Jews in Israel and Britain have been celebrating. This month
marks the 90th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a letter of intent
sympathising with Zionist aspirations that arguably changed the fate of the
entire Middle East.
For Palestinians, that blood-soaked letter signifies decades
of dispossession, humiliation, victimisation, repression and struggle.
Dated November 2, 1917, the 129-word long missive was
addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild for onward transmission to the Zionist
Federation and signed by the then British Foreign Secretary Arthur James
Balfour. Approved by the British Cabinet and the US president, Woodrow Wilson,
the main thrust of its text was this:
"His Majesty's government views with favour the
establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will
use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it
being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the
civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in
Prompted by the urgings of Chaim Weizmann, who was later to
become Israel's first president, the letter was welcomed by Zionist leaders even
though at the time it was penned the area was still part of the Ottoman Empire,
albeit in the process of disintegration.
In February 1920, the First World War allies gave a mandate
to Britain to control Palestine, which was approved by the precursor to the UN,
the League of Nations, in 1922. The Balfour Declaration was incorporated
Post-First World War, Jews made up only 8 percent of
Palestine's population. Some estimates suggest there were only 60,000 Jews as
opposed to 500,000 Arabs. As the trickle of Jewish emigration to Palestine
turned into a flood, in 1937, the British decided upon the partition of
Palestine into two states -- a decision it was later to rescind when faced with
an Arab backlash.
Although considered a staunch Zionist at heart, Winston
Churchill, then colonial secretary, had earlier sought to appease growing Arab
outrage by handing three-quarters of land east of the Jordan River within its
Palestine mandate to the Hashemite leader, King Abdullah I, and exempting it
from the Balfour "remit."
In 1931, the government of Neville Chamberlain issued a
white paper placing strict quotas on Jewish immigration, restricting the rights
of Jews to buy land from Arabs. It stated, "His Majesty's government now
declares unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine
should become a Jewish state."
David Lloyd George called this "an act of
perfidy." Churchill voted against it in parliament. Zionists saw this as a
betrayal and launched attacks against the British.
Nevertheless, the British adhered to the white paper's cap
on Jewish immigration throughout the Second World War, which resulted in Jews
fleeing from Nazi-occupied Europe being interned in displacement camps on
Global public opinion responded with disapproval at the
sight of emaciated Holocaust survivors behind British "barbed wire."
The Zionists responded with terrorist attacks. In 1944, the
Stern Gang, led by Yitzhak Shamir, assassinated a British minister. A year
later, the Palmach destroyed two police boats, while the Haganah blew up
railways. The Irgun, headed by Menachem Begin, bombed the headquarters of the
CID, several trains and, in 1946, Occupied Jerusalem's King David Hotel.
Britain decided its Palestinian mandate was more trouble than
it was worth. On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence. The British
swiftly pulled out, washed its hands of all responsibility and left behind a
bloodbath that continues until today.
The question remains what prompted Britain to pursue a Jewish
homeland on populated territory that wasn't Britain's to give away?
On this there are various trains of thought.
Some historians believe Britain viewed Palestine as the
gateway to its empire in the east and thought a grateful Jewish state would
serve its interests in the long run and help protect the vital Suez Canal from
predatory big powers.
Others contend Britain was desperate to keep Russia fighting
on the side of the allies in the First World War and thought placating Russian
Jews by promising a Jewish homeland would ensure the latter's valuable
influence over the Bolsheviks to that end.
Similarly, they say, it was hoped American Jews would be
grateful enough to persuade their government to join the conflict.
There is also a belief that Lloyd George furthered the
Zionist cause out of gratitude for a process invented by Chaim Weizmann (a
chemist) -- fermented acetone needed to produce the propellant cordite.
When Balfour first met Weizmann to discuss payment, he was
told, "There is only one thing I want: A national home for my people"
or so the story goes.
It's difficult to believe that the emergence of an Israeli
state once hung on the provision of nail polish remover but in the days when
imperialist powers whimsically redrew borders on the back of envelopes,
installed puppet leaders and helped themselves to national treasures anything
is possible. On second thought, nothing much has changed.
S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes
feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.