The Balfour Declaration has been in the news so much over the last year it could lead you to conclude that the British dispatch supporting Jewish resettlement in the land of Israel was announced on Twitter last November, and not in a letter to a long-gone Lord Rothschild on November 2, 1917.
In August, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said in a meeting with a British foreign ministry official in Ramallah that, “Balfour became famous for his promise… to establish Israel on the land of Palestine. … I call for the current British foreign secretary to be famous for giving the Palestinians a promise called the ‘Johnson Declaration’ that recognizes a Palestinian state.”
Al-Maliki’s was only one in a series of references to the Balfour Declaration by Palestinians in the last 18 months. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the same British official that the UK should reconsider plans to celebrate the Declaration’s 100th anniversary.
The resurgence of interest in Balfour echoes the way other contentious anniversaries are remembered and reported. A recent Associated Press article about the American Civil War was titled, “We’re still fighting, more than 150 years after Appomattox.”
To assess how political leaders are portraying Balfour, and how the media are reporting it, we reviewed dozens of articles in Israeli, British, American, Palestinian, and Arab media. What we learned should not have surprised us, but it did depress us. We found superficial reporting and knee-jerk commentary, regardless of location or political orientation. There has been little meaningful assessment of Balfour’s historical context, past impact, and future meaning by reporters, Israelis, Palestinians, and their supporters.
Balfour Then: Philo-Semitic Conspiracy Theories and Ritual Denunciations
The Balfour Declaration emerged at a time of brutal military carnage. Britain and France wished to bring the United States into the Great War and to keep Russia on the battlefield on their side of a bitter struggle against Germany in Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Lord Balfour and others believed that American and Russian Jews could wield enough influence over the foreign policies of their respective countries to woo them to the British side.
British leaders such as prime minister Lloyd George and Winston Churchill wanted to help Jewish immigration to Palestine, even as others in Britain favored Arab claims over the land, which at that time was under the rule of the fading and embattled Ottoman Empire.
Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, whose scientific breakthroughs powered British munitions, juggled efforts to charm British policymakers and browbeat influential anti-Zionist British Jews. He was aware that outsized views of Jewish power teetered between sincere Christian Zionism and racist conspiracy theories.
“We hate equally anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism. Both are equally degrading,” Weizmann said.
The declaration is so brief it bears quoting in full:
“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.”
The Declaration did not acknowledge that Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire at the time it was written, and therefore that Britain had no real right to promise anything to anyone. Its vagueness stopped short of guaranteeing political sovereignty or independence to Palestinian Jews or Arabs.
In fact, Britain had imperial designs on the Middle East. The goal was to bring Palestine into the British Empire after the war concluded, even as warring factions of His Majesty’s government made extravagant and conflicting promises to Jews and Arabs.
The Declaration generated praise and reproach from the moment it was issued. London’s Jewish Chronicle, quoted in the first New York Times mention of Balfour on November 9, said that “with one great step the Jewish cause has made a great bound forward. It is the perceptible lifting of the cloud of centuries.”
On the other hand, American rabbi Samuel Schulman wrote two weeks later that Balfour was not needed, because Jews were a religious group and not a people.
“The Jews in Western lands cannot for a moment grant the idea that they are without a home,” he said in an article for the American Hebrew. “The phrasing [of Balfour] is such an exact reproduction of the platform of Zionism, that we cannot entirely endorse it.”
In war-torn Palestine, the Balfour Declaration was kept from the public. British General Edmund Allenby, whose army swept through Beersheba on November 2 on its way north to Jerusalem, decreed that it would not be published in Palestine. Nevertheless, Arab leaders had been briefed of its contents. The moment it went public in Palestine, they expressed their distaste.
“We were shocked to see that the Allies did not recognize Palestinian suffering, did not acknowledge its sacrifices, and literally ignored its cause, condemning it to become a national homeland for a powerful foreign group who fought against the impoverished sons of this land and sought to deprive them of the right to life,” read an article in the newspaper Falastin written by its editor ‘Issa al-‘Issa.
Balfour Now: Ritual Denunciations and Knee-jerk Support
Those early comments set up a framework that hasn’t changed since. Three years ago, Palestinian academic Walid Khalidi called Balfour “the single most destructive political document on the Middle East in the 20th century.”
Balfour returned to the headlines in a big way in July 2016 in a speech by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki at the League of Arab States meeting in Mauritania. He called the Declaration a “fateful promise from those who do not own to those who do not deserve.”
Al-Maliki said a lawsuit would be filed in an international court, and he asked Arab League states to help the Palestinian Authority prepare and file it.
The announcement generated a wave of stories in the mainstream media, as well as in pro-Jewish and pro-Palestinian outlets. It received the widest coverage in Britain, but also made The Atlantic, Reuters, and The Times of Israel, among others.
Israel supporters mocked it. Anti-Defamation League Deputy National Director Kenneth Jacobson wrote that he was surprised to learn the threat to sue Britain was not “satire of the sort put out by The Onion.”
No media followed up the story, and it dropped from the headlines within a few days. It only reemerged in September, when Abbas called on Britain to apologize for Balfour in his annual speech at the UN General Assembly.
“We ask Britain, as we approach 100 years since this notorious Declaration,” Abbas said, “to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material, and moral responsibilities for the consequences of this Declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, miseries and injustices that it created, and to act to rectify this historic catastrophe and remedy its consequences, including by recognition of the State of Palestine.”
