Today is the 95th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, the promise made by the British government to support a Jewish state in Palestine. The anniversary is already the subject of letters to the Guardian and no doubt will prove a fillip for discussion on the self-defined “anti-imperialist” left. Criticism of British colonial policy is entirely justified, but this should not lead us to argue that the there was simply an inexorable, linear, mechanical line from the Balfour declaration to the creation of Israel, never mind to the current injustice towards the Palestinians.
On 2 November 1917, British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, one of the leaders of the British Jews, which stated:
“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy which has been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet: 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.”
The novelist Arthur Koestler wrote that the Balfour declaration was one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation. Similarly Edward Said argued that it was a prime example of “the moral epistemology of imperialism”. The declaration was made: “(a) by a European power, (b) about a non-European territory, (c) in flat disregard of both the presence and the wishes of the native majority resident in the territory, and (d) it took the form of a promise about this same territory to another foreign group, so that this foreign group might, quite literally, make this territory a national home for the Jewish people” (The Question of Palestine, 1979).
Probably the best discussion I’ve read about the historiography of the Balfour declaration is Avi Shlaim’s Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, and Refutations (Verso 2009). He is one of the new Israeli historians and a supporter of a two states solution based on the 1967 borders. Shlaim is a liberal academic, but has a consistently democratic appreciation of the interplay of imperial and national contradictions.
Why was the Balfour declaration written?
Why did the British government promise a national home for the Jewish people in 1917? Only a year earlier it had promised Arab independence from the Ottoman Empire, although whether this undertaking included Palestine is disputed. British promises to Arabs and Jews were made in an effort to undermine its opponents in the context of the world war.
Shlaim posits two main schools of thought on the origins of the Balfour declaration. The conventional wisdom was that the activity and skill of the Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann that induced Britain to issue the statement of support. Weizmann was apparently waiting outside the room where the cabinet met. Once the decision was made, top civil servant Sir Mark Sykes emerged exclaiming “Dr. Weizmann, it’s a boy!”
Other historians regard the declaration was the work of hard-headed pragmatic British officials who took the initiative in approaching the Zionists, primarily motivated by British imperial interests in the Middle East. It was the desire to exclude France, rather than sympathy for the Zionist cause, that prompted Britain to sponsor a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. It was also thought that a declaration favourable to the ideals of Zionism was likely to enlist the support of the Jews of America and Russia for the war effort against Germany. Finally, rumour that Germany was courting the Zionists accelerated the pace at which Britain moved towards its dramatic overture.
Tom Segev, another new Israeli historian, provided a new synthesis in One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate (2000). Segev has British prime minister David Lloyd George as the prime mover behind the declaration. In his memoirs, Lloyd George explained his support for the Zionist movement as an alliance with a hugely influential political organisation whose goodwill was worth paying for.
Shlaim says that Lloyd George’s support for Zionism was based “not on British interests but on ignorance and prejudice”. Lloyd George “despised the Jews, but he also feared them, and he proceeded on the basis of an absurdly inflated notion of the power and influence of the Zionists. In aligning Britain with the Zionists, he acted in the mistaken—and anti-Semitic—view that the Jews turned the wheels of history”. Segev argues that the Balfour declaration “was the product of neither military nor diplomatic interests but of prejudice, faith, and sleight of hand. The men who sired it were Christian and Zionist and, in many cases, anti-Semitic. They believed the Jews controlled the world.”
This damning indictment of the Balfour declaration does not detract from the tensions and contradictions in British imperial policy. Balfour’s proposal did not enjoy unanimous support in the cabinet. Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India and the only Jewish member of the government considered Zionism a threat to the Jews of Britain and other countries. He denounced Zionism as a “mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom”. Montagu rejected the idea of the Jews as a nation and argued that the demand for recognition as a separate nation put at risk their becoming citizens with equal rights in the countries in which they lived.
