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Commentary Last Updated: Nov 7th, 2007 - 01:25:19

Blame it on the Balfour Declaration
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Nov 7, 2007, 01:23

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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 Palestine."

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 within.

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 Cyprus.

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.

More trouble

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.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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