This month marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the public statement issued by the British government announcing support for the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’. Ryan Swan reflects on the events themselves but also on the stance of the the current UK government towards the centenary.

The second of November 2017 marks the centenary of the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, a letter which could be said to encapsulate imperial British policy of division and subjugation in the Levant (roughly, the western part of the Middle East) in the early 20th century. The British political elite was probably unaware at that time of the geopolitical impact that its public pledge – to establish ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ – would have, or how enduring and destructive it might be. The following hundred years witnessed the throwing up of borders and states which shattered the previously existing societies of the Eastern Mediterranean by dividing and dispersing communities.

British political commentators currently seem preoccupied with debating the impact of the Declaration, and whether the British state should apologise or not, despite (some might say) the answer to questions of accountability and blame already being manifest. A proper understanding of the impact of the Balfour Declaration requires an appreciation of the Palestinian and wider Arab response -something which has tended to be neglected.

In line with standard post-colonial practice, the British government has rejected calls to apologise for the Balfour Declaration. This refusal to offer even a token gesture was to be expected. But Prime Minister Theresa May has gone further by recently writing to the Conservative Friends of Israel group, stating that this event is “an anniversary we will be marking with pride.”

This stance does not simply represent the government’s inability to move out of an imperial mind-set; it represents the continuation of an imperialist divide-and-rule policy.

The Balfour Declaration, 2 November 1917. Image: British Library.

The 1917 letter (above) sent by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild (a representative of the British Jewish community at the time), is as equivocal as it is short, perhaps surprising given the sheer political weight of the statement. But it was, despite the ambiguity in the detail, an obvious statement of support for the Zionist movement in Palestine.

The rights of the Palestinians themselves, the majority in the territory, were given only an oblique acknowledgement: ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ In other words, in the Balfour letter, the Muslim and Christian Arab populations were not defined by what they were in religious and national terms, but by what they were not.

While the indigenous communities, evidently without an identity worthy of recognition by Britain, were granted civil and religious rights, they were – more importantly – denied political rights. Had it been otherwise they may, after all, have had the dangerous idea that they could organise for self-determination.

In other words, in the Balfour letter, the Muslim and Christian Arab populations were not defined by what they were in religious and national terms, but by what they were not.

Balfour’s letter was sent at a politically tumultuous time, auspiciously allowing a number of dynamics behind British foreign policy and the Zionist movement to interlace. Several causes brought about the Declaration. These involved aims internal to the British establishment as well as external pressures upon it. Imperial strategy was one key factor behind this ostensible gesture of friendship to the Zionist movement. There was a growing need to have an ally neighbouring the strategic location of the Suez Canal. A friendly power at its eastern flank of the Canal Zone would help to secure imperial control (a prescient move as the Suez crisis and the Anglo-French-Israeli conspiracy of 1956 would show). The creation of a Jewish settler state as a sort of vassal resonated with a tendency within the British Foreign Office to discuss the issue of Jews in the context of war.

Anti-Semitism in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century was gaining traction and legitimacy. Jews were increasingly seen merely as a useful tool of imperial interests and the creation of a Jewish state would serve this – while also reducing the Jewish population in Europe itself. Although there were those in the British Foreign Office who had genuine sympathy for the Jewish plight, the prevailing view was that the Jews of Europe were an element to be managed to meet political goals. Ultimately then, both groups supported the Declaration – but for different reasons.

Whether or not people in the Zionist movement were aware of it at the time, its lobbying for a statement from the British was a long-term strategy which bore fruit. Chaim Weizmann, a British citizen from 1910 to 1948 when he became the first president of Israel, was a prominent figure in this process, while Lord Rothschild himself had a role in drafting the Declaration and lobbying on behalf of the Zionist cause. A convergence of British imperial concerns, along with anti-Semitism and the growing influence of the Zionist movement, engendered a fluid and fertile political environment for the Declaration.


For the indigenous Palestinian population, ‘Balfour’s Promise’ (as it is referred to in Arabic) was irrefutable proof of the increasing collusion between the imperial British and a Zionist movement which had been colonising parts of Palestine since the late nineteenth century. A rhyming Arabic couplet around this time, and still in use, expresses this view neatly and elegantly: “a promise from those not possessing [the land] to those not deserving [it]”. Arab opposition to the perceived threat stretched from Jerusalem to Damascus, and from the top of society to the bottom.

A play performed by Palestinians in Jerusalem in April 1918 expressed indignation at British and Zionist schemes. The performers urged the people to protect the land, not to sell any of it, and to defend its holy places. Weizmann personally attended this performance and was unsettled, deeming it “unmistakably anti-Jewish”. However, a man named Hain Ben Attar, a Sephardic Jew, who was also present to report on the play considered some of the content anti-Zionist but not anti-Jewish.

