The 100-year-old letter that still divides the Middle East

Ishaan Tharoor writes: In a year brimming with profoundly symbolic centennials, Thursday marks perhaps the most politically fraught one. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will appear in London alongside his British counterpart, Theresa May, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a 67-word missive from Britain’s then-foreign secretary expressing his government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Nov. 2, 1917, public letter was written by Lord Arthur Balfour to Baron Walter Rothschild, the head of the British wing of the influential European Jewish banking family. Balfour articulated the British desire for the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” and promised that his government would “facilitate the achievement of this object.” It would take three further decades — and a great deal more politicking and bloodshed — before Israel declared independence in 1948.

But the Balfour Declaration is held up as a seminal event, the first formal utterance of the modern Israeli state’s right to exist (though some historians quibble that a “national home” is not the same thing as a state). For that reason, it is also bitterly regarded by many Palestinians as the first instrument of their dispossession. In 1917, Jews made up less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population — a century later, they are now the majority, while millions of Palestinians live in exile or in refugee camps. Protests are planned in the Palestinian territories to mark the centennial. [Continue reading…]

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