Interpreting the Balfour declaration

November 9, 2012
Sarah Benton

For previous posting see Campaign for apology from UK for Balfour declaration: UPDATED.

An e-petition demanding an apology from the British government for the Balfour Declaration received 156 signatures. It is now closed. For the PRC petition, see a forthcoming post.


Arthur Balfour MP and his letter to Lord Rothschild, November 1917

UK responsibility to the Palestinians

Letters,  Guardian,
November 01/02, 2012

Today is the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, when the then foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, signed a fateful letter to Lord Rothschild announcing that the British government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people”. Britain thus gave the zionist movement carte blanche to transform the overwhelmingly Arab state of Palestine into a Jewish one.

To further this aim, from 1920 onwards, Britain encouraged the mass immigration into Palestine of hundreds of thousands of European Jews, expressly against the wishes of the majority population. As Palestine descended into chaos, the British washed their hands of their responsibility for the mess they had caused and stood by while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were terrorised into fleeing their homeland, as Palestine was transformed into Israel.

We call for the British government to acknowledge publicly the responsibility of previous British administrations from 1917 to 1948 for the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians, when over threequarters were expelled deliberately and systematically by the zionist army. Most of them remain refugees today without redress. The truth about their expulsions is still not officially established, since Israel officially denies any responsibility for it.
Ghada Karmi
Tim Llewellyn
Karl Sabbagh
John Rose
Kamel Hawwash
Naomi Foyle
Mona Baker
Mike Marqusee
Seni Seneviratne

Different histories

Letters, Guardian
November 06, 2012

The letter from Ghada Karmi and others (UK’s responsibility to the Palestinians, 2 November) deserves correction. Only a fully truthful account can render justice to the Palestinians. The Balfour declaration made explicit that its implementation should not prejudice the rights of the indigenous inhabitants. In no way did it give the Zionist movement “carte blanche to transform the overwhelmingly Arab state of Palestine into a Jewish one”. Leaving aside the question of whether Palestine was a state in any modern meaning of the word after the removal of the Ottoman empire, how the terms of the Balfour declaration were observed was a matter for the British government exercising its responsibilities under the mandate. I doubt very much that Britain “encouraged the mass immigration into Palestine of hundreds of thousands of European Jews”. Rather the reverse.

Until the 1930s, Jewish immigration, motivated more by religious belief than Zionist nationalism, was at a fairly low level and often tolerated by the Palestinian population. It was in the 1930s that this all changed. The pressure of European antisemitism motivated Jews to seek refuge outside Europe and the only place open to most of them (and which their faith told them was the land promised to them as their ultimate destiny) was Palestine. The doors of other nations, Britain and the US in particular, were shut to them. But it was the culmination of European antisemitism in the Holocaust which led to an international crisis. In postwar Europe there were several million displaced survivors unable to return to their original countries. Had Britain admitted up to 1 million of the displaced Jews, and the US up to 2 million, the crisis in Palestine would have been solvable. Instead Britain invited in thousands of Ukrainians, among them SS war criminals. Thus to the tragedy of the Shoah was added the tragedy of the Nakba.
Lionel Burman
West Kirby, Wirral

• Re the Arab exodus from Palestine: there is no mention of the UN resolution which divided Palestine between Arab and Jew, which Israel accepted and the Arabs did not. Nor is there any reference to the war which followed, when six Arab nations invaded the new Israeli state with the declared aim of its elimination. Without that rejection and invasion of Israel there would have been no Arab refugees.
Paul Miller

Broken promises: Britain in Palestine

Balfour Project conference, Edinburgh

A one-day conference on the British responsibility for conflict between Israelis and Palestinians took place at the Quaker Meeting House in Edinburgh on Friday 2ndNovember. A full house included people of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

It was held on the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the letter written by Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild in 1917, promising that the British Government would support the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ provided that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’. This was one of a number of contradictory promises made to secure the support of Arabs and Jews during the First World War, which have led to conflict ever since.

The conference was organized by the Balfour Project in association with the Church of Scotland as a first step in exploring how to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in five years’ time in 2017. The Balfour Project Steering Group believes that the search for the truth of what took place, and the acknowledgement of wrong-doing, can contribute to justice, peace and reconciliation in theMiddle East.

Among the presentations were an interactive timeline by Dr Mary Embleton; ‘The Road to Balfour; The Roots of Christian Zionism’ by Rev Dr Stephen Sizer;‘Imperialism and its key personalities’ by Professor Mary Grey, and  ‘What flowed from the Balfour Declaration’, by  Dr Imad Karam. A film of the apology in 2008 by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Aboriginal Australians was part of John Bond’s talk on ‘The struggle for truth, Healing and justice: examples of creative action.

Rev Ian Alexander, Secretary of the World Mission Council of the Church of Scotland, opening the conference, said that he hoped it would be ‘the beginning of a cascade of events exploring all the different legacies of the Balfour Declaration’.

Dr Monica Spooner, the initiator of the Balfour Project in her introduction said: ‘We have a vision, that if the people of Britain face and acknowledge the wrongs of the past, we could become more humble and honest, maybe a trustworthy nation…… This is a moral not a political issue.’


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