The Balfour Declaration: a century of colonisation and resistance

As the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is marked this month, Israel and its supporters – including the British and Australian governments – are celebrating the anniversary, while Palestinians are mourning and protesting it.

The Balfour Declaration was a statement of support by the British government for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. It was exceedingly brief, consisting of a mere 67 words. But its consequences have been catastrophic for the Palestinian people. As Israeli historian Avi Shlaim observed, “Its impact on the subsequent history of the Middle East was nothing less than revolutionary”.

Issued on 2 November 1917, after being approved by the British war cabinet, the letter, signed by foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, stated:

“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 Zionist movement gained – for the first time – the imperial backing it had long sought to carry out its settler-colonial project.

Zionism

Political Zionism was born in reaction to European anti-Semitism and waves of anti-Jewish pogroms that swept across the continent in the late 19th century. A small section of the European Jewish middle classes believed that anti-Semitism was an inevitable response to Jews living among non-Jews, rather than a result of the development of capitalism.

Zionists began a campaign to establish a Jewish “national” homeland, although they were an ethno-cultural religious group rather than a nation.

Abram Leon, a Belgian Jewish Trotskyist who provided the first comprehensive Marxist understanding of Zionism, explained in 1942: “Zionism is essentially a reaction against the situation created for Judaism by the combination of the destruction of feudalism and the decay of capitalism … Zionist ideology, like all ideologies, is only the distorted reflection of the interests of a class”.

Uganda, Argentina or Palestine?

Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, understood that the world was already carved up by competing colonial powers and that, to establish a Jewish state, they would need the backing of an imperial power. Herzl noted that Palestine was one of many possible locations for a national homeland, writing in his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State: “Shall we choose Palestine or Argentina?”. He said that the Zionists would “take what is given us, and what is selected by the Jewish public opinion”.

From 1895 and until his death in 1904, Herzl sought support for the Zionist project from representatives of numerous European states and representatives of the Ottoman Empire, under whose control Palestine fell. He even wrote to Cecil Rhodes, perhaps the best known British colonialist of the day, inviting him to “help make history” by supporting the aim of the Zionist movement.

In 1903, Herzl accepted a British offer to establish a Jewish state in Uganda. However, two years later the Zionist Congress rejected the plan in favour of establishing it in Palestine. After Herzl’s death, Chaim Weizmann became the leading protagonist in the movement, lobbying the British government to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.

Weizmann sought Balfour’s support even though, during his prime ministership (1902-05), Balfour had pushed for anti-immigration laws to prevent Jews fleeing the pogroms in eastern Europe from entering Britain. The offer of a “tract of fertile land” in Uganda made to Herzl in 1903 by Balfour’s government was, in part, an attempt to prevent them from entering Britain.

Imperialist desire

Why did Balfour and the British Conservative government decide in 1917 to promise the Zionist movement a tiny country in the Middle East, to which it had no legal claim and which belonged to another people?

In 1908, oil was discovered in Persia, ensuring that the Middle East would become central to the needs of British imperialism. The Admiralty, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, converted the British fleet from coal to oil in 1911. Just weeks before the outbreak of World War One, Britain purchased a controlling share in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later British Petroleum), becoming the only significant oil producer outside of the Americas.

Britain also wanted to guarantee continued access to and control of the Suez Canal, as it offered the most direct route to its colonies in India. Control of Palestine was therefore of vital strategic importance.

As World War One drew to a close, Britain put into action a secret plan it had drawn up with France in 1916 to carve up the Arab provinces of the dying Ottoman Empire. The Sykes-Picot Agreement – which was revealed to the world when Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party made public other secret inter-Allied agreements – handed most of Syria and present day Lebanon to France and Palestine to Britain.

The Balfour Declaration, issued one month before Britain seized control of Jerusalem and militarily occupied all of Palestine, was an important strategic manoeuvre. Britain had been in intense discussion with the Zionists for several months. The declaration provided a stepping stone for the Britain and the Zionists, whose interests coincided temporarily.

According to Swiss Jewish historian Jon Kimche: “This was the basic realism with which Balfour and Weizmann approached their compact; they understood that they would have to go together part of the way, but that a time would come when they would have to part”.

