Perfidious Albion: Balfour at 99

Perfidious Albion: Balfour at 99
5 min read
02 Nov, 2016
Comment: Almost a century ago, the Balfour Declaration promised the Jewish people British support for a homeland in Palestine, and made a hollow promise to Palestinians, writes Tom Charles
Palestinian protesters in Gaza mark the anniversary of the Balfour declaration [Getty]

This week marks the 99th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, when Lord Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister of Britain wrote to Baron Rothschild - Britain's most prominent Zionist - offering support for a "national home of the Jewish people in Palestine".

This was 1917, when Britain was still in its imperial pomp, and was seeking regional dominance as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. On behalf of the British government, Balfour promised support, with the proviso that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".

That caveat proved to be as hollow as they come, with the British crushing the Arab revolt, preventing Palestinian political representation and abandoning its mandate in Palestine to the United Nations in 1947.

By this time, the Zionist movement had developed the political and violent means by which to begin the Nakba or 'catastrophe' that saw with the expulsion of two thirds of the indigenous population and the destruction of half of all Palestinian villages.

Christian Zionism

Britain had promised a land over which it had no right, to people who did not live there. The declaration was made before the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, and can be understood only in the context of British antisemitism and geopolitical designs.

The Balfour Declaration was an expression of centuries of Christian belief in Millennialism; a golden age of a thousand years during which Jesus Christ would reign before making his final judgments. Like the Crusaders, the Millennials believed that the existing population in the Holy Land needed to be removed and new people to be introduced.

The Balfour Declaration: Click to enlarge

A similar movement was the German Templers, Christians who colonised part of Palestine and sought to boost Zionism until they were thrown out in 1948.

Christian Zionists believe that the Jews in Palestine are necessary to precipitate the second coming of Christ. One such Christian Zionist, antisemite and predecessor to Balfour, was Lord Shaftsbury, who in the mid-nineteenth century persuaded Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston to become an advocate of a Jewish state in Palestine.


The idea of a Jewish state fitted well with Britain's policy ideas as they sought a buttress against the Ottoman Empire. James Finn, the British Consul General in Jerusalem was another Christian Zionist. He believed that Jews should convert to Christianity, but he saw a Zionist movement as a good alternative and bought land and established supportive institutions for Jews in Palestine.

Click to enlarge

By the early 20th century, the Jewish Zionist movement, having initially preferred Uganda as a safe haven, began to focus on Palestine with the active support of senior British politicians.

By this time the British were also concerned about Jewish emigration from eastern to western Europe.

In 1917 came Balfour's declaration and by 1948 the growing Zionist movement dovetailed with American interests, European guilt and Palestinian subjugation to enable the creation of Israel.

For the West, Israel was a dependent, and therefore dependable base of power in the Middle East.

The growing Zionist movement dovetailed with American interests, European guilt and Palestinian subjugation to enable the creation of Israel

The Arabs, who had supported Britain against the Ottomans could reflect that they were never powerful enough to have a say in their own future. Despite Britain's promises of protection, and Balfour's proviso, the Palestinians were victims of perfidious imperial manoeuvring.

No apology

Ninety-nine years on, having received no justice, there are two narratives on Balfour worth examining. One is the Palestinian demand for an apology from the British government. This was launched last week at the House of Lords by the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), who are calling for recognition of the harm caused, acknowledgment of British responsibility, and an examination of whether the suffering was avoidable.

In the words of PRC President Majed Al-Zeer, "we want official recognition of Palestinian suffering".

The idea of a Jewish state fitted well with Britain's policy ideas as they sought a buttress against the Ottoman Empire

A British FCO government spokesman responded to the call by saying, "The Balfour Declaration was a historic statement and one that the UK Government will not be apologising for".

But this official statement ignores the fact that the Nakba that was set in motion by Balfour is not an historic event, it is an ongoing, worsening catastrophe, as avoidable now as it was in 1917, should Britain and her allies choose to apply international law.

Along with the striking similarity of the 2016 British political establishment's approach to that of 1917, the Palestinians face another major obstacle: the mass media, who launched an extraordinary distortion campaign against the PRC's demand for an apology over Balfour.

Offensive comments made by a Jewish member of the audience were falsely attributed to "a speaker" from the PRC and almost every major news outlet in the UK reported this as true. Reports of the PRC event centre around this "controversy," ignoring the substantive issue.

In 1919, Lord Balfour said "The Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land".

Almost a century after the Balfour Declaration, Britain takes the same stance, and the Palestinians must continue to demand justice.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.