The Legacy of Balfour: 100 years since the Declaration

This piece was originally published by MCC Palestine, November 2, 2017.

“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, it being clearly understood 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.”[1]

Today, November 2, 2017, marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration. For many observers of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, this declaration by the British government is ground zero. Issued towards the end of the First World War, the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour promised to support the establishment of a “national home” for the Jewish people in the land of Palestine. The Zionists, who sought such a homeland for the Jews, hailed this as a major victory. On the other hand, the declaration would spell catastrophe for the native inhabitants of Palestine.

At the time of the Balfour Declaration, “more than 600,000 Arabs and a good 55,000 Jews were living in Palestine, so more than 90% were Arabs.”[2] Increased Jewish immigration, facilitated by the British, led these demographics to shift towards the time of the infamous United Nations partition plan in 1947, which gave over 50% of the land to Jews who comprised only a third of the population of Historic Palestine.[3] Following the adoption of the resolution, armed conflict in Palestine erupted. As the State of Israel was established in 1948, Jewish militias carried out expulsion campaigns that displaced between 700,000 and 900,000 native Palestinians from their homes and lands. Palestinians call this time in their history “the Nakba,” which translates into English as “the Catastrophe.”

Violette Khoury, a Palestinian Christian woman who helps run the Nazareth chapter of Sabeel, an MCC partner organization, talks about what it is like to be a dispossessed people. She explains that the common Zionist expression of Palestine being “a land without a people for a people without a land,” is simply not true. “There is denial of us being a people and having a heritage,” she exclaims, “But we do exist; we have roots; we are here!” The Balfour Declaration was a denial of the Palestinians and their existence on the land. The declaration was “one nation solemnly promising to a second nation the country of the third.”[4]

Violette Khoury

Violette Khoury shows traditional Palestinian embroidery to MCC visitors from Canada. Khoury is the director of Sabeel Nazareth, the Nazareth office of Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, an MCC partner that provides a theological and spiritual resource for the Palestinian church. Violette leads a program that brings together local people, particularly women, of different faith traditions, to share and preserve their common Palestinian heritage with activities like embroidery. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler)

We must never forget that Zionism is a response to rampant European-Christian anti-Semitism, the greatest expression of which was the Holocaust where about 6 million European Jews perished. To deny the ugly history of anti-Jewish sentiment is a moral wrong deserving of profound repentance. However, to deny the suffering and dispossession of the Palestinian people, starting with the Balfour Declaration a hundred years ago, is also morally reprehensible. We must acknowledge both, holding them together at the same time. At this very moment, Palestinians are being forced off of their lands, their houses are being demolished, and their children are being sent to prisons. The displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people continues a hundred years on from the Balfour Declaration. What will we do about it?

As Violette so powerful puts it: “When you discover the truth you cannot remain indifferent.”

So what will we do with the truth?

[1] Zochrot, The Nakba: Flight and Expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Salman H. Abu Sitta, Atlas of Palestine 1948, Palestine Land Society, London, 2004, p. 1 (quoting Arthur Koestler, Promise and Fulfilment: Palestine 1917-1949) as seen in Zochrot, The Nakba: Flight and Expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948

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