The Balfour Declaration at 100

AHA Session 280
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 4C (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Laura C. Robson, Portland State University
Michelle Campos, University of Florida
James L Gelvin, University of California, Los Angeles
Laura C. Robson, Portland State University
Jonathan Schneer, Georgia Tech
Eric D. Weitz, City College of New York

Session Abstract

In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour signed a letter to the Zionist activist Walter Rothschild affirming official British support for the creation of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. This vaguely worded but broad-ranging commitment was formally incorporated, three years later, into the text awarding Britain mandatory authority over Palestine under the aegis of the League of Nations, enshrining the promotion and protection of mass European Jewish settlement in Palestine in international law. The Balfour Declaration is now considered one of the founding documents of the Arab-Israeli conflict that is currently entering its second century.

This roundtable brings together historians of the Middle East, Europe and the British Empire. It takes the opportunity of the Balfour Declaration’s hundredth anniversary to reconsider its genesis, content, and import. It seeks to examine how the Balfour Declaration reflected and shaped the emergence of a new post-WWI global and regional order. During the war itself, the Allied powers entered into a number of conflicting agreements over the post-war disposition of Ottoman territory. These agreements sought to establish a post-Ottoman regional order in which British and French imperial authority would extend across the Eastern Mediterranean. In this context the expression of British support for the Zionist settler colonial project appeared primarily as a mode of buttressing British authority in Palestine, while also potentially rallying Jewish support for the Allied war effort in the immediate term. At the same time Arab activists throughout Greater Syria were considering a range of possibilities for a post-Ottoman political future, none of which included subjugation under a new form of European colonial rule or the general acceptance of mass European Jewish immigration with a view to eventual Jewish sovereignty.

This imperial vision for Palestine met with other obstacles at the peace talks, where Woodrow Wilson among others advocated for an international language of national self-determination that challenged imperial political formulations – both by condemning the imposition of colonial rule by force and by positing ethno-national homogeneity as a desirable and even necessary condition of modern statehood. The peace agreements constructed a rickety new state order designed to protect Western European imperial interests and encourage ethno-national state-building in Eastern Europe and the ex-Ottoman territories through an uneasy blend of border-drawing, population “exchange” (mass deportation), and minority protection.

The integration of the Balfour Declaration into the mandate for Palestine reflected the emergence of an argument for Jewish national settlement in Palestine as a manifestation of minority rights – one of the major raisons d’être of the new League of Nations. Its formalization in international law served simultaneously to advance British imperial interests in the Middle East via a client settler colonial presence; to justify and legitimize League mandatory oversight; and to promote ethno-national self-determination and minority rights as (notional) markers of the emerging modern state system. The Balfour Declaration thus both reflected and shaped the uneasy coalition of imperialist, nationalist, and internationalist interests comprising the post-war “Paris system,” whose repercussions continue to reverberate across the Middle East a hundred years on.

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