Britain’s ‘calamitous promise’, 100 years on

Holy Land: At the time of the declaration, only 10% of the population of Palestine were Jews.

Was the UK right to support the creation of Israel? This week is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which declared British support for a "national home for the Jewish people".

Today a controversial banquet will take place at an opulent house near Buckingham Palace, London. Security will be extra-tight.

It will mark 100 years since the signing of the Balfour Declaration — a promise by the British government in 1917 to “view with favour” a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. Theresa May will be in attendance, as will the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Balfour Declaration was contained in a letter by Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary and Britain’s prime minister from 1902 until 1905, to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of Britain’s Jewish community. It was the first such commitment by a global power.

The declaration of one sentence and 67 words combined “considerations of imperial planning, wartime propaganda, biblical resonances and a colonial mindset”, as Ian Black writes in The Guardian. Controversially, it also included the qualification that the “civil and religious rights” of Palestine’s “existing non-Jewish communities” should not be compromised.

Zionism — the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land — originated in late 19th century Europe in reaction to nationalist and often anti-Semitic movements.

From the end of the first world war, when the Treaty of Versailles gave Britain control of Palestine, Jews gradually started moving to the area. But it was not until 1948, after the horror of the Holocaust which fuelled wider support for Zionism, that the State of Israel was finally established.

That, of course, was hardly the end of the story. In the subsequent 69 years Israel has slowly expanded into more Palestinian territory, and the situation has forever ranged from low-level insurrections to all out war with Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbours.

For its detractors Israel is a country founded in original sin, based on segregation. For its many supporters, it is a beacon of freedom and democracy in a perilous region. With the anniversary of the Balfour declaration, Britain is now reflecting on its role in the state’s creation. Was it the right move?

The promised land

“In the seven decades since its birth, Israel has prevailed over the bitter hostility of neighbours to become a liberal democracy,” writes Boris Johnson in The Telegraph. Israel, like every country, has its faults, but the creation of a Jewish state was a noble, necessary enterprise. Britain should be proud of its role.

But speaking in the House of Lords, Lord Warner said that Britain had failed to protect the rights of non-Jewish people in the region and should apologise. This utopian declaration flatly disregarded the wishes of those then living in the region, and has caused untold suffering ever since it was signed.

You Decide

  1. Was Britain right to sign the Balfour declaration?
  2. “Israel is a European colony.” Do you agree with this statement?


  1. Arthur Balfour is one of the least known British prime ministers of the 20th century. In one minute, name as many other former British PMs as you can.
  2. Produce a map of the Israel-Palestine region. Annotate it with key facts about the history and expansion of Israel.

Some People Say...

“There will never be a solution to the Israel-Palestine problem.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Thursday marks exactly 100 years since Arthur Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary, agreed on behalf of the British government to support the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people”. We know that Britain governed what is now the State of Israel after the first world war and, along with the United States, was the most important country in setting up the Jewish state.
What do we not know?
Whether any solution to the Israel-Palestine problem can be found. Most politicians and diplomats around the world now agree that a “two state solution” is ideal, but as some factions on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides demand total control of all disputed territory, many believe this is unlikely to happen.

Word Watch

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader who has long been a critic of Israel and a supporter of the Palestinian cause, turned down an invitation to the banquet.
Arthur Balfour
Balfour’s reputation as prime minister is that of a detached, philosophical aristocrat who did not understand the changes taking place around him. His attitude is epitomised by a remark attributed to him: "Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all."
One of the most famous families in the world, the Rothschilds rose to fame when Mayer Amschel Rothschild established a banking business in Frankfurt in the 1760s. Through his five sons, the Rothschilds established themselves in cities all over Western Europe.
“Zion” refers to Jerusalem. As well as promoting a Jewish homeland, the early Zionists were also key to reviving the Hebrew language.
Treaty of Versailles
Signed almost exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Treaty of Versailles required "Germany to accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage."


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