‘It being clearly understood…’: What the Balfour Declaration tells us about Israel

Middle East
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Few documents as brief as the Balfour Declaration have had as devastating an impact as this historical document.  I do not want to minimize the European colonization of the Americas, an utterly ravaging catastrophe for the Indigenous peoples of these continents.  Nor would I suggest that the Palestinian Nakba is unique in its scope, rather than one more manifestation of the evils of settler-colonialism.  Indeed, I believe that seeing the connections between al-Nakba and other imperial ventures is an essential tool for our analysis of decolonization.  What I do want to examine is the cursory nature of the wording of that infamous “declaration,” the clumsy tip-toeing around the twentieth-century awareness that the dispossession of the Palestinian people may be anachronistic.  For why else would an imperial power, Great Britain, note that while it is favorable to the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, it also wants to caution against harming “the existing non-Jewish communities?”  Britain had never expressed such concerns about the other lands it had colonized, from the Indian sub-continent to Australia, Africa and North America.   Of course, one could comment on the fact that referring to the predominantly Muslim and Christian Palestinians, who in 1917 made up over 90 percent of the people, as “non-Jewish communities” is cavalier, but what is British imperialism if not cavalier, right?

Sixty-seven words.  That is the full extent of the “Balfour Declaration,” cited below.  Even couched within the official letter formatting, with the place, date, addressee, and closing sentence, the “Declaration” is just over 100 words.

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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.”

Some momentous events require few words.  Yet what is interesting, in that brief memo, is the British acknowledgement that Palestine, named and referenced directly, is a recognizable political entity:  not trans-Jordan, nor Golda Meir’s flippant “Southern Syria,” her 1969 reference to where the Palestinian refugees came from.  Additionally, there is a recognition that the Palestinian people had civil and religious rights, which may be prejudiced by the creation of a “national home” for another people, namely the “Jewish Zionists” whose aspirations Britain was responding to.

None of the cautiousness around the rights of the “existing communities” should detract from the fact that the Zionist vision, from its very inception, was one of settler-colonialism.  This is evidenced from the writings of early Zionist visionaries such as Vladimir Jabotinsky, for example, who fully equates Zionism with colonialism as he states:

“Every reader has some idea of the early history of other countries which have been settled.  I suggest that he recall all known instances.  If he should attempt to seek but one instance of a country settled with the consent of those born there he will not succeed.  The inhabitants (no matter whether they are civilized or savages) have always put up a stubborn fight.  … It is of no importance whether we quote Herzl or Herbert Samuel to justify our activities, colonization itself has its own explanation, integral and inescapable, and understood by every Arab and every Jew with his wits about him.  Colonization can only have one goal.  For the Palestinian Arabs this goal is inadmissible. … Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population.”

Jabotinsky wrote The Iron Wall in 1923, and the two politicians he mentions, Herzl and Herbert Samuel, were unabashed promoters of imperialism.  Samuel, whose views were influential in the drafting of the Balfour Declaration, favored the full annexation of Palestine into “the British Empire.”  In “The Future of Palestine,” he writes that even though the British Empire is so “vast and prosperous” as to not need additional territory, the annexation of Palestine would be different because, “small as it is in area, [it] bulks so large in the world’s imagination that no Empire is so great but its prestige would be raised by its possession.”

Theodor Herzl, considered one of the “fathers of Israel,” also held delusional ideas about colonialism as a redemptive civilizing movement as he concluded his book, Der Judenstaat, published in 1896, with the following: “The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”

Global history, however, is proof that there is not a single instance of settler-colonialism which resulted in “powerful and beneficiary” reactions for all of humanity.  Instead, colonialism has invariably done significant harm to the people of the land, the “pre-existing communities,” ranging from under-development to outright genocide.

That an imperial power, Britain, would view it favorably comes as no surprise:  colonialism is what had turned England into “Great Britain.” Yet England’s awareness of the anachronism of that vision is reflected in the fact that it does not deny the existence of the indigenous people (the Balfour Declaration does not suggest that Palestine is a “land without a people for a people without a land”), and that it does not refer to the indigenous as “savages,” but rather, as communities with civil and political rights.  Had the Zionist vision of a modern-day Israel occurred a century or two earlier, there would have been no reference to “existing communities,” and certainly no mention of their civic and religious rights.  Those “communities,” however, known today as the Indigenous, or merely as “the rightful owners” of the land, have all seen their civic, political, and religious rights violated by the settlers, because colonialism was wrong in the 19th century, just as it was wrong in earlier centuries.  The awkwardness of the Balfour Declaration comes from its being such a late-comer.

