November 2 marks the 100th anniversary of the issuing of the infamous Balfour Declaration by the British government. A 67-word note addressed to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, it represented a crucial victory for the Zionist movement and helped prepare the way for the massive expulsion of the Palestinian people from their homeland three decades later.
Political Zionism arose in the late 19th century with the aim of creating a Jewish state. It was one response to widespread anti-Jewish bigotry in Europe and the U.S. At the same time it was a colonial movement, which sought to establish its state in Palestine, where the last Israeli kingdom had ceased to exist more than 2,400 years earlier.
Since its first world congress twenty years earlier, the Zionist movement had sought the sponsorship of one or another of the world’s big powers without which its colonial project had no hope of success. That it was a colonial undertaking was beyond doubt. The person considered the founding father of Political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, had earlier framed his appeal to the notorious British imperialist Cecil Rhodes: “How then do I happen to turn to you? Because it something colonial.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour’s note, expressing support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” signaled that the world’s most far-flung empire would provide the indispensable backing sought by the Herzl and his successor as leader of the movement, Dr. Chaim Weizmann. .
Dear Lord Rothschild:
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations 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.”
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
The declaration followed months of debate inside the British cabinet, which like most European and American regimes of the time was largely populated by anti-Semites. The only prominent Jewish member of the cabinet, Edward Montague, was adamantly opposed to political Zionism, and the issuing of the declaration, which he believed would have the effect of further separating and marginalizing Jewish people in England and elsewhere.
In fact, that is exactly what many of the anti-Semitic “Christian Zionists” and other top government officials who supported the creation of a Zionist state were hoping for.
Anti-Semites and Pro-Zionists
In 1920, arch-imperialist and future colonial secretary and prime minister, Winston Churchill, produced an article entitled, “Zionism versus Bolshevism: A struggle for the soul of the Jewish people,” for a British newspaper. In a section simply headlined “Good Jews and Bad Jews,” Churchill offered his “theory” of thousands of years of an alleged global Jewish ”conspiracy,” culminating in the Russian Revolution:
“From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxembourg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States), this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization . . . it played a definitely recognizable part in the tragedy of the French Revolution. It has been the mainspring of every subversive movement during the Nineteenth Century; and now at last this band of extraordinary personalities from the underworld of the great cities of Europe and America have gripped the Russian people . . . “
Then the virulently anti-Semite Churchill presented his reason for supporting the creation of a Zionist state:
“Zionism offers the third sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race. In violent contrast to international communism, it presents to the Jew a national idea of a commanding character. It has fallen to the British government, as the result of the conquest of Palestine, to have the opportunity and the responsibility of securing for the Jewish race all over the world a home and a center of national life. Zionism has already become a factor in the political convulsions of Russia, as a powerful competing influence in Bolshevik circles with the international communistic system.”
What motivated the majority of the British cabinet to vote for the Balfour Declaration had everything to do with the interests of empire and nothing to do with those of Jewish people.
In November 1917, much of the world was engulfed in World War I, and the British government needed the agreement of its principal allies, France and the U.S., the latter having entered the war earlier that year. President Woodrow Wilson, close to, if not a member of, the racist and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan, gave his assent in October.
Response in the Arab world
News of the Balfour Declaration sparked outrage in Palestine and the Arab world. The renowned Palestinian intellectual Edward Said described it years later as being made: “(a) by a European power, (b) about a non-European territory, (c) in flat disregard of the both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory, and (d) it took the form of a promise about the same territory to another foreign group.”
In 1917, the population of what was to become the British mandate (colony) of Palestine was more tha 92 percent Muslim and Christian, and less than 8 percent Jewish. Most of the long-established Jewish community (as opposed to recent, mainly European settlers) were anti-Zionist.
Palestinian historian Dr. Ismail Zayid wrote about the declaration:“It is interesting to note that the four-letter word “Arab” occurs not once in this document. … To refer to the Arabs who constituted 92 percent of the population of Palestine and owned 89 percent of its land, as the non-Jewish communities, is not merely preposterous but deliberately fraudulent. … Palestine did not belong to Balfour to assume such acts of generosity.”
While calling for national rights (a “national home”) for the Zionist settlers coming from Europe and America, the Balfour Declaration only includes “civil and religious rights for the existing non-Jewish communities.”
“National home” was diplomatic subterfuge meant to disguise the real intention. Earlier versions of the declaration used the words, “the reconstitution of the Palestine as a Jewish State.”
At the time Balfour’s note was sent, most of Palestine was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which included most of what is now known as the Middle East. The British army did not enter Jerusalem until December 1917.
The British commander, Gen Edward Allenby refused for three years to allow the Balfour Declaration to be printed in Arabic, fearing a popular revolt. But the truth could not be hidden from the people for long. From 1922-48, protest marches were held annually in Palestine on November 2.
The Bolshevik Revolution exposed imperialist plans for the Middle East
Five days after the Balfour Declaration was issued, the Bolshevik Revolution shook the world. On November 23, the new Soviet Commissariat of Foreign Affairs published the secret treaties signed by the ousted Czarist government, most importantly the Sykes-Picot agreement, which revealed both the real aims and duplicity of the so-called “democratic allies.”
The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement were widely viewed by the rising Arab national movement as a double betrayal by Britain.
During World War I, which began in 1914, the British sent a military emissary, T.E. Lawrence, to enlist the support of Arab leaders, particularly the Hashemite King Hussein bin Ali, who ruled the Hejaz region of the western Arabian Peninsula. The British promised support for an independent Arab state in return for Arab military participation in the war against Ottoman Empire.
At the same time as these promises were being made to an Arab leader, the foreign ministers of the British, French and Russian empires, along with their allies in Italy and Greece, were secretly drawing up a plan to divide the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the war. France was to receive present-day Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Turkey and Iraq. Russia, Greece and Italy would be granted large parts of modern Turkey, Palestine and most of Iraq would be added to the British Empire, which already included or controlled Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait, Yemen and Iran.
The new Soviet state denounced the treaty and renounced all territorial ambitions.
After World War I ended in November 1918, a new state comprising what is today Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and western Jordan was established with its capital in Damascus, but was crushed by French troops in 1919. The imperialist dominated League of Nations granted France “mandates” over Syria and Lebanon, and Britain over Iraq and Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the terms of Britain’s Palestine mandate, and the Zionist settler migration from Europe increased dramatically in the 1920s and 1930, setting the stage for the forcible expulsion of most of the Palestinian population in 1948.
The Palestinians have suffered decades of the most brutal oppression, but they have not been defeated.
Today, November 2, 2017, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets once again to denounce the Balfour Declaration and continue their heroic struggle against colonial occupation.