Time to Party or Protest? Balfour Declaration Centenary Is a Divisive Occasion

Countering festive London dinner with Israeli PM this week will be pro-Palestinian and Arab Israeli protests of the 1917 document that expressed British support for a Jewish homeland

Palestinians take part in a protest calling on Britain to apologize for the Balfour Declaration, in the West Bank city of Ramallah October 18, 2017.

It’s now a yellowing piece of paper, but its three typed short paragraphs are still as intentionally opaque today as they were when they were written 100 years ago, expressing British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but without harming the rights of the Arabs that lived there – thus setting the stage for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thursday will mark a full century since the letter from then-British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, known as the Balfour Declaration, was signed and sent, on November 2, 1917, to Lord Rothschild, a representative of the Zionist Federation. 

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By supporting Zionism, the British Mandatory authorities paved the way for hundreds of thousands of Jews to immigrate to Palestine, and to establish the cultural and physical infrastructure of what would become the future State of Israel. 

The centenary is being celebrated by supporters of Israel abroad and by the State of Israel itself, whose creation is expressly linked to the promise the declaration makes. 

A copy of the original Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be departing Wednesday for London, to attend a festive dinner scheduled to take place there on Thursday. UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been critical of Israeli policies in the past, declined an invitation to attend the dinner. 

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Among other commemorative events will be a special plenary session in the Knesset next Tuesday, November 7, conferences and public lectures in London, Israel and the United States examining the impact and significance of the Balfour Declaration, and block parties on Israeli streets named after Balfour.

However, the centennial celebrations are also being denounced and protest marches and demonstrations are being planned by Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists in Israel and abroad. A mass demonstration against the legacy of Balfour is slated to be held in London on Saturday. 

“While Israel connects its existence to the Balfour Declaration, so do Arabs connect it to their biggest tragedy,” says Israeli historian Tom Segev, referring to what the Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe” – when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes in the land that is now the State of Israel, during its 1947-49 War of Independence. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara look at the original Balfour Declaration at the British Library in London, September 10, 2015.

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Meanwhile, pressure is being applied by the Balfour Apology Campaign – originally launched by theadded: UK-based Palestinian Return Center rights group a few years ago – to force the British government to apologize for the declaration.added Earlier this year BAC initiated a petition saying, “The colonial policy of Britain between 1917-1948 led to mass displacement of the Palestinian nation” and calling for an open apology to the Palestinian people. 

For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has also demanded a formal British apology for the Balfour Declaration, asking for recognition of a future state of Palestine based on the 1967 borders. Palestinians held a demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 18, calling for such a statement from British officials.

However, the British government has stated there will be no apology, and has declared, “We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves toward peace.”

Special picture postcard designed by Bezalel Arts Academy in Jerusalem to commemorate the Balfour Declaration, November 1917.

A protest against the declaration by leaders of the Israeli Arab community is being planned for Tuesday, outside the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. Last Wednesday the embassy hosted a relatively low-key celebratory reception attended by several Israeli parliamentarians and members of the Anglo-Israeli community. 

Across the United Kingdom major demonstrations are planned, the largest one scheduled for Hyde Park in central London on Saturday. 

Meanwhile, on social media the battle over how to commemorate the Balfour Declaration is being played out on both sides via hashtag #Balfour100 and #MakeItRight. On Twitter there is a war of tweets and images and calls to mobilize. 

There have been calls from pro-Palestinian activists on Twitter and elsewhere to cancel the Christian-Jewish event, slated to be held at The Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, to commemorate the legacy of the Balfour Declaration.

The event is being organized by the UK Christian Coalition, which has said in its advertisements that, “We will be using music, song, dance and drama to capture some of the key moments of early Zionism that laid the foundation for the recreation of the State of Israel in 1948.”