In the final analysis, what the Balfour Declaration does show is that an imperial power, by definition, cannot engage in a redemptive project.  On the centenary anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, as White Nationalism openly allies with Zionism, one thing must be “clearly understood:” Israel has always been a settler-colonial project, forged in imperial Europe, and whose very visionaries believed in empire, in annexation for their own glory.  As such, only an anti-racist, de-colonial struggle can address the problem, redress the harm.  This is the understanding behind the alliances currently forming to combat racist supremacy in the US and Israel.  And while we are certainly living in dangerous times, we can also take hope in the new grassroots resistance, with its organic understanding of joint struggle, from BDS to anti-fascism.

About Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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10 Responses

  1. ErikEast
    October 30, 2017, 2:33 pm

    I am currently reading Eugene Rogan’s excellent, ‘The Fall of the Ottomans’, and he argues that the British rationale for the Balfour Declaration had two elements. The first, was to boost their war efforts by using the Declaration to appeal to Jewish communities in the U.S.and Russia to support/continue supporting the Triple Entente against the Central Powers.
    Then there was the post-war planning element, which sought to secure Palestine to Britain’s sphere of influence, rather than it falling under international trusteeship as originally agreed in the Sykes-Picot agreement.

    “On the face of it, Lord Balfour was offering Palestine to the Zionist movement. In fact, Lloyd George’s Government was using the Zionist movement to secure Palestine for British rule.”

    Safe to say Lloyd George underestimated the Zionists.

  2. Philip Weiss
    October 30, 2017, 2:42 pm

    Fascinating exploration, Nada. The claim was already anachronistic, even in parts of Britain. And within 30 years the Brits had no stomach for the Mandate themselves. But 100 years on, the Zionist colonies get stronger by the minute… That seems special, the anachronism, sustaiend now by the U.S.

    • nada
      October 31, 2017, 5:52 pm

      Thanks, Philip. I do feel it is important to point out that, even though a majority of people think that Israel was Europe’s response to the Holocaust, the Zionist vision and aspirations actually predate the Holocaust by some 50 years, and are firmly rooted in settler-colonial ideology.

  3. A.T.
    October 31, 2017, 11:57 am

    Great article, Neda. I recommend to everyone–especially the Jewish people who really care to know about true Zionist’s intentions–to read an excellent book by Thomas Suarez: “State of Terror”.

  4. James Canning
    October 31, 2017, 1:48 pm

    Britain obtained the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, partly because the US refused to do so.

  5. Noodles
    October 31, 2017, 2:15 pm

    Any truth to the rumor that Zionists lobbied Woodrow Wilson to enter WW1 on behalf of the British in order to gain control of Palestine?

    • Brewer
      October 31, 2017, 7:11 pm

      “British Colonial Secretary Lord Cavendish also wrote about this agreement and its result in a 1923 memorandum to the British Cabinet, stating: “The object [of the Balfour Declaration] was to enlist the sympathies on the Allied side of influential Jews and Jewish organizations all over the world… [and] it is arguable that the negotiations with the Zionists…did in fact have considerable effect in advancing the date at which the United States government intervened in the war.”Former British Prime Minister Lloyd George similarly referred to the deal, telling a British commission in 1935: “Zionist leaders gave us a definite promise that, if the Allies committed themselves to giving facilities for the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, they would do their best to rally Jewish sentiment and support throughout the world to the Allied cause. They kept their word.”[xxiv]

      Brandeis University professor and author Frank E. Manuel reported that Lloyd George had testified in 1937 “that stimulating the war effort of American Jews was one of the major motives which, during a harrowing period in the European war, actuated members of the cabinet in finally casting their votes for the Declaration.””

      • MHughes976
        November 1, 2017, 12:23 pm

        The origins of American entry into the War lie in superior British power in the Atlantic and in American concern with China via the Open Door policy. If American trade was not to be too damaged by the War it would have to be more with us than with the Germans, unless our naval power was to be broken (which would be very costly), and where there was trade there had to be loans and credits, and thus the American economy became enmeshed with us and our allies. Our blockade of Germany, which affected neutrals badly, was therefore tolerated. The only available (I’m not saying justified) German retaliation was unrestricted submarine warfare, which cost many American lives. Thus neutrality slipped away progressively in a fashion which contained an element of German aggression, making war seem right – in all the circumstances, both right and profitable for the main provider of loans for the victorious side.
        On the Pacific Ocean side I think it is agreed that Japan, our ally but not an Allied Power in the Euro theatre, was becoming viewed as the main threat to Open Door and this created an American interest in supporting Russia, an Allied Power and the main counterweight to Japan, which American diplomacy had already sustained by diplomatic intervention in the 1905 War. There’s only marginal room for Jewish Balfour-related influence in all this.

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