Palestinian reaction

The vast majority of Palestinians did not learn of the Balfour Declaration until early 1920. With the defeat of Germany and its allies, the opposing Allied imperialist powers met in Paris to carve up the spoils of war, establishing the League of Nations and a “mandatory system”, which placed the former colonies and territories belonging to Germany and the Ottoman Empire under the tutelage of more “advanced” nations to prepare them for self-determination and independence.

However, as socialist George Padmore noted in 1937, the League of Nation’s mandatory system was indistinguishable from any other form of colonialism and merely created an illusion that the former German and Ottoman territories were not being annexed by the imperialist victors.

Palestinians eventually became aware of the declaration when it was incorporated into the mandate protocols for Palestine. In response, they took to the streets in mass demonstrations to oppose both British colonial policy and Zionism.

The Allied powers were aware, even before these demonstrations, that Arabs were stridently opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1919, the King-Crane Commission, established by US president Woodrow Wilson, spent three months visiting Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan to “elucidate the state of opinion” of those living there.

The commission collected 1,863 petitions in relation to Syria and Palestine alone, with 72 percent expressing strong opposition to the Zionist movement’s claim to Palestine. Unsurprisingly, this anti-Zionist sentiment was strongest in Palestine, with 222 of the 260 petitions received opposing the establishment a Jewish state.

Palestinian and Arab opposition, however, was unimportant to the British government. According to Balfour, in a memorandum to the incoming British foreign secretary, “we do not propose to even go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants”. The Allied powers were committed to Zionism – and this was of much “profounder importance than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.

This ​ despite Arabs making up 90 percent of Palestine’s population.

Betrayed, the Palestinians railed against both the British imperial policy and Zionist settler colonialism, with riots erupting in 1920 and 1921 demanding the cancellation of the Balfour Declaration. This demand would be the central focus of every Arab Congress held by the Palestinian national movement during the period of the British Mandate. In addition, when Britain attempted to placate the Palestinians by offering to establish a legislative council, they voted to boycott it because the structure of the council only​ reinforced, rather than challenged, British policy.

In 1925, Palestinians launched general strikes in opposition to British rule and Zionist settler colonialism, and in 1929 riots once again broke out, resulting in the deaths of 133 Jews and 116 Palestinians. The riots came primarily in reaction to increased Jewish immigration and land purchases. Between 1922 and 1929, the Jewish population in Palestine increased from 11 percent to 28 percent. More than 20,000 Palestinians were evicted from the land their families had worked for centuries.

Through the early 1930s, Palestinians would continue to agitate against British support for the Zionist project, culminating in one of the longest general strikes in history (lasting more than 170 days) and an anti-colonial revolt that engulfed Palestine for three years between 1936 and 1939. Britain put down the revolt only after it mobilised 20,000 troops and 14,500 members of the Haganah, a Zionist militia. More than 5,000 Palestinians were killed, hundreds being hanged for their role in the insurrection. Hundreds more were deported from their own country, and tens of thousands were locked up in internment camps.

Under emergency laws, Britain instituted harsh acts of collective punishment, such as the destruction of Palestinian homes and the bombing of entire Palestinian villages. Today, the Israeli state continues to replicate many of the harshest acts of collective punishment carried out during the revolt.

The suppression of the 1936-39 uprising laid the ground work for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1947-48. Having crushed the earlier resistance, Britain abandoned Palestine to the Zionists, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion. By early 1949, the Zionists had seized control of 75 percent of Palestine. Eighteen years later, in 1967, Israel launched the Six Day War to conquer the rest of Palestine, occupying East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

The Balfour Declaration and Britain’s imperial policy during the mandate period facilitated the building of a Zionist state at the expense of the existing Palestinian Arab population. It laid the groundwork for the mass expulsion of Palestinians and the ongoing dispossession and occupation of Palestinians today.

While Israel and its supporters, including those in today’s British government, are celebrating 100 years of imperialist backing of settler colonialism, the Palestinian people – with their supporters – will be mobilising on the streets to continue the fight for Palestinian self-determination.