The Balfour Declaration was the prelude to violent settler colonialism in Palestine argues Alex Snowdon and explains why thousands will be protesting not celebrating.

Thousands of people will march through central London on 4th November, demanding justice for Palestine. The timing is significant: it will be just two days after the centenary of the Balfour Declaration which laid the basis for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

The demonstration will connect the past crimes of British foreign policy with the current realities facing Palestinians, condemning the ongoing British complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians at the same time as drawing attention to its origins.

The Tory establishment wishes to celebrate the centenary. Disappointingly, Labour – despite being led by Jeremy Corbyn, longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause – is acquiescing in that approach. Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, is reportedly attending an official celebratory event. Such celebrations deliberately obscure what happened a century ago – and what followed.

Understanding the Balfour Declaration and its legacy is crucial to making sense of Israel’s violent settler-colonialism today. It is a particular duty in this country, as it reminds us that Israeli apartheid’s genesis is in so small part to be located in London.

Arthur James Balfour, Tory foreign secretary in a Liberal-led coalition government, signed a short letter on 2 November 1917, pledging British support for the project of Zionist colonisation in historic Palestine. It referred to the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. Three decades later, this ‘national home’ would be established through the forced dispossession of the Palestinians who already lived there. Such a state could only be founded on the back of violent displacement – as Balfour well knew.

Balfour and his colleagues were no friends of the Jewish people, who were victims of racist discrimination and demonisation through much of Europe (Britain included). In 1905 Balfour had – as Prime Minister – been responsible for legislation that sought to stop Jews fleeing persecution in Russia from coming to Britain. The 1917 declaration was an expression of British colonial interests.

The official centenary celebrations are unlikely to mention that opposition to the declaration came from the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet. Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, declared that the majority of British Jews were opposed to Zionism. He was right: it was then a minority current. His main concern was that a separate Jewish homeland gave legitimacy to the then widespread anti-Semitic notion that Jews were not welcome in Europe.

In 1917 the dominant figures in the British political establishment viewed Zionist aspirations sympathetically because they fitted British imperial concerns. As Bernard Regan, author of a new book on the Balfour Declaration, puts it: ‘Three factors drove British thinking in the middle of World War One: a desire to control the Suez Canal, the maintenance of communications with India and their east African colonies, and a wish to establish a base in the Near East to secure their access to oil’.

Balfour’s declaration betrayed contempt for the indigenous Palestinians, who then formed 86% of Palestine’s population. The Declaration was notable for pledging that they would have ‘civil and religious rights’ but with no mention of political rights. The implication was clearly that Palestinians would be subordinated to Jewish settlers in their own land. In reality, of course, the establishment of a Jewish state would only be possible via ethnic cleansing and mass dispossession.

During the years of the British Mandate following the end of World War One, British authorities oversaw increased Jewish settlement while brutally suppressing Palestinian resistance, especially during the period of mass revolt and strike waves between 1936 and 1939. This laid the ground for the establishment of Israel through the Nakba – catastrophe – of 1947-48, when Zionist terror drove Palestinians from their land.

The drive to colonise, to expand, to steal land by violent means and subjugate or expel the people it is stolen from, is built into the Israeli state at its foundations. The Balfour Declaration was the prelude to that. The violent colonialism continues to this day, with tacit British approval.

This is a big part of why many of us will march for justice for Palestine. But it is also because the Palestinians themselves have never stopped resisting. We draw inspiration from that long struggle and recommit to helping it succeed.


Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.‚Äč He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).