Balfour Declaration: An observance or a celebration?

Bakir Oweida

Published: Updated:

It seems that the Palestinian anger at the British government’s intention to commemorate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration led British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to make an attempt at conciliation through his article published in the Daily Telegraph last Monday, in which he called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. It is the same rhetoric of a two-state solution that politicians from various countries, especially in the West, have taken upon themselves to repeat since the signing of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, without making any serious effort toward implementing it.

When Palestinian officials began to express their anger a few months ago, I was puzzled by the reasons for that anger. I remembered that, like all of my peers, I had been keen since I was in Grade 1 at school to mark the ‘ominous declaration’ on November 2 of each year. The essays we wrote that day used to address the occasion and all speeches made by brilliant students on November 2 revolved around this subject. Street marches were held to denigrate the ‘declaration’ and the man behind it. So, I was wondering about the reasons for this new surge in Palestinian anger, until I finally realized the difference between the observance of a tragic event and celebration of it. On November 2, 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour of the British Government of David Lloyd, sent a letter to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, then leader of the Jewish community in Britain. The letter read:

“Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Arthur James Balfour”

In light of recent Palestinian statements and British reaction on this issue, there can be no room for confusion regarding the justification for Palestinian anger. There is a great difference between the observance of any occasion and its celebration. Was Mrs Theresa May obliged to address the 100th anniversary of that ‘declaration’ in a tone of British triumphalism? Of course not! Was inviting Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli prime ministers known for denying the rights of Palestinians, to a special dinner on the 7th of this month necessary? No it wasn’t! Indeed, any attempt by the British to give a festive appearance to the occasion is provocative, even in normal circumstances. However, at a time when the Middle East region is witnessing conflicts and wars, world capitals like London should have used sound judgment and wisdom over the issue.

There is no justification for any celebration. In fact, Britain should accept its mistakes in Palestine and try to make amends, not celebrate them

Bakir Oweida

More than that, it is not understandable what exactly the British Government wants to celebrate. Are we celebrating the fact that Britain itself betrayed the essence of that declaration when it opened the gates of Palestine to Jewish immigration and looked the other way when Jewish militias did not hesitate to kill British soldiers? Eventually, Britain gave up all the responsibilities of its Mandate by suddenly withdrawing from Palestine. With such a record, how can it celebrate the event?

There is no justification for any celebration. In fact, Britain should accept its mistakes in Palestine and try to make amends, not celebrate them. It is true that when a person dies, his body is buried or his ashes are scattered where he wants them to, but the person’s actions live forever. In fact, the Salaf emphasize that people are remembered by their actions alone. The fortunate are remembered and their memories cherished, while the wicked are cursed for their wrongdoings. The name of Arthur Balfour does not resonate with anything good. Will London finally offer something more substantive and not just an article in a newspaper to atone for this man’s crimes?

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.

Bakir Oweida is a journalist who has worked as Managing Editor, and written for several Arab publications based in London. His last executive post was Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, responsible for the Opinions section, until December 2003. He can be reached on bakir@hotmail.co.uk and bakir@darbakir.com

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.