Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Balfour legacy in Europe 

Apart from British government celebrations in London, a resounding silence has greeted the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in Europe, writes Salma Ahmed Nosseir in Berlin

Balfour Declaration
Balfour Declaration

In a world where politics rarely remain constant, it is almost ironic that the document that best mirrors the most persistent conflict in our world and the politics of the international community towards it, is a document containing a mere 67 words.

All it took were these 67 words, published on 2 November 1917 by then UK foreign secretary Arthur Balfour in the name of the British government, to serve as a catalyst for one of the most important developments in the modern history of the world and to set a process in motion that until today has been an ever-present reality that cannot be thought away.

Rarely in the history of the world has a document containing so few words and being so vague in content had such an impact.

During World War I, the British government was looking for a way to secure the support of European and other Jewish populations, while also obtaining the promise of the Arab populations of the then Ottoman Empire to revolt and therefore weaken the enemy of Britain. The McMahon-Hussein correspondence, a series of letters between British high commissioner in Egypt Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Hussein of Mecca in 1915-1916, promised the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire independence in exchange for their support of the British war effort.

However, little did the Arabs know that simultaneously the Sykes-Picot Agreement decided in 1916 between France and Britain aimed to split the Arab region between them. When the agreement became public, it was too late – British forces had already entered Palestine, and when he received the news from the battlefield, Balfour published the declaration that would change the course of history.

The story of the Balfour Declaration is not that surprising when looked at in the broader context of European imperialism. What is surprising, however, is how one document could emerge from many others and turn into a catalyst for developments beyond perhaps the imagination of its creators.

The Balfour Declaration and the context in which it was pushed through served as the beginning, or rather the clearest indicator, of the future foreign policy of the Western powers towards the Middle East region. The legacy of the Balfour Declaration is alive and well today because it takes the form of a country that did not exist before 1948, the state of Israel, and that still benefits from preferential policies from Western governments.

The real legacy of the Balfour Declaration is Israel, Western foreign policy towards it and the relationship between the Western countries and the Middle East region. Here lies one of the biggest paradoxes of political history: how has one policy remained so stable over a century when there have otherwise been so many changes? How is it that the way the British government defined its policy towards the Middle East back in 1917 is still the way it formulates it today?

A lot has changed since then, but the legacy of the Balfour Declaration remains because the policy it indicated has not changed. The declaration made two promises that are opposed to each other: to support the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, while at the same time promising to protect “the rights of the non-Jewish communities” living in that territory.

There was no mention of these “non-Jewish communities” being the citizens of a country that would later be occupied by Britain, and they were not defined for themselves, but only in relation to the Jewish people.

They were not Palestinians, but only people who would be living alongside the new inhabitants of the territory. The document was paradoxical from the start, and this was mirrored in the ensuing foreign policy of the British government.


REMEMBERED TODAY: The legacy of historical events is not just a matter of the effects that they have caused, but also of the way people remember and reflect about them.

 Historical amnesia means the disappearance of a legacy even if it is still palpable in practical terms. It is thus remarkable to note the extent to which the debate about the legacy of the Balfour Declaration on its centenary has been largely restricted to the parties directly affected by it– Palestine and Israel – and to some degree the United Kingdom. The rest of the world has been largely silent.

However, the rest of the world has helped to legitimise this document by its silence. The importance of the Balfour Declaration should be obvious, and its legacy is very much present. Why is it not being treated as such?

A recent poll by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, a pro-Israel group, has identified 40 per cent support within the British population for the Balfour Declaration and the policy of establishing Israel.

This number is a lot higher than the 19 per cent in the same poll indicating warmth towards Israel in the UK. Whereas people in the UK seem to support the right of the state of Israel to exist and the role the British government played in making this happen, they seem to be a lot more critical of the government of Israel.

Is this difference reflected in the official position of the United Kingdom? Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked the British government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration in his speech at the UN General Assembly in September this year, but the subsequent controversy fizzled out into silence. Perhaps the international community did not want to get involved, or perhaps the British government was successful in its strategy of issuing a strongly-worded refusal to do so.

Despite admitting to regret about neglecting the rights of those people that lived in Palestine in 1917, the UK government has called on the British people to feel pride in their role in creating a “democratic entity” in the Middle East region and insisted on its refusal to apologise for its acts. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has also been quick to mention the beneficial trading relationship between the UK and Israel, emphasising her hosting of celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in November in London with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A popular petition to the UK government protesting against these celebrations only managed to collect around 13,500 signatures. Nonetheless, the Balfour Declaration and the British responsibility for it were discussed in parliament, with the discussion dividing on conventional party lines. Ruling Conservative Party members expressed their pride in the British role in establishing Israel, and Labour Party members highlighted the need to apologise for the mistakes of the former British Empire.

Leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn has declined to participate in the celebrations and has condemned the Balfour Declaration and the resulting Middle East policy. Some UK newspapers have supported him, while others have condemned him. But this has been where reactions to events have stopped – with political figures, journalists and only some limited participation by ordinary people.

It would be wrong, however, to restrict the search for collective reflection to the United Kingdom. While the British were the ones who were directly responsible for issuing the document, it would not have been as important as it has been had other countries ignored it. It was only as a result of its acceptance and reinforcement by other European countries that the Balfour Declaration gained the importance that it has had.

So the silence in the rest of Europe speaks volumes while simultaneously raising a variety of questions. French President Emmanuel Macron has remained silent about the centenary of the Balfour Declaration despite the strong involvement of France in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, French support for the Balfour Declaration, and French support for the inclusion of the Declaration in the Mandate given to the UK by the then League of Nations over Palestine.

Macron recently declared “anti-Zionism to be equal to anti-Semitism” at a memorial held for Jews persecuted by the French government during the Second World War, so perhaps one can see why he has been silent on this issue. Silence is sometimes a sign of support. The same silence has been seen in other European nations, many of which have supported the Balfour Declaration and ensuing policies towards the Middle East.

Seeing the Balfour Declaration as the document that single-handedly created European foreign policy towards the Middle East would be a false judgement. However, the importance of the Declaration cannot be underestimated. On the one hand, it was the first official declaration of support for a Jewish state in Palestine and the first example of something like this in international law. It was a symbolic gesture that quickly gained momentum, paving the way for the eventual creation of the state of Israel in Palestine and international support for it.

On the other hand, it also epitomised Western foreign policy in the Middle East – promising the Arab countries something in exchange for their support and then betraying them and breaking that promise. This in itself is a metaphor of how Western countries seem to perceive the Middle East region.

Public reflection on the Balfour Declaration today would have been a good start in giving back the necessary respect to a people that have lost their country. The present silence can be understood as being a result of ignorance, support, guilt or denial. But whatever the case, it should be addressed.

add comment

  • follow us on