Lessons for Diplomats from the Balfour Declaration

Daniel Taub explores the more human aspects of the negotiations and dealings that lead up to the Balfour Declaration, as well as all the facts and motivations of today’s Zionism and its supporters.

Prepare for war over the Balfour Declaration

As the centenary of the pivotal “Balfour Declaration” looms in 2017, a new group wants Britain to apologise for making it

November 2017 marks 100 years since the famous “Balfour Declaration” was made in a letter to the British Jewish community, including the famous words, “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”.

The letter started a chain of events that led, by no means smoothly, to the eventual formation of the modern state of Israel. With the advent in recent years of campaigns such as BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions), an essentially anti-Israel movement, Sabeel (Palestinian “Liberation Theology”), and a plethora of other anti-Israel organisations and groups, attempts to attribute the blame for today’s conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs have delved back into history long before 1948.

Now has arisen a group that wants Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration ever having been made. The Balfour Project claims that Britain deceived both Jews and Arabs in making the 1917 declaration in favour of a “Jewish national home” in what was then Palestine.

The Project attempts to dissect the convolutions of behind-the-scenes talks that went on during World War One, as Britain sought to undermine Turkish rule in the Middle East. By negotiating with both Jews and Arabs over the destiny of vast swathes of Ottoman territory, Britain hoped to create a friendly “bridge” between her African and Indian territories that would enable profitable trade (and Middle Eastern oil) to be cheaper through overland channels instead of the existing laborious sea routes.

So far so normal in imperial diplomacy. In attempts, however, to ensure Britain and France got the best deals from everyone involved, three sets of agreements made with interested parties collided in confusion at the close of the war. In simple terms, the McMahon/Hussein correspondence (1915) sought to buy the allegiance of the powerful Sharif of Mecca and his clan with offers of territory and power; the Sykes-Picot agreement (1917) sought to carve up part of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France; and the Balfour Declaration (1917) sought to create a pro-British bloc in Palestine. Unfortunately, the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up territory that had already been promised to the Arabs under the McMahon correspondence.

Contrary to the claims of The Balfour Project, the area that is now Israel was under some dispute. Britain wanted to keep a coastal strip on the Mediterranean under her control, while Sharif Hussein wanted control over much of the same area. At no point was the area around Jerusalem and southwards promised to the Arabs.

It is therefore deceptive to accuse Britain of breaking a promise over an area that it had not promised at all. In fact, Hussein’s son Faisal agreed to abandon his father’s claims on Palestine when he was given Iraq to rule. Under the Sykes-Picot agreement also, most of today’s Israel was to be an international zone – again, not promised to the Arabs.

The eventual compromise gave Iraq to the Sharif’s son Faisal, Trans-Jordan to his other son Abdullah, and Lebanon and Syria to the French. The Zionists were left with the slip of land west of the Jordan River that we know today as Israel. Lebanon and Syria became the French Mandate and Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) became the British Mandate. It is vital to recognise that the promises made to both Jews and Arabs were at least partly, if not mostly, fulfilled through the compromise arrangements.

The Balfour Project makes use of several revisionist articles to claim that Britain needs to apologise to both Jews and Arabs for its historical “balagan” (Arab for a proper foul-up), but betrays itself as another attempt at delegitimisation by its own strap-line: “Contributing to justice, peace and reconciliation in the Middle East”. As soon as you see the words “justice”, “peace”, “reconciliation” and “Middle East” in the same sentence, you know you are facing another attempt to denigrate and delegitimise the state of Israel.

The Balfour Project has already started holding meetings around the UK and while, to their credit, their meeting in Winchester included speakers opposed to the aims of the Project, most of the speakers and writers involved are also heavily connected to the BDS and delegitimisation movements, including Rev Stephen Sizer, Prof Ilan Pappe and others.

The Balfour Project aims to make sufficient impact in Britain that the Government will be forced into an apology for the Balfour Declaration on its centenary in 2017. This apology is not needed, will not contribute to peace or justice, and will not diminish the depth of feelings for and against Israel.

The Balfour Project claims it does not deny the right of Israel to exist, but Rabbi Dan Cohen-Sherbok threw a spanner in the works in his speech at the Project’s meeting in Winchester by pointing out that if the Balfour Declaration should not have been made then does that mean that the Jews should not have been offered a homeland and that Israel should not exist today?

Oops, back to the drawing board!


Balfour Declaration Anniversary Erases Jewish Connection to Holy Land

November 2, 2015 was the 98th anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the letter that committed the British government of the time to the idea of establishing a Jewish home in Palestine / Eretz Yisrael.

That Palestinians in Gaza marked the anniversary by burning British, Israeli and U.S. flags is not surprising but was covered by the Daily Mail.

The history of the Middle East can be baffling to the uninformed reader, particularly if the subject matter dates back to the early 1900’s and still resonates even today. That’s why the Daily Mail has a responsibility to ensure that the historical background is presented in context.

Instead, we read this:

The Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration

In a letter dated November 2, 1917, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote to Walter Rothschild, the second Baron Rothschild and a leader of the British Jewish community.


Balfour promised Rothschild ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ in the heart of Palestine.


He further promised that ‘His Majesty’s government…will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’.


He made the agreement on the condition 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’.


But Balfour gave no further instructions as to how the contradictory instructions – to establish a Jewish state in Palestine without prejudicing the Palestinian communities already there – were to be carried out, in the surprisingly brief document.


The Palestinians are furious that their land has technically been promised to the Jewish people, causing increased tension in the religious city of Jerusalem – revered in both religions.

It’s hardly surprising that the myth of an existing historical Palestinian state that was ‘colonized’ by European Jews continues to circulate if this is the sort of lazy historical background being fed to media consumers.

  • Nowhere in the article does it mention that Palestine, as it was known as then, was a part of the Ottoman Empire and there had never existed an independent Palestinian state.
  • Nowhere in the article does it mention that indigenous Jewish communities had lived in the Land of Israel going back over 3,000 years and there existed a continuous and uninterrupted Jewish religious and national connection to that land.
  • The article mistakenly writes that the Balfour Declaration gave instructions “to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.” In fact, the Declaration supported a Jewish homeland, and not necessarily a state. The Balfour Declaration was but one step on the way to the fulfillment of the Zionist program of restoring Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish people’s ancient homeland.
  • Indeed, to talk of Palestinians in those days referred to both Jewish and Arab residents of the land. When the Daily Mail refers to “without prejudicing the Palestinian communities already there,” it is not clearly stating just who those communities are, instead working on the presumption that Palestinian communities were Palestinian Arabs.
  • This is compounded by the statement that “The Palestinians are furious that their land has technically been promised to the Jewish people.” In 1917 at the time of the Balfour Declaration, there was no national Palestinian identity – the non-Jewish residents of the land considered themselves to be part of the wider Arab nation and Arab nationalists sought an independent Arab state not in Palestine per se but as part of the Ottoman Arab Middle East as a whole.
  • So it was not at that time “their land” that the Palestinians are allegedly furious that it had been promised to the Jewish people.

By missing out any historical context, the Daily Mail has erased legitimate Jewish rights that existed even before the Balfour Declaration and has constructed a Palestinian national identity that did not exist in 1917. (Note: this does not mean that a Palestinian identity did not emerge in later years.)

Read more about Pre-State Israel, particularly during the World War One period, in the Jewish Virtual Library and the Balfour Declaration itself, here.