Avi Shlaim
Middle East Eye
25 August 2017

Balfour portrait and declarationThe Balfour Declaration, issued on 2 November 1917, was a short document which changed the course of history. It committed the British government to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, provided nothing was done "to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".

At that time, the Jews constituted 10 percent of the population of Palestine: 60,000 Jews and just over 600,000 Arabs. Yet Britain chose to recognise the right to national self-determination of the tiny minority and to flatly deny it to the undisputed majority. In the words of the Jewish writer Arthur Koestler: here was one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation.

Some contemporary accounts presented the Balfour Declaration as a selfless gesture and even as a noble Christian project to help an ancient people reconstitute its national life in its ancestral homeland. These accounts spring from the biblical romanticism of some British officials and their sympathy for the plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Subsequent scholarship suggests that the main motive for issuing the declaration was cold calculation of British imperial interests. It was believed, wrongly as it turned out, that Britain's interests would best be served by an alliance with the Zionist movement in Palestine.

Palestine controlled the British Empire's lines of communications to the Far East. France, Britain's main ally in the war against Germany, was also a rival for influence in Palestine.

Under the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, the two countries divided up the Middle East into zones of influence but compromised on an international administration for Palestine. By helping the Zionists to take over Palestine, the British hoped to secure a dominant presence in the area and to exclude the French. The French called the British "Perfidious Albion". The Balfour Declaration was a prime example of this perennial perfidy.

Balfour's main victims

The main victims of the Balfour Declaration, however, were not the French but the Arabs of Palestine. The declaration was a classic European colonial document cobbled together by a small group of men with a thoroughly colonial mind-set. It was formulated in total disregard for the political rights of the majority of the indigenous population.

Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour made no effort to disguise his contempt for the Arabs.

"Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad," he wrote in 1922, was "rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs and future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land." There could hardly be a more striking illustration of what Edward Said called "the moral epistemology of imperialism".

Balfour was just a languid English aristocrat. The real driving force behind the declaration was not Balfour but David Lloyd George, the fiery Welsh radical who headed the government. In foreign policy, Lloyd George was an old-fashioned British imperialist and a land-grabber. His support for Zionism, however, was based not on a sound assessment of British interests but on ignorance: he admired the Jews but he also feared them and he failed to grasp that the Zionists were a minority within a minority.

In aligning Britain with the Zionist movement, he acted in the mistaken - and anti-semitic - view that the Jews were extraordinarily influential and that they made the wheels of history turn. In fact, the Jewish people were helpless, with no influence other than via the myth of clandestine power. 

In short, Britain's wartime support for Zionism was rooted in an arrogant colonial attitude towards the Arabs and a misconception about the global power of the Jews...

Given this historical record, one might expect British leaders to hang their head in shame and disavow this toxic legacy of their colonialist past. But the last three British prime ministers of both main political parties - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron - have all displayed staunch support for Israel and utter indifference to Palestinian rights.

Theresa May, the present prime minister, is one of the most pro-Israel leaders in Europe. In a December 2016 speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel, which includes over 80 percent of Tory MPs and the entire cabinet, she hailed Israel as "a remarkable country" and "a beacon of tolerance".

Rubbing salt in Palestinian wounds, she called the Balfour Declaration "one of the most important letters in history," and she promised to celebrate it on the anniversary...

Given this historical record, one might expect British leaders to hang their head in shame and disavow this toxic legacy of their colonialist past. But the last three British prime ministers of both main political parties - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron - have all displayed staunch support for Israel and utter indifference to Palestinian rights.

Theresa May, the present prime minister, is one of the most pro-Israel leaders in Europe. In a December 2016 speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel, which includes over 80 percent of Tory MPs and the entire cabinet, she hailed Israel as "a remarkable country" and "a beacon of tolerance". Rubbing salt in Palestinian wounds, she called the Balfour Declaration "one of the most important letters in history," and she promised to celebrate it on the anniversary...

The [UK] government responded [to a petition calling for an apology] as follows: The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the state of Israel.

Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2014) and Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations (2009).
Full article can be read here

 

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