Forward Thinking

Britain Should Apologize for Balfour Declaration

By Liam Hoare

  • Print
  • Share Share

Palestinians protest on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 2013. / Getty Images

In 2014, commemoration of the First World War on the one-hundredth anniversary of its commencement will be inescapable. So, too, will the debate over the merits of the miserable and bloody conflict that took the lives of over 16 million soldiers and civilians, crippled an entire generation of Europeans, and begat the infamous Treaty of Versailles.

In the United Kingdom, this conversation has already begun and has spiralled off so as to encompass another product of the Great War: the Balfour Declaration. At the end of last year, the Palestine Return Centre launched in Parliament a campaign called, “Britain, It’s Time To Apologize,” requesting an international voice to call on Her Majesty’s Government “to apologize to the Palestinian people, for either wilfully or carelessly failing to protect their human and political rights, while under British protection.”

Leaving aside the Palestinians for a moment, in the first instance any campaign against the Balfour Declaration must be treated with great suspicion. After all, that declaration was more than a government memorandum. It was the first declaration of its kind from a world power in support of the Zionist idea of Jewish autonomy and self-rule in Palestine.

More importantly, it was a legal instrument, incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine ratified by the League of Nations in July 1922, in which it was stated that Britain as overseer would be responsible for fostering political, administrative, and economic conditions that would secure “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.”

The Mandate would go on to recognize “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and “the grounds for reconstituting their National Home” in that country. It would also provide room for the creation of what would become the Jewish Agency, the de facto governing body of the Yishuv.

To request that the British government apologize for Balfour, then, is to ask it to repudiate the underpinnings in international law of the State of Israel itself. It is a flagrant act of delegitimization — an attempt to negate the Jewish right to self-determination and deny the basis of Israel’s existence.

The PRC’s campaign against the Balfour Declaration is grounded in the experiences of the Palestinian people during the Mandate. “Nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” the Mandate for Palestine, echoing the Declaration, states. What the PRC argues is that, in fostering the conditions for the partition of the Mandate, “Britain’s political legacy in Palestine marked an historical breach against the aspirations of the people of Palestine and to the shattered hopes of the promises of freedom and self-determination.”

The PRC’s position, however, is predicated on a rather shaky premise that British administration of the Palestinian Mandate was in some fashion biased against the Arab population — that it was only the Palestinians who had their “promises of freedom and self-determination” ignored or stifled. It ignores the ways in which the British abandoned its mandate in Palestine of establishing a Jewish home, either to appease Arab demands or to keep the Holy Land for itself.

British policy in Palestine was self-undermining from the very beginning. As it was making a very public pledge to Chaim Weizmann and the Jewish population of Palestine to form a Jewish home, it was reassuring the Sharif of Mecca that it would support the establishment of an independent pan-Arab kingdom once the First World War was over. Britain, thus, twice-promised the land so as to divide and rule it.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, mounting Arab resistance to Jewish settlement in Palestine, some of it violent, “forced Britain to reassess its own wartime commitments to Zionism,” Avi Shlaim observes in The Iron Wall. First in 1922, Winston Churchill authored a White Paper that attempted to fashion a “more even-handed policy toward the two warring communities in Palestine,” including for the first time the institution of economic criteria for Jewish immigration.

Britain would propose partition of Palestine in 1937, with the Peel Commission allowing for the creation of a very small Jewish state on the coastal plain and Galilee, and a much larger Palestinian state contained in around 80 percent of the Mandate. The Twentieth Zionist Congress approved the plan as the basis for further negotiations with the British government, but Arab opposition to partition was swift and decisive, resulting in further tumult and bloodshed.

Britain would fully abandon its commitment to Zionism and partition by the start of the Second World War. The support of Arab states was seen as more crucial to the forthcoming confrontation with the Axis powers. The British government issued another White Paper in 1939, further limiting Jewish immigration and, as Shlaim phrases it, condemning “the Jewish to a status of permanent minority in a future independent Palestinian state.”

In the end, the matter had to be turned over to the United Nations, since by February 1947 the British government could not conceive of a solution to the Palestine problem that would satisfy both sides. Thus, Britain failed to fulfil the essential obligation of its mandate in Palestine for fostering the conditions for Jewish statehood under its administration. If it is to apologize to anyone or for anything, then, this might be a good place to start.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Palestine, Balfour declaration, Israel, Britain

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.