Year zero: Palestinians and the Balfour Declaration

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.  The senior editor of  The Tower Magazine and, Cohen is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism.”


For the Palestinians, the year zero is not 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, but 1917, when Great Britain issued, in the November of that year, the Balfour Declaration—expressing support for the establishment of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine.

So central is the Balfour Declaration to Palestinian political identity that the “Zionist invasion” is officially deemed to have begun in 1917—not in 1882, when the first trickle of Jewish pioneers from Russia began arriving, nor in 1897, when the Zionist movement held its first congress in Basel, nor in the late 1920s, when thousands of German Jews fleeing the rise of Nazism chose to go to Palestine.

The year 1917 is the critical date because that is when, as an anti-Zionist might say, the Zionist hand slipped effortlessly into the British imperial glove. It is a neat, simple historical proposition upon which the entire Palestinian version of events rests: an empire came to our land and gave it to foreigners, we were dispossessed, and for five generations now, we have continued to resist. Moreover, it is given official sanction in the Palestine National Covenant of 1968, in which article 6 defines Jews who “were living permanently in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion” as “Palestinians”—an invasion that is dated as 1917 in the covenants’ notes.

As the Balfour Declaration’s centenary approaches on Nov. 2, this theme is much in evidence. There is now a dedicated Balfour Apology Campaign in the U.K., seeking both British government contrition and British taxpayer-funded reparations for the supposed handing of Palestine, in the words of one British Mandate-era Arab organization, into “the claws of the Jews.” In an interview with Ian Black of The Guardian, the prominent Palestinian academic Hanan Ashrawi positioned all of this as classic orientalist scheming, chiding Balfour for his “so patronizing, so racist” indifference to the Arab population of Palestine. Here, again, we see the broader discursive pattern: “white” settlers, visible to and cherished by their colonial masters, “black” natives, demeaned and ignored by the very same.

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Ashrawi is not entirely wrong, insofar as Balfour did not pay much heed to Arab objections. Walter Laqueur, in his indispensable “History of Zionism,” quotes Balfour as saying that whatever one’s view of Zionism, its ultimate goal “was of far profounder import than the desires of 700,000 Arabs.” Neither did Balfour apparently think much of the ability of Palestine’s Arabs to overcome the maximalism of their leaders, writing in 1919 that—as Laqueur puts it—“he did not think Zionism would hurt the Arabs, but that of course they would never say they wanted it.”

Nor were they ever prepared to make peace with it. That is one reason why the elation that greeted the Balfour Declaration among Jews gradually faded over the next decade, as the Zionist halutzim (pioneers) realized that, when it came securing Jewish communities from Arab violence and winning British consent for further Jewish immigration, it was little more than a piece of paper. Balfour did not prevent serial outbreaks of violence and terror against Palestine’s Jews during the 1920s and 1930s. And when Britain decided to restrict, on the eve of the Holocaust, Jewish immigration to Palestine to just 75,000 individuals over five years—out of almost 10 million Jews in Europe—the 1939 White Paper outlining the new restrictions reasoned “that the framers of the Mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish State against the will of the Arab population of the country.”

You can even say that Britain ended up disowning the Balfour Declaration, going so far as to abstain during the Nov. 29, 1947 United Nations vote—on the 30th anniversary of the declaration—that legitimized the creation of a sovereign Jewish state. That none of this evidence moves those who advocate for British reparations to the Palestinians is largely explained by their overall take on the situation: the oppressed, with whom history ultimately sides, remain the indigenous Palestinians, and the oppressors, whose day of reckoning always beckons, are the British imperialists and their willing Jewish settler dupes. 

Perhaps the best way to understand the Balfour Declaration is to take it literally. What the British helped the Jews to create in Palestine during the mandate period fits with what one imagines a “national home” might look like; and it’s certainly not an independent state with sovereign control over its borders and its immigration policy. Indeed, while its borders were open, that national home may have felt like a state, as it saved Jewish lives and crystallized into a cohesive Jewish national society. But when these were abruptly closed, sending thousands of Jews back to their deaths in Europe, the national home was just one more British colony. Irrespective of the ongoing Palestinian circus, that’s something for Jews to mull over as we reflect on our place in the world 100 years after Balfour.