Later in that year, tensions increased as the Zionist Commission (the group headed by Weizmann to work with the British state following the issuing of the Declaration) marched through Jerusalem in celebration of the Declaration’s first anniversary. Palestinian Christians and Muslims organised a counter-demonstration and the two groups clashed at the Jaffa Gate of the Old City.

At the beginning of 1919, negotiations over the future of the defeated Turkish (Ottoman) empire in the Middle East began between the victorious states of World War I. At the same time, the Peace Conference was underway in Paris where the Arabs were represented by Prince Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca, who would later briefly serve as king of Syria, and then king of Iraq until his death in 1933.

Simultaneously, at the end of January, the first Palestine Arab Congress was held in Jerusalem. This aimed to produce a guide for Faisal, and issued two key resolutions. The first was surprising given the political alignments at the time: it was to accept British assistance in pursuit of Arab nationalist goals in the region, but on the condition that this would not compromise Palestinian sovereignty. The second expressed opposition to political Zionism. Additionally, the attendees agreed that Palestine should comprise part of an independent Syrian state, with Faisal as king.

Five months later, the General Syrian Congress was held in Damascus. Although the broad aims and concerns here remained in line with those of the congress in Jerusalem, a clear development had occurred, in terms of understanding both Zionism and the imperial geopolitics of the post-Ottoman Levant. Along with reaffirming their opposition to what they called a ‘Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine’, the attendees made an explicit distinction between Zionists and Jews, emphasising that Jews ‘shall continue to enjoy the rights and to bear the responsibilities which are ours in common’.

Regarding the ambitions of European states in the region, they protested ‘against any agreement providing for the dismemberment of Syria and against any undertaking envisaging the recognition of Zionism in Southern Syria [Palestine].’ This was a reference to the Sykes-Picot Pact of 1916 (the secret Anglo-French agreement for the post-war division of the Ottoman Empire between the two imperial powers) and the Balfour Declaration.

The Congress clearly saw Syria and Palestine as one country whose unity and survival depended on Arab resistance to the imperial and colonial agreements bundled up in Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration. In other words, from the Arab congress perspective, British, French and Zionist intentions for the region presented a multifaceted threat to a future sovereign Syria including Palestine.

The combined forces of street protest and pressure from the Arab congresses failed to halt or even slow the progress of the Zionist movement. The Balfour Declaration was incorporated into resolutions of the San Remo conference in April 1920 where four allied powers – Britain, France, Italy and Japan – agreed that Britain would be given a mandate to ensure the establishment of the ‘Jewish National Home’. The Zionist movement had thus succeeded not only in its goal to gain recognition but also to win active support from the allied powers in the colonisation of Palestine.

However, the events between the British government issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and its ascension to League of Nations ‘mandatory power’ status had an unanticipated impact on the indigenous communities. Arab nationalism in the Levant took on a more coherent form organisationally; the Declaration had a galvanising and unifying effect on Syrians and Palestinians. It was a pivotal point around which Palestinian resistance coalesced, and from which the drive for independence continues to this day.

The Prime Minister has produced a statement more retrogressive and imperial in outlook than a Declaration written during the peak of the British Empire.

Against this backdrop, Theresa May’s ‘centenary letter’ to the Conservative Friends of Israel group chooses to omit the existence of Palestinians under Israeli rule, thereby erasing them and legitimising the colonial project in their country. By doing so, this letter renders the Balfour Declaration itself more progressive than the current position of the British government. The Prime Minister has produced a statement more retrogressive and imperial in outlook than a Declaration written during the peak of the British Empire.

The British government has thus shown that it is unwilling to move forward. It has revealed itself to the Palestinians to be no more trustworthy in its ambitions towards the Arab Levant than its predecessor had been one hundred years ago. British policy faces a choice: it can engage with the political realities of the twenty-first century or it can strive, inevitably in vain, to claw back to a position of political and military supremacy from which it fell long ago.

Ryan Swan is a freelance translator and writer. He has worked with asylum seekers and refugees in Scotland and in Lebanon. His main interests are Arab migration and refugee studies, works by Syrian revolutionary thinkers, and political Islam. Ryan has a Master’s degree in Arab World Studies from the University of Edinburgh. He can be found on Twitter at: @Ryan0Swan 

Feature image: David Ben Gurion (Left) signing the Israeli Declaration of Independence, 14 May 1948. Image: Government of Israel Press Office Flickr Account.