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Expert comment: The Balfour Declaration


Lecturer in Islam Rev Dr Yazid Said reflects on the 1917 Balfour Declaration and its lasting impact on the Middle East.

One hundred years ago on 2nd November 1917, Lord Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, issued a pledge in a form of a letter addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, titled ‘sympathy’.

In it, Lord Balfour stated: “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people… it being clearly understood that nothing will be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The letter constituted a minefield of moral and political debates relating to the purpose and meaning of the Declaration. It was the first step in the realization of the Zionist Congress pledge of 1897, which stated that ‘Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine under public law’. It also caused the beginning of ongoing unrest among the native Palestinian Arabs, with its apparent ambiguity, referring to their civil and religious, but not political rights.

Why was the Balfour Declaration issued? The varied scholarly answers point to the coincidence of two realities: a political and economic reality for advancing British interests and an Evangelical Christian world view. Some archival research suggest that it was a war-type propaganda with hidden anti-French sentiments, securing British interests in Palestine after the War ended. After all, Palestine was the buffer state that guarded the Suez Canal and the route to India. Others emphasize the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, which prompted Chaim Weizmann, the new leader of the World Zionist movement, to be the ‘visionary lobbyist’ for the Declaration after Theodore Herzl’s earlier failure with the Ottoman Sultan to secure a similar pledge. In addition, the rise of nineteenth century Evangelical Christian Zionist sects, which believed that modern Jews represent ancient Israel, and that their restoration in Palestine is integral to the establishment of a future reign of peace and righteousness on earth. Such views had their roots in seventeenth century Puritan theology and shaped the mind-set of leading figures such as Lord Shaftsbury (1801-1885) and the Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865).

The various figures involved in shaping the Declaration, apart from Lord Balfour, include Sir Herbert Samuel, the future first high commissioner of Palestine, and David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister. It is evident that for them the Declaration was not a ploy, but a firm commitment. The Declaration was indeed incorporated into the laws of the British Mandate for Palestine and approved by the League of Nations in 1922, assuming the legal status of a treaty. When defending these decisions in the House of Lord in 1922, Lord Balfour made clear the mingling of practical and religious motivations that guided the letter.

Therefore, there is a direct causal link between the Declaration and the current political stalemate in Israel/Palestine. Whilst there was a very strong historical reasoning for supporting the idea of a Jewish home in Palestine, given nineteenth and twentieth century horrors against the Jewish people, one of the historical tragedies of our epoch remains also the fate of the Palestinian Arabs. Today, the Holy Land is a distressingly sharp illustration of the deadly circularity of oppression. We should make no mistake about its origins in European Christian anti-Semitism. As we remember the Declaration 100 years on, we need to challenge the Realpolitik that triumphed and still triumphs over justice for all concerned in that Land.

The Balfour Declaration will be explored in a special public conference hosted by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies.

The Balfour Declaration (1917-2017): Past, Present and Future, will be held on Wednesday 15th November, 5 – 7.30pm, EDEN Lecture Theatre 130, Hope Park.

Guest speakers include:

  • Yossi Mekelberg, International Relations and Social Sciences Programme Director at the Faculty of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences at Regent's University London
  • Dr Sarah Eltantawi, Member of the Faculty in Comparative Religion and Islamic Studies (Asst. Prof), The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA USA
  • Dr Rev. Yazid Said, Lecturer in Islam, Department of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Liverpool Hope University
  • Professor Roger Spooner OBE and Dr Monica Spooner, Trustees The Balfour Project UK

Register (free of charge) via the Online Store.

Published on 04/06/2019