Another opponent Lord Curzon argued in a paper to the cabinet: “What is to become of the people of the country?... [The Arabs] and their forefathers have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years, and they own the soil... They profess the Mohammedan faith. They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the latter”.
Montagu and Curzon were overruled. Lloyd George, Balfour and Lord Milner (often regarded as the author who actually drafted the letter), threw their weight behind the proposal. At the San Remo conference in April 1920, the League of Nations incorporated the commitment to establish a Jewish national home into the terms of Britain’s mandate to govern Palestine. Palestinian Arab resentment towards this development was immediate and expressed in the Nebi Musa riots.
Segev’s verdict is that British actions over the whole mandate period considerably favoured the Zionist position and thus helped to ensure the establishment of a Jewish state. Similarly Sahar Huneidi argues that most of the political, economic and administrative measures taken by the British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel during his tenure in Palestine (1920-25) were designed to prepare the ground for a fully-fledged Jewish state.
However British policy vacillated. Shortly after his arrival in Palestine in 1928, the new High Commissioner Sir John Chancellor concluded that the Balfour declaration had been a “colossal blunder”, unfair to the Arabs and detrimental to the interests of the British Empire. In January 1930, following pogroms against the Jews in Palestine, he sent a long memorandum to London. In October 1930, colonial secretary Lord Passfield (Sidney Webb) issued a White Paper which restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine. It assumed that the Jews would remain a minority. However the new policy was reversed within a few months. Similar lurches took place after the Arab uprising in 1936, when the British Peel commission came out for partition, but then recoiled with another White Paper, which planned to restrict Jewish immigration and land purchases.
Shlaim says that by the second world war, “the costs of the British presence in Palestine were considerable and the benefits remained persistently elusive. Palestine was not a strategic asset: it was not a source of power but of weakness”. After 1945, economic considerations reinforced the strategic arguments for withdrawal from Palestine. Chancellor Hugh Dalton wrote to prime minister Clement Attlee: “The present state of affairs is not only costly to us in manpower and money but is... of no real value from the strategic point of view—you cannot in any case have a secure base on top of a wasps’ nest—and it is exposing our young men, for no good purpose, to abominable experiences and is breeding anti-Semites at a most shocking speed.”
The Balfour declaration was exceedingly brief, but its consequences were profound and pervasive, and its impact on the subsequent history of the Middle East was revolutionary. Shlaim argues that it “completely transformed the position of the fledgling Zionist movement vis-à-vis the Arabs of Palestine and it provided a protective umbrella that enabled the Zionists to proceed steadily towards their ultimate goal of establishing an independent Jewish state in Palestine”. He adds: “Rarely in the annals of the British Empire has such a short document produced such far-reaching consequences.”
The greatest contradiction lay in British support for the right to national self-determination of the Jewish minority, while implicitly denying it to the Arab majority. At the time of the declaration, the population of Palestine was in around 670,000, including 60,000 Jews. The Arabs constituted roughly 91% of the population. The proviso that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” implied that, in British eyes, the Arab majority had no political rights. The declaration was “arrogant, dismissive and even racist” to refer to 90% of the population as “the non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
Shlaim regards the Balfour declaration as a colossal blunder, because it ultimately proved to be a catastrophe for the Palestinians and gave rise to “one of the most intense, bitter, and protracted conflicts of modern times”. But he does not ignore the other drives that fed into the process of creating a Jewish state in Palestine. Spurred by Hitler’s racial anti-Semitism that would culminate in the Holocaust, between 1932 and 1938, more than 197,000 people migrated into Palestine, followed by 138,300 more in the ten years between 1939 and 1948.
It was the formation of a Jewish national community in Palestine, reaching 37% of the population by the time Israel declared its independence in 1948, which made the conflict primarily a matter of two peoples both seeking self-determination. The imperial background is important, but secondary to the final outcome in 1948. And it does not explain why Palestinians are still denied national self-determination today.