The treacherous legacy of the Balfour Declaration

Lord Arthur Balfour. Editorial credit: irisphoto1

The Balfour Declaration is the epitome of the destructive and racist nature of British colonialism, writes Yasmeen Khan.

The 2nd November marks the 106th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. A declaration made by the British government at a time when the British Empire was facing a number of crises and was still at war with Germany and its allies.

The Declaration essentially gave Palestine to European Jews as a “national home for the Jewish people” in line with the demands of the Zionist Movement. Whilst superficially recognising that the rights of the Arab population should not be discarded, this Declaration was a huge blow to Palestinians and led to increased Jewish immigration to Palestine and worsening relations between the Jewish and Arab populations.

The Balfour Declaration is one of many declarations and deals made about the fate of the Middle East during that period.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement secretly broke up the then Ottoman-controlled Levant into countries under the control of the British or the French, and the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence made promises to the Sharif of Makkah to rule over much of the Middle East.

Carrying a symbolic key, a Palestinian woman marches in Ramallah on Nakba Day, commemorating the expulsion of refugees from Israel in 1948. Editorial credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler /

Whilst earlier promises and talks promised Palestine to Arabs, the Balfour Declaration then promised the land to Jews and the validity and wisdom of the Balfour Declaration is still questioned to this day by Palestinians and others.

The British (and other European) powers have a long and bloody history of carving up countries and continents, of drawing out fake borders and of divide and conquer tactics. The men that sanctioned the Balfour Declaration were actively involved in oppressing other groups across the world.

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Sir Alfred Milner, who is often thought of as the main author of the declaration, is the same man who stoked war in South Africa and helped carve up Africa to European powers during the Treaty of Versailles. And Arthur Balfour, who the declaration is named after, actively voted to stop Jewish immigration to Britain whilst Jews were fleeing persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as being involved in suppressing dissent in Ireland.

Despite the attempts to paint these men are “men of their times” or “patriots,” we can now see that they were in fact racist imperialists.

Dark legacy

It is important to recognise the dark legacy of the Balfour Declaration and equally important to ensure we don’t forget why it was made and how other declarations about or treaties with the colonised have further led to their oppression and suffering that continues until today.

The Balfour Declaration was made under the racist assumption that Arabs, Muslims and non-Europeans can be colonised and ruled over, and that they did not deserve the right to self- determination. It led to the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of people, to the creation of a refugee population now numbering over five million, and to a brutal occupation that continues to be supported and funded by European countries and the United States.

During my time working in the West Bank and even when I have visited Gaza or refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, I always come across someone who raises the Balfour Declaration when they realise there are British people present.

An excerpt from the Balfour Declaration. Editorial credit: Ben Gingell

Many times it is said in jest, but there is an underlying truth – that the British are seen as having caused Palestinian suffering and they have a responsibility to the Palestinians.

I have often joked back that being South Asian, I can’t be held to account and that we have our own grievances with British colonialism. In fact, I recently discovered that the infamous Sir Charles Tegart, who was responsible for violence against those fighting for Indian independence, was later stationed in Palestine where he built forts to protect Britain’s interests, quell Arab dissent and house military personnel. These structures still exist and were used by both Jewish militias in the build up to the Nakba.

From Native Americans, to Australian Aboriginals, from Palestine to India, there are broken treaties and discriminatory declarations that have been legally and morally adopted by colonisers to disenfranchise and oppress their colonial subjects with very little redress or recognition of the damage and injustice of such decisions.

Any attempt to “celebrate” the Balfour Declaration is a slap in the face of every Palestinian, but is also hugely insulting to all those that have dealt with and continue to deal with the impact of European colonialism.

We can now point out the fallacy of the “benevolent Empire,” and attempts to whitewash what was done in Palestine, and in so many other nations will no longer go unchallenged.

This article was first published on 5Pillars in 2017 and has been updated.

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