Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which will be noted with anguish by Palestinians and quiet celebration by Israelis. Nov. 2, 1917 was a major turning point for the Middle East, when the then-British foreign secretary expressed in writing his government’s support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. While, a century later, Arab politics and international relations focus on many other challenges, the cause of Palestine retains a gravitational pull for many Arabs, including younger generations. Thoughtful Israelis and Palestinians are still debating how to correct the imbalance between Israel’s success and the Palestinians’ failed attempts at nationhood.
This week’s anniversary of the letter sent by then-British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, one of the leaders of the British Jewish community, has prompted a quick review of the history of what many see as a critical juncture in the Zionist plan for statehood. The short declaration—just a single, 67-word sentence—was issued during the end of World War I, when British diplomats were working simultaneously on sustaining alliances for the conduct of the war and its military and economic requirements, planning for the war’s end, and envisioning the impact of the war’s outcomes for their empire. Britain was coordinating with various Arab entities to defeat the Ottoman Empire, while scheming with the French about the distribution of spoils in the vital Middle East after the war. The British Mandate for Palestine, part of that postwar, colonial carve-up of the region, was still three years away.
The letter was a political commitment by Britain’s chief diplomat, who was part of a group of British figures sympathetic to the Jewish cause. Like in the U.S. Foreign Service, there were probably larger numbers of colleagues who viewed the Arab world as the more important partner, and who regretted the government’s early endorsement of a Jewish state, before knowing what exactly that entailed. Balfour’s letter endorsed the establishment of a Jewish state, but also carefully noted “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”