Despite its harsh tone, the speech did not reiterate the lawsuit threat, and journalists didn’t ask about it. After another 24-hour news cycle, interest again sagged until the 99th anniversary date approached in November, which saw a round of stories triggered by the media’s penchant for timely “hooks.”
On November 2, 2016, controversial Israeli historian Ilan Pappe wrote on Al Jazeera that the Zionist movement was a “settler colonial project” with the intent of carrying out ethnic cleansing, and that Balfour was an evil act which “eventually allowed the Zionist movement to take over Palestine.” On the same day in Newsweek, Erekat called for Britain to apologize for the “grave insult to world justice” that was Balfour.
The UK Jewish community countered with the announcement of a website and yearlong series of events titled “Balfour 100” to honor British leaders who “in the midst of the Great War… chose to recognize the longing of the Jewish people to re-establish its national homeland in the land of Israel.”
Qatar-based Al Jazeera doubled down on its critique of Balfour a few days later with a piece by regular commentator Ramzy Baroud which portrayed the Declaration as a “sinister document” that through the “horrific consequences of British colonialism,” allowed for the “eventual complete Zionist takeover of Palestine.”
In the same Jewish Chronicle which had praised Balfour 100 years ago, Mick Davis, chairman of the UK Jewish Leadership Council, wrote two weeks later that the Jewish and Zionist community ought to “celebrate Balfour with pride.”
The media dropped the topic again until April, when a British pro-Palestinian group launched an online petition reiterating Abbas’s call for a government apology. The document failed to receive enough signatures to force a parliamentary debate, but the UK government rejected the request, anyway.
“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s government does not intend to apologize,” the statement said. “We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel.”
The British statement bowed to Palestinian criticisms. It said that the Declaration “should have called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination” and called for a “viable and sovereign Palestinian state.”
In its story about the British statement, London’s The Independent quoted Manuel Hassassian, Palestinian ambassador to the UK, as saying the lawsuit would happen if Britain didn’t retract its statement. But the paper, which had reported the original announcement, didn’t press Hassassian on whether any action had been taken since then.
Over the summer, two Jewish media outlets published series on Balfour that sought to put it into context. Mosaic, an online publication of the US-based Tikvah Fund, framed Balfour as an international effort and not just one by England. Fathom, an online journal of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, produced a package of essays that was the only one we found which included an essay by a Palestinian journalist alongside those of Jewish commentators.
Elias Zananiri was critical of Balfour but also called for the PA to drop its lawsuit threats. In a follow-up email he sent to us, he said the argument on which he based his article was for the UK to recognize the State of Palestine in return for Palestinians dropping their suit against the UK.
“Our goal is not suing the UK at all,” he wrote. “Our goal is to obtain our independence.”
Balfour at 100: Shouts in Echo Chambers
The Balfour Declaration didn’t enjoy universal support within the British establishment at the time it was issued, and later actions such as Britain’s 1939 White Paper could be seen as undermining its intent. Balfour’s nod to Arab residents of Palestine was similarly undercut by British double-dealing with Arab leaders from Jordan through Iraq as World War I ended.
The Jewish world was by no means unanimous in its backing for Balfour, either. The Arab world’s public opposition to Jewish settlement in Palestine masked competing interests and backroom haggling that frustrated and complicated efforts at developing Arab sovereignty in the region.
Today’s one-sided commentaries are ignoring this complex history. Pro-Israel news sources have celebrated Balfour as the beginning of the realization of the Jewish people’s return to their historical homeland. But Zionist writers and organizations are not acknowledging what is at the heart of this issue for those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause: From a Palestinian perspective, the Balfour Declaration was the first document to legitimize the displacement and mistreatment of the Palestinian people.
Palestinian supporters have denounced Balfour as another display of European colonialism suppressing a land’s indigenous people, and have have given no heed to the Zionist position that a British apology for Balfour would also apologize for the establishment of the State of Israel.
In his letter to us, Elias Zananiri wrote, “The UK, where the first shot was fired against our national aspirations, must help promote this independence. It is never about the past as much as it is about the future of our people and of the region, including Israel whom we already recognized but [which] has never reciprocated. It is a matter of fairness, justice, and freedom. None of these three should be allowed exclusively to one side and denied to another.”
The mainstream media hasn’t helped advance the dialogue from the metaphorical trenches so sadly evocative of WWI’s fruitlessness. It’s not as if their coverage has been inaccurate. They dutifully transcribed and reported Palestinian demands, and repeated the process when Britain issued its official response.
To be sure, our own inquiries of the Arab League to tell us if it was helping the Palestinians prepare a lawsuit received no response. But we didn’t find any “no response was forthcoming from the Arab League by deadline,” disclaimers in the media.
The struggle over Balfour’s legacy tells us that 100 years after a complex and often contradictory stew comprised of imperialist desires and anti-imperialist impulses, Christian Zionism and “philo-anti-Semitism,” realpolitik and idealism, converged in wartime England, a better understanding forged in open debate and served to willing listeners is still needed. With Balfour’s 100th anniversary upon us, there is no hope this will happen.
Alan D. Abbey is the Media Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and Ethics Lecturer at the Getty School of Citizen Journalism in the Middle East and North Africa.
Benjamin Emmerich is studying philosophy and political science at the University of Rochester. He was a Summer 2017 research assistant and intern with the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project.