One hundred years since the Balfour declaration

A sordid document in the shameful history of British imperialism.

The second of November 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the notorious Balfour declaration, which took the simple form of a letter, written by the then foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, on behalf of the foreign office to Lord Rothschild – Lionel Walter Rothschild, the second Baron Rothschild, who was at the time the president of the English Zionist Federation and a longstanding friend of Balfour’s. This letter reads:

“Dear Lord Rothschild

“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet

“His Majesty’s Government view 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 or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Most jews opposed zionism

Subsequent zionist narrative asserts that the Balfour declaration was the culmination of a long struggle by the jewish masses for the establishment of a national home in Palestine. As a matter of fact, the jewish people were overwhelmingly and fiercely opposed to the idea, whose genesis had nothing to do with them. For zionism is an imperialist construct, conceived, nurtured and promoted by British imperialism to serve as an instrument of its policy and a tool for protecting its interests in the middle east.

Only a small coterie of wealthy zionists, such as Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, were advocating and pursuing the adoption of some such declaration. The idea was not at all popular among the jews at the time. The late historian Lord Beloff, himself a jew, and many others, aptly characterised zionism as a movement in which one jew asks another for money to send a third jew to Palestine. Most jews regarded zionism as a mad and crazy fantasy and treated it with supreme contempt.

In 1917, Anglo-jewry was, in the main, not just indifferent but positively hostile to zionism and to the Balfour declaration. At the time, only about a quarter of a percent of British jews – that is, about 5,000 out of a total Anglo-jewish population of roughly quarter of a million – were members of the English Zionist Federation.

“The so-called ‘mass meetings’ occasionally convened in urban centres with a high density of jewish immigrants – presumed to be zionism’s ‘natural’ constituency – rarely lived up to their billing,” wrote Stuart A Cohen in the Balfour centenary edition of the Jewish Chronicle. (Anglo-jewry was, in the main, indifferent, 2 November 2017)

For the jewish masses had many more urgent matters to attend to. The burning issues in London’s East End had nothing to do with zionism. What concerned the jewish immigrants most were the British government’s threat to deport them, or the fate of their loved ones back in Russia, not to mention their struggle against prejudice and discrimination, and the fight against slum landlords and sweatshop employers.

What is more, the loudest participants in these debates were the opponents, not the supporters, of zionism.

The masses of immigrant jews were not the only ones fiercely opposed to zionism. Most vocal anti-zionists were native born, many of them members of the Anglo-jewish bourgeoisie, as for instance Edwin Montagu, son of the jewish banker Lord Swaythling, made secretary of state for India, who delivered a virulently anti-zionist memorandum to the British cabinet, while the leaders of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (David Alexander) and the Anglo-Jewish Association (Claude Montefiore) wrote on 24 May 1917 to the Times denouncing the scheme for the establishment of a national home for the jewish people – all in an effort to block the Balfour declaration.

Shortly after the Balfour declaration was made public, “leading figures in Anglo-jewry combined to form a League of British Jews dedicated to the principle that jews were a denomination rather than a nation.” (How the Jewish Chronicle helped shape the debate by David Ceserani, Jewish Chronicle, 22 November 2017)

The unpopularity of the idea underlying the Balfour declaration, and the positive hostility it aroused among all classes of British jews, goes a long way to explaining why this declaration was sent in the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild rather than being made the subject of a parliamentary announcement or white paper.

Thus it is clear that the zionists in Britain, or elsewhere for that matter, had not won over the mass of jews, from any class, to their cause and by no manner of means could they claim to speak on their behalf. It was realisation by the government that anti-zionist sentiment ran strong throughout the jewish community “which determined how the statement would be published. Only by incorporating it within a private letter to Lord Rothschild could the recognised jewish ‘establishment’ be neatly bypassed and the inconvenience of an unseemly intra-communal brawl be avoided.” (Cohen, op cit)

The Balfour declaration was received equally unenthusiastically by the British press, with the solitary exception of the Manchester Guardian, which, under the editorship of CP Scott, was supportive of zionism.

On the day that his paper published the news, Scott dedicated his editorial to the announcement, calling the declaration “at once the fulfilment of an aspiration, the signpost of a destiny. Never since the days of the Dispersion has the extraordinary people scattered over the earth in every country of modern European and of the old Arabic civilisation surrendered the hope of an ultimate return to the historic seat of its national existence. This has formed part of its ideal life, and is the ever-recurring note of its religious ritual”.

