Should Britain Apologize for the Balfour Declaration?

Rather than a colonist's love song to Zionism, as some pro-Palestinian U.K. campaigners now claim, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was based on miscalculations, anti-Semitism and propaganda - and set in train a war that is yet to end.

James Renton
James Renton
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James Renton
James Renton

The British government should apologize for the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917; that’s the argument of an international five year campaign by the Palestinian Return Centre in London. They’re right in their demand—Britain should apologize. But not because the British favored Zionism over the rights of the Palestinians, as both cheerleaders and critics of Balfour tend to assume. The truth of the Declaration and its legacy is much less clear cut. Rather than a story of grand pro-Zionist design, it is one of miscalculation and unintended consequences.

It is over 95 years since A.J. Balfour, the British foreign secretary, wrote to Lord Rothschild regarding the British Cabinet’s support for the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". The recent announcement that the original text of the Declaration will come to the Jewish state in 2015 received significant exposure in the Israeli media, with commentators describing the Declaration as a seminal moment in the path towards Jewish independence. The PRC campaign, ‘Britain, It’s Time to Apologize,' presents a different perspective. "Ever since" the Declaration, they argue, "Palestinians have suffered tremendously under the shadow of Britain’s colonial past." Their aim is to obtain one million signatures for a petition in "condemnation of British colonial policy between 1917-1948" in time for the 100th anniversary of the Declaration in 2017.

The campaign for an apology matters today for two reasons. First, the court of international public opinion has become much more central in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stimulated by the strategy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to campaign for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood. Second, in October 2012 the British High Court judged that three Kenyans could bring a case against the British Government for abuses suffered during the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule. This ruling could open the door to other cases from British colonial history. It is significant that the PRC’s announcement of its campaign, also made in October 2012, cited the Mau Mau ruling. And that they present the Palestinian story as a part of a wider history of British colonial injustice.

But what did the British really promise in 1917? In the wake of the Declaration’s publication, most Zionists and their opponents assumed that the "national home" meant a Jewish state. There is, however, little proof that this was the British government’s intention. When the Cabinet agreed to issue the Declaration on October 31, 1917, they did not come to a conclusion as to what the national home, once established, would look like. This was because the government’s interest in Zionism was not focused on the movement’s future in Palestine. Rather, their principal goal was to use Zionism as a means of fostering pro-war propaganda in Russia and the U.S. - two key British allies in the struggle against Germany. British policy-makers were desperate to combat the advance of revolutionary socialism and of pacifism in Russia, and to mobilize the full resources of the U.S., which were deemed to be essential for victory. The Cabinet considered that by backing Zionism, Britain could obtain in both countries, and around the world, the support of a powerful agent of influence - ‘the Jews.' So while the government did not devise a plan for the future of Zionism in Palestine, they quickly established - in December 1917 - a Jewish propaganda bureau, the ‘Jewish Section’ of the Foreign Office’s Department of Information. Headed by the British civil servant and Zionist Albert Hyamson, the ‘Jewish Section’ worked to convince world Jewry of Britain’s profound support for Zionism.

This propaganda policy was based on mistaken assumptions about Jews, derived from influential anti-Semitic ideas and conceptions of race and nationalism. Figures like Balfour and Prime Minister Lloyd George thought that Jews possessed immense power, especially in the U.S. and Russia. They also believed that most Jews were Zionist. Both of these assumptions were incorrect. The upshot, however, was the Government conclusion that support for Zionism would be a great help to British interests in the war against Germany and its partners.

Certainly, some in the Government, such as Lloyd George, also thought that backing Zionism would help to justify post-war British control in strategically important Palestine. But even in this regard, the Prime Minister did not talk of creating a Jewish state.

As a piece of propaganda, the terminology of the Balfour Declaration was vague but suggestive. This made it entirely unsuited for what it eventually became: The basis for the text of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, approved in July 1922— the rental contract, if you will, for governing the Holy Land, by which the British had to abide if they wished to stay. The lack of definition could have been rectified. But the British Government did not seriously consider a precise endgame for Zionism and Palestine until the two-state solution idea of 1937, which was proposed following the beginning of the Arab rebellion; by which time the conflict was firmly entrenched.

An important reason why the British Government did not define in exact terms the goal of the Declaration before 1937 was because they actually planned to stay in Palestine for the foreseeable future. This policy was based on yet more miscalculations. From the time of World War I, up until late in the Mandate, key British policy-makers thought – wrongly - that mainstream Zionism was not a statist movement. They also judged that the Palestinians did not desire national independence, and would eventually accept Zionism.

As a result, when British forces arrived in Palestine in December 1917, senior policy-makers in London did not see a problem with promoting the idea of a new era of national freedom among both Jews and Arabs in the country. Using press (including the first incarnation of Haaretz - Hadashot Mi-Ha’aretz), public ceremony and other methods, the new administration strove to whip up Arab and Jewish support for British rule; they judged that the message of national rebirth was the best way to achieve this goal.

The ruling assumption was that Jews, and to a greater extent Arabs, were politically backward; they would not expect to obtain real political independence. The Jews would be happy, so the logic ran, with the development of the Zionist project but without statehood, while the Arabs would be satisfied with the revival of Arab nationalism outside of the Holy Land. Again, British policy-makers were wrong. The result was the unleashing of an expectation of statehood among Jews and Palestinians, and a war that is yet to end.

For this saga of miscalculation, the British Government should apologize; it is, though, highly unlikely they would view this course of action with any favor.

James Renton is Senior Lecturer in History at Edge Hill University, and author of The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He is currently writing a book on the idea of the Middle East, supported by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.)

A copy of the original Balfour Declaration at the Israel Museum.Credit: Uriel Cohen
One of the drafts of the Balfour Declaration.Credit: GPO

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