The land of Lord Balfour hosted a rare but much needed conference on his infamous 1917 declaration. The event was convened by the appropriately named organisation, the Palestine Return Centre (PRC) on the 19th January 2013 in London. The aim of the meeting was to inaugurate a campaign for British “mistakes” and to “make reparations to Palestinians who endured human rights abuses at British hands.”
It is rare because not only is the ‘Balfour Declaration’ and its brutal ramifications greatly understudied but the entire period of British total military and political dominance of the Middle East between 1917 and 1948 is more or less whitewashed from contemporary discussion. Yet, if we are to fully understand today’s Middle East there is probably no more an important period than this.
The declaration let it be known Britain’s “view with favour” the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine and its commitment to use “best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this objective.”
It is only natural the speakers at the conference presented their points of view on the Balfour Declaration based around their research interests. Dr. Steven Sizer’s paper was very interesting on the theological and ideological roots of the declaration. He provided the attendees with a sterling and informative introduction to nineteenth century Christian reformation thought. According to Sizer it is within this context that we need to mainly understand the British advocacy for the restoration of Jews in Palestine.
Only, in passing did Sizer insinuate on why British imperialism actually decided to issue the Balfour Declaration. He mentioned that Napoleon in the early nineteenth century had designs on the British imperialism’s main possession, India and thought the best way to attempt to wrestle this prize from the British was to establish a route through Palestine into India.
What was lacking in Sizer’s paper was the then (1917) strategic significance of the Suez Canal to the British Empire’s interests. At the turn of the twentieth century 80% of the shipping going through the Canal belonged to the Empire. The Canal had reduced the travelling period from India to the British Isles from three months to a month. It is not surprising that one British imperialist referred to the canal as the “jugular vein of the British Empire.”
What motivated the publication of Lord Balfour’s declaration was security for the Suez Canal. This can be easily discerned from reading the editorials in C.P.Scott’s Guardian newspaper and the New Statesman weekly political magazine. The British rightly thought that the indigenous Arabs of the region did not want to be occupied by them and therefore the Zionists who had been advocating for a homeland as a remedy to European anti-semitic pogroms were at hand to fulfil the role as the potential praetorian guard of the Suez Canal.
There was a congruence of British and Zionist interests. Security of the canal was the prime motivator for British Imperialism and therefore the Balfour Declaration. The Zionist were nothing but a tool to safeguard the Empire’s strategic and military interests and they could have easily been ignored if this interest had not existed.
Other speakers presented interesting papers but my focus here is commenting on two further points raised at conference that need to be clarified.
Nasim Ahmed, the conference chair, mentioned in his introductory remarks that the Balfour Declaration committed itself and placed the fifty to sixty thousand Jews already in Palestine on an equal footing with 700,000 indigenous Palestinians. It prioritised this minority rather than the 95% majority. This is not quite correct. The Balfour Declaration was addressed to the Zionist in Europe not to the Jews who were already in Palestine at this time, who some indeed where indigenous to the land. Not many people know how many of the Jews in Palestine in 1917 were also Zionists.
Secondly, Dr. Ghada Karmi in her presentation seemed to imply that the Peel report’s conclusions issued in 1939 advocating partition was a result of Germany’s persecution of Jews in the 1930’s when in fact it was a response to the Palestinian uprising of 1936. The reasons behind the launch of the enquiry that led to the report’s findings is the denial of democracy to Palestinians as were spelt out by the British colonial secretary William Ormsby-Gore in parliament,
“…The Arabs demand a complete stoppage of all Jewish immigration, a complete stoppage of all sales of land, and the transfer of the Government of Palestine…to what they call a National Government responsible to an elected democratic assembly. Those are their three demands, and quite frankly, those demands cannot possibly be conceded.”1
The British call to partition Palestine in the Peel report in the late 1930’s is firmly rooted in Britain’s denial of democracy and military subjugation of Palestinians. Indeed, this is how “best endeavours to facilitate the achievement” of a Jewish national home as espoused by the Balfour Declaration finally manifested itself.
It was not mentioned at the conference that it was during this uprising that the British taught and trained the Hagana (Zionist paramilitary force) everything it knew about crushing Palestinian resistance to the Balfour Declaration. Maybe it was beyond the remit of this conference to do so.
Having said this, it is indisputable, as Dr. Karmi argued, that there was an amalgam of reasons behind the issue of the declaration. Winston Churchill outlined some of these reasons, which included allusions to anti-semitic discourse. But chief amongst these reasons were the interests of the Empire.
However, it was pointed out that Britain is complicit in the current Palestinian predicament by virtue of its past role and it is for this reason that Britain should apologise to Palestinians. But the unvarnished historical facts are that the British were the principal state power behind the implementation of the Balfour Declaration. It was they who issued it; it was they, that denied democracy to the Palestinians between 1917 and 1939; it was they, that then crushed the Palestinian uprising when democracy was denied; it was they, that trained up the Zionist forces in the inter-war period and it was they, that then watched by as 400,000 Palestinians and 225 towns and villages were ethnically cleansed during the Mandate period which ended in May 1948. Eventually, the Zionist continued to ethnically cleanse Palestine after this date leading to a total of 700,000 Palestinians and over 400 towns and villages ethnically cleansed by the end of the year. In other words, Napoleon’s geo-political nineteenth century ambitions are not an issue or a factor in the morally watertight call for retribution from the British.
More so, it needs to be emphasised that to argue the British were “complicit” is a cruel understatement of what actually took hold of Palestine between 1917 and 1948 and what is required is far more than an apology.