The ‘liberal’ Guardian has never departed from the ideology of this editorial, whose content is a mixture of fabricated historical facts and myth. Through the likes of ‘dull-witted creeps’, such as Jonathan Freedland and other hacks, it continues to this day to sing from the same zionist hymnsheet.

In his article, Mr Cohen correctly concluded that even though the Balfour declaration “owed very little to the zionists within Anglo-jewry, the latter certainly owed much to the Balfour declaration”, for the declaration “conferred on the zionists an unprecedented degree of communal legitimacy. Once considered a fringe element of fantasists, they now posed as a group of hard-headed realists who had the ears of the great and mighty of the land.

“Hence, although anti-zionism still remained a force, it was zionism that henceforth exerted increasing control over Anglo-jewish hearts, minds and purses”.

The Palestine Mandate

Following the first world war, at the 1919 peace conference and then in 1920 at San Remo, and again two years later, the League of Nations voted in favour of Britain being the mandatory power in Palestine. The wording of the Balfour declaration was incorporated into the mandate, thus conferring some sort of international stamp of approval.

The second half of the declaration, which provided that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-jewish communities in Palestine” was, and continues to be, honoured in the breach.

The Balfour declaration is a perfect example of imperialist, particularly British imperialist, duplicity. While Sir Henry McMahon, British high commissioner in Egypt, was promising the Sharif of Mecca, the perpetrator of the revolt against the Ottomans, an undivided Arab state after the defeat of Turkey, Britain was at the same time busy concluding the Sykes-Picot agreement, which carved up the rotting Turkish empire between Britain, France and Russia.

The October Revolution in Russia took that country out of the equation and into the bargain the Bolshevik revolutionary government published the secret treaties between the imperialist powers and exposed the fraudulent nature of the pretexts that lay behind the participation of the allied powers in the horrendous slaughter that was the first world war.

At the time of its making, the Balfour declaration was no more than a promise, and a fantastical one at that, since Palestine was part of the Turkish empire over whose disposal Britain had no right of say, let alone to give it to a people with no claim to the territory whatsoever, and who did not even live there.

All the same, the Balfour declaration was a crucial step towards the materialisation of the zionist project. Soon after it became generally known publicly, Palestinian revolts broke out – in 1920, 1921 and 1929 – which were suppressed by Britain, by then the mandatory power.

Through the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, the British authorities permitted the Jewish Agency – a quasi government of jews in Palestine – to develop institutions and infrastructure that would lay the foundation for statehood at a later date – something that was not allowed to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the jewish population in Palestine was increasing through immigration, spurred on by developments in Nazi Germany.

Sensing the danger to their own future statehood through being colonised, the Palestinians rose in a revolt, which lasted from 1936-39. Though Britain crushed this uprising with brutal force, it was obliged, with the second world war looming on the horizon, to take measures to ameliorate the condition of the Palestinians. Hence the adoption by Britain of the 1939 white paper, with its promise to end all jewish immigration to Palestine in five years, with a total of 75,000 immigrants to be allowed in during that time.

This brought the zionist establishment into serious contradiction with the British authorities, leading, after the second world war was over, to armed attacks by the zionist terrorist group, the Stern Gang, who murdered Lord Moyne, the British minister in Cairo and hung two British soldiers as reprisal for the hanging of two Stern Gang members – the final straw being the blowing up of the British army headquarters at the King David hotel in Jerusalem.

No longer able to control the situation, Britain, having laid the foundation of a future zionist state, washed its hands of the mandate and passed over responsibility to the United Nations. The United Nations special committee on Palestine came up with a partition plan that was adopted by the general assembly on 29 November 1947, with Britain declaring its intention to withdraw from Palestine by 15 May 1948, allowing well-armed zionist groups to grab a major part of the country.

On the final departure of British troops, David Ben-Gurion declared the state of Israel and became its first prime minister.


For the Palestinians, the creation of the colonial state of Israel was Nakba – the catastrophe, accompanied by expulsion, through terror and massacre, of 750,000 of them from their homes and villages, turning them into refugees. Over 400 villages were erased by well-armed zionists to grab a major part of Palestine.

Quite rightly, 2 November is for the Palestinians a black day – the day that a 130-word letter laid the basis for their dispossession and expulsion from their homeland. Twelve million Palestinians today live under occupation or as refugees, scattered both in neighbouring countries and throughout the world, yearning to return to their land and homes.

At Oslo in 1993, the Palestinians, making the most painful decision, agreed on a two-state solution, which would have given them a state of their own within the pre-1967 borders – a mere 20 percent of historic Palestine.

But while all the imperialist states today pay lip service to the two-state solution, with the exception of Sweden and Greece, none of the western governments has fully recognised Palestine as an independent state. Instead, they continue to give military, financial and diplomatic support to Israel, while the latter, through its incessant war against the Palestinians and ceaseless construction and colonisation within the internationally recognised Palestinian territory, is making the two-state solution all but impossible.

Be it said in passing that 130 UN members, representing the vast majority of humanity, recognise Palestine within the 1967 borders, notwithstanding its military occupation by Israel.

Thus it is clear that while Theodor Herzl, author of Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews, published in 1896 and considered the founding text of Israeli zionism), may have founded the World Zionist Organisation but, without the support of imperialism, in particular British imperialism, “the minuscule jewish community in Palestine could never attain the necessary critical mass to become a sovereign state. Not only did Herzl fail; before the first world war the zionist movement as a whole was uncertain about its goals.” (Weizmann, Herzl and Eretz Yisrael by Derek Penslar, Jewish Chronicle, 2 November 2017)

Far from being “the Magna Carta of jewish liberties”, as that hyperbolic creep Chaim Weizmann, later to become the first president of Israel, characterised it in a letter to Walter Rothschild, the Balfour declaration served to lay the basis for Palestinian dispossession and to sow the seeds for a hundred-year war which can only end eventually in the dismantling of this imperialist construct, namely, the zionist state of Israel, and its replacement by a single state in which jews and Palestinians enjoy equal civil, political and religious rights.

Zionist celebrations

Unmindful of what lies ahead, the zionist establishment and its friends engaged in an orgy of celebrations to mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration:

“The government has resisted disgraceful calls for an apology and has clearly stated, from the prime minister and other ministers and officials, that the government will mark the Balfour declaration with pride. The landmark dinner hosted by Lord Rothschild and Lord Balfour was attended by the prime minister and key ministers from both the UK and Israel.

“One hundred years ago, zionist statesmen and British ministers worked together to pave the way for a jewish home in the land of Israel.

“In 2017, let us be proud that it was our government which took the first step to recognise the heritage of the jewish people and which continues today to protect our connection with the land of Israel.” (Advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle of 2 November 2017 by Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council)

The Balfour declaration was a fundamental step on the road to the establishment of the state of Israel.

Programmes in schools and universities, lectures and academic events, newspaper articles and journals, over 100 events in synagogues and communities around the country discussed the Balfour declaration. The Balfour Lecture, delivered by the well-known historian Simon Schama at the Royal Society, was live-streamed to venues in Brighton, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and other places.

All opponents of zionism, especially anti-zionist jews, and all the friends of the Palestinians must pledge on the occasion of its centenary to expose the Balfour declaration as a shameful document that has brought misery and war and sullied the name of the British people, whose government was the author of this tragedy.

They must expose the hypocrisy, cynicism and duplicity of the likes of Mark Regev, the present Israeli ambassador in Britain and previously the shameless spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, an Australian who only moved to Israel in 1982, thereby himself exposing the preposterous nature of this racist settler-colonial state, who called for the British people to be proud of the Balfour declaration. This, according to him, enshrines the “finest values that the United Kingdom cherishes today”.

Cynically ignoring the jackboot of the Israeli occupation and the denial of all rights to the Palestinian people, Regev has the Goebbelsian chutzpah to characterise Israel “as a beacon of democracy, pluralism and the rule of law”, with its declaration of independence guaranteeing “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex”.

He invites the people of Britain to join Israel “and proudly mark their [Britain’s] role in … creating the middle east’s only tolerant and free democracy.” (A milestone in the journey to Israel’s rebirth, Jewish Chronicle, 2 November 2017)

Yes, indeed! Mr Regev’s Israel may be a democracy for many of its jewish inhabitants but for the Palestinians it represents dispossession, demolition of homes, life in bantustans, daily oppression and humiliation at a myriad checkpoints that dot the Palestinian territories, the apartheid wall and a daily siege of their territories. There is nothing for them to celebrate – only the arduous struggle to destroy the monstrosity whose foundation stone and building blocks rest on the Balfour declaration.

And remember, Mr Regev, the laws of history are stronger than the laws of artillery. The Palestinian people will surely overcome and be victorious!