The Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 was central to the wartime British-Zionist alliance and a powerful Zionist-Jewish propaganda tool. As the centenary of the Declaration approaches it is timely for a reassessment of the impact of the statement and British policies towards Palestine and its indigenous people. This essay also calls on the United Kingdom to acknowledge its historic responsibility for the disastrous consequences of Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine and the subsequent Palestinian catastrophe (Nakba).
Political Zionism would not have been able to achieve its goals at the cost of freedom and self-determination for the Palestinian people without the overall support of the British Empire. The Israeli state was and still is central to Western projects in the Middle East. In fact, Israel owes its very existence to the British colonial power in Palestine, despite the military tension in the last decade of the British mandatory period between the colonial power and the leadership of the militarised Yishuv, the Ashkenazi white settler-colonial community in Palestine.
Under the Ottomans the European Zionist settlers were few and were never given a free hand in Palestine; had the Ottomans been left in control of Palestine after the First World War, it is very unlikely that a Jewish state would have come into being at the expense of the indigenous people. The situation changed radically with the occupation of Palestine by the British in 1917 before which, on 2 November 1917, Zionism had already been granted title to Palestine in the Balfour Declaration whose catastrophic consequences for the Palestinian people reverberate to this day. The letter containing the Declaration was sent by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to the Zionist Federation, through a leading British Jew, Baron Walter Rothschild. In it the British government declared its commitment to Zionism: “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…”
Crucially the terms of the Balfour Declaration were incorporated into the British Palestine Mandate in 1922 and approved by the League of Nations. This constituted a spectacular political and propaganda achievement for the international Zionist movement which, at the time, was a minority group within world Jewry. Interestingly, the document was criticised severely by the only Jewish member of Prime Minister Lloyd George’s cabinet; Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, made a clear distinction between Judaism and Zionism (a modern political ideology). He was concerned about the status and potential double loyalty of Jews in Britain and he questioned the right of the Zionist organisation to speak on behalf of all Jews.
In 1917 the Jewish population of Palestine was under 10 per cent of the total. The content of the Balfour Declaration was rooted in the colonial racist politics of denial; it does not even mention the Palestinian people, whether Christians or Muslims, who compromised over 90 per cent of the population of the land; in fact, they owned more than 97 per cent of the land that Britain intended to give away. Instead, Balfour referred to them as the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” while the Declaration was completely silent on their national and political rights. The Declaration is typical of supremacist European writing of the time and fit in with the notion of “a land without a people [for a people without a land]”. This was designed to justify European colonisation and the denial of the fundamental rights of the Palestinians.
Emboldened by the Balfour Declaration, in January 1919 leading British Zionist Chaim Weizmann went to the Paris Peace Conference and called for a pure Palestine “as Jewish as England is English”. This was at a time when the principle of “Self-determination for the peoples of the Ottoman Empire” was enshrined in the “Fourteen Points” of US President Woodrow Wilson. Lloyd George welcomed the Wilsonian principles while denying this international recognition to the people of Palestine.
The British-Zionist alliance and the Balfour Declaration are often explained in terms of wartime calculations and military strategic objectives (including the proximity of Palestine to the British-controlled Suez Canal and the route to India); British historical, ideological, Protestant-cultural-biblical and symbolic factors and myths are overlooked by historians. Britain and much of Europe was the home of the Latin Crusades and the collective memories of the struggle for Jerusalem and Palestine, a bitter “holy war” with Islam that went on for several centuries well into the early modern period and whose collective memory was revived in Europe at the height of empire in the nineteenth century. Prior to the Balfour Declaration two magnets, the “Bible and the Sword” (as Barbara Tuchman put it brilliantly in Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour) attracted countless British crusaders, pilgrims, missionaries, biblical archaeologists, travellers, cartographers, consuls and members of the Corps of Royal Engineers to the Holy Land of Palestine. This led ultimately to the British conquest of Jerusalem in December 1917.
The Balfour Declaration was itself timed to coincide with General Edmund Allenby’s push towards Jerusalem during World War One. It was the fruit of twelve months’ intensive negotiations between leading British Zionists (the “Zionist-Jewish Lobby”) and Foreign Office officials, and, ultimately, the Lloyd George wartime cabinet.
On 11 December 1917 Allenby entered Jerusalem on foot and marched through its Old City triumphantly. He was the first Christian to conquer Jerusalem since the medieval Crusades. This symbolism was not lost on Allenby or Lloyd George, who described the capture of Jerusalem as “a Christmas present for the British people”. Allenby was even more explicit: “The wars of the crusaders are now complete,” he said, implying that his British force’s conquest of Palestine was the “last crusade”.
General Allenby has left us with other symbols of old and new crusaders: the “Allenby Bridge” (still so called by the Israelis) which crosses the Jordan River was built in 1918 by Allenby himself over a remnant of an old Ottoman bridge. It is currently the sole exit/entry point for Palestinians under Israeli occupation travelling in and out of the West Bank. Both Allenby and Balfour are highly regarded in Israel. “Allenby Street”, a major street in Tel Aviv, was named in his honour. Balfouria is a Jewish colony south of Nazareth founded in 1922, the third Moshav to be established in mandatory Palestine; it was named after the British foreign secretary who penned the infamous Declaration.
In 1917 Weizmann, a close friend of General Jan Smuts, an advocate of racial separation and Prime Minister of South Africa, and most closely associated with drafting the Balfour Declaration, argued: “A Jewish Palestine would be a safeguard to England, in particular in respect to the Suez Canal.” Yet both Lloyd George and Balfour were members of Protestant churches which shared the Christian Zionist belief that Old Testament Jews should be “restored” in Palestine before the Second Coming of Jesus.
The Bible has been the key text used to redeem the European settler-colonisation of Palestine. The “first” text of the West, it has been (and remains) central to Western support for the State of Israel. The “Bible and the sword”, the two tools inherited from the Latin Crusades and British colonialism, have also been central to Israeli Zionist strategy since 1948.
Since the late nineteenth century political Zionism (and today’s pro-Israel lobby) has continued to enjoy an extraordinary influence in the corridors of power of the West. For a variety of reasons (which include the epistemology and politics of the Biblical text), the Israeli state has been central to Western policies in the oil-rich Middle East. In addition to its geopolitical-strategic value and its immense military and nuclear capabilities, the Israeli state has had enormous significance for post-Second World War Western politics. In the post-Holocaust period the massive financial, military and political support for the “Jewish State” in Palestine has also been seen as an opportunity to “redeem” Europe (and the West) for the Nazi genocide.
Political Zionism originated in Europe in the late nineteenth century. Emerging at the height of European imperialism and directly influenced by pan-Germanism, pan-Jewish Zionism successfully combined east and central European nationalisms with European settler-colