Balfour 100 years on: Salvation or betrayal?

In this UpFront special we debate the history and legacy of the Balfour Declaration 100 years after its writing.

“One nation, solemnly promised to a second nation, the country of a third.” That’s how one writer famously described the Balfour Declaration – the declaration by then-British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour, on November 2, 1917, that said, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. […]” 

One hundred years later, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues, with no sign of any sort of resolution. So, how central was the Balfour Declaration to later developments and what role did Britain play subsequently?

Should the declaration be celebrated as the first step towards the establishment of the state of Israel and self-determination for the Jewish people, or decried as an act of betrayal by the British, who had also promised Palestine to the Arabs? 

“The problem … with the Balfour Declaration is that whatever explanations we give, none of them justifies doing what was done in a country which was already inhabited,” says Ghada Karmi a British-Palestinian author and lecturer at Exeter University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic studies.

“That’s the fundamental flaw in the Balfour Declaration. That is the fundamental issue in this whole story. That you’re dealing with a country with an indigenous population. So, you cannot go and plant another people in such a country. It’s very simple,” he adds. 

“Yes, there were 700,000 Palestinian Arabs … but there were five and a half million desperate Jews who did not enjoy the citizenship rights of Western Europe,” says Martin Kramer an Israeli-American historian and founding president of Shalem College in Jerusalem. “If you say that Palestine is not their home, then what is their home? They are the eternal wanderers.” 

For British journalist and former Middle East editor of the Guardian, Ian Black, the opposing views of the Balfour Declaration are irreconcilable. 

“What’s fascinating about it is that those two views are completely irreconcilable, which is why people who support Israel, Israelis, Zionists, many Jews are celebrating, and most Palestinians are indeed mourning and protesting … And in a way, it’s an encapsulation of the deadlock at the heart of the continuing crisis,” says Black, who is also the author of a new book on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict since the Balfour declaration, Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017. 

In this UpFront special, we explore the centennial of the Balfour Declaration and discuss whether its legacy is one of salvation, injustice or betrayal. 

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