by Juliette Mareste
and Joseph S
On November 2, 1917, 100 years ago, the Foreign Secretary Sir Arthur Balfour gave his name to a Declaration by the British Government whose implications have changed the course of history in the Middle East. A blessing for the Zionist movement - and the beginning of the catastrophe for the Arab population in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration included the aim to establish “a national home for the Jewish People” in the geographical region of Palestine. A product of war, international interest and the fulfillment of the left-over political vacuum the fall of the Ottoman Empire would create, this statement concerning a Jewish national home had been written by Sir Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary, in a letter to a famous member of the Jewish community in Britain, Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild.
The League of Nations Mandate following the declaration in 1920 incorporated elements of colonialism and paternalistic thought – a system to “train” and transfer power to the local people was an idea established by the victors of the First World War to control the territories of the defeated countries, which included the Ottoman Empire. The special case of Palestine however created a dilemma and showed the inability of British policy-makers to compromise interests, the demands by the Jewish communities, which constituted about 10 % of the total population in Palestine at that time, and their relations in the Arab world. Beginning in 1922, the Jewish population increased through facilitated immigration and was at nearly 27% in 1935 (with a break after the first Arab revolt in 1936).
To mark that memorable moment, the Educational Bookshop in cooperation with the Kenyon Institute and the British Council organized the conference “Balfour and Beyond”, which was held in the El Hakawati Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem on November 2, 2017. Numerous guest speakers voiced their analysis of the Balfour Declaration and its implications, among them Israeli “New Historian” Prof. Avi Shlaim and Palestinian writer and peace activist Raja Shehadeh. The question of commemorating the event in the light of contemporary politics hovered over the historical debate - which was filled with detailed new findings from that time period, but remained within an academic and non-political approach to the consequences of the Declaration.
British Imperialism and Anti-Semitism
Professor Avi Shlaïm made a presentation at the event. (Photo: Joseph S)
Prof. Shlaïm opened the event with a 45 minute speech, recounting the history of British colonialism in Palestine and the consequences derived from it on the present situation. The theater was almost totally full of people who came to listen to the noted Oxford professor. During his talk he declared that “Balfour was morally wrong, which means it was also politically not right. It was a crime against the Palestinians and a political mistake for the UK.” He clearly explained that the UK did not have the right to make any promise about a land it did not own. Also, Shlaïm had an interesting perspective when describing the Balfour Declaration as partly anti-Semitic. “I’ll put forward an imperialist interpretation of the British mind, plus an element of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism and pro-Zionism, sometimes, go hand in hand together”, he stated.
The majority of the guest speakers participating in the two panel discussions about different aspects of the Balfour Declaration came from an academic environment. History scholars from Palestinian, British, Irish and American universities presented their arguments, which varied from a mere class-like Power Point presentation to passionate speeches. Topics included Britain’s original motivation to submit the Declaration to the famous “Who’s fault is it anyway?” A consensus about British responsibility seemed present throughout the conference, although the academic approach supported this position with a set of arguments, like those of Dr. Roberto Mazza, a professor at the University of Limerick, Ireland. For him, three factors influenced the outcome of the Declaration: wartime necessity for the British government, Zionist influence on British policy makers, and Christian religious beliefs.
Palestinian Identity and British Guilt
Speakers at a panel: (l to r) Remma Hammami, Salim Tamari, Roberto Mazza, Steven Wagner
Rana Barakat, a history professor at Birzeit University, shed light on the Palestinian understanding of the Balfour Declaration’s early implications. The myth spread in the common writing of history often presents the Palestinians as ignorant about the implications of the Balfour Declaration on them. In her opinion, this lack of representation has devastating effects on Palestinian identity - the Declaration itself states “non-Jewish communities” instead of naming them properly. When looking at newspapers after 1917, one supposedly sees how early rejection in the form of protests had been articulated against British colonization and Zionist settlement, Barakat stated. The question of defining Palestinian history was addressed several times during the conference - as well as the question of British guilt. In the end of the last round-table, led by Shehadeh, acknowledgments went out to the organizers of the conference: “Thank you to our incriminators, the British Council.”
Laughter in the audience indicated a relief of tension after four hours of intense debating and hard facts on screen.
Mahmoud Muna, the owner of the Educational Bookshop who was one of the main organizers of the event, invited Prof. Avi Shlaïm to give his point of view as the “most authoritative voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” in the light of this anniversary. The impact of that special anniversary remains crucial to him, as it does for most audience members who spoke during the conference. But his hopes are high that they will not have “to mark it every year, because it is a sad commemoration. Yet we are committed to educate people - This is our job as an educational bookshop.”