a British imperial production.
The above notwithstanding, the Balfour Declaration was the indispensable foundation stone for the success of Zionism and therefore the dispossession of the Palestinian people. Left to its own devices the Zionist movement would have gone down in history, if at all, as yet another madcap colonial venture that never made it past the drawing board. This is why Zionist leaders, starting with Theodor Herzl, recognized that the realization of their project was inconceivable without Great Power sponsorship, and duly sought it out in every European capital. It was only with the benefit of what Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi termed “the British shield,” in the form of the British Mandate, that Zionism became a viable enterprise.
The implications of the Balfour Declaration for the Palestinian people were perhaps best expressed by General Edmund Allenby, at the time marching on Jerusalem after finally breaking through Ottoman defenses in Gaza City. Allenby forbade the Declaration’s publication in Palestine, because he understood that those he claimed to be liberating would immediately recognize its meaning, and respond accordingly.
Histories of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1947-1949, often begin with the First Zionist Congress in 1897. But the congress’s resolutions were no more than a statement of intent. It was only with the policies enshrined in the Balfour Declaration, and the British Mandate whose terms of reference incorporated the Declaration, that the Nakba went from possible, to probable, to inevitable.
The centrality of great power sponsorship to Zionism, as enunciated in the Balfour Declaration, remains with us to this day. First it was the British Mandate, then US-Soviet support for the establishment of Israel in 1947-1948, and thereafter France’s indispensable role in achieving Israeli military, including nuclear, superiority over its Arab adversaries. Since 1967, this principle has taken the form of increasingly uncritical and unconditional US military and diplomatic support for Israel, culminating in the Trump administration’s agitation for annexation.
Also still with us is another central aspect of the Balfour Declaration, namely its relegation of the people of Palestine to a non-people, defined not by what they are, but identified by who they are not, namely Palestine’s “non-Jewish communities.” While the declaration explicitly references the national aspirations of Zionism in Palestine and the political rights of Jews outside it, it pointedly omits any reference to the national or political rights of Palestine’s Arabs, who in 1917 constituted more than ninety percent of the country’s population.
This negation of not only Palestinian rights but of the Palestinians’ very existence has resonated far and wide ever since. Most of us are familiar with Israel Zangwill’s nefarious assertion that Palestine is “a land without a people for a people without a land,” and Golda Meir’s infamous 1969 statement that the Palestinians do not exist. But how many are aware that as recently as 2011 Newt Gingrich was solemnly trumping that the Palestinians are an “invented” people, thereby helping set the stage for Kushner, Greenblatt, Friedmann, and Berkowitz?
In recent years various campaigns have been launched to obtain a formal British apology for issuing the Balfour Declaration. I understand the sentiment, but should we really care what a second-rate power on Europe’s periphery thinks about the actions of the world’s most powerful empire a century ago? Would it genuinely make you feel better if Boris Johnson told you he was sorry, and are you gullible enough to believe someone whose closest associates do not trust a word he says?
We cannot time travel to 1917 and withdraw the Balfour Declaration from publication, or edit its text. What we can, and should, and must do, is work to neutralize and make irrelevant the principles enunciated by Balfour in his declaration, and the dynamics it set in motion, which remain with us to this day.
Most pertinently, this means working to arrest and reverse great power support for Israel, in order to replace Israeli impunity in its dealings with the Palestinian people with international accountability for its actions. And it means ensuring it is understood, and accepted, that the Palestinians are not only a people, but a people with non-negotiable, inalienable rights, first and foremost the right to national self-determination, and the right to live free of colonial rule and its associated apartheid policies. It means ensuring that it is understood, and accepted, that Palestinian rights are neither derivative, nor dependent upon, the rights, interests, or ambitions of other claimants to their land.
[This article was originally presented at a 13 November 2020 webinar organized by American Muslims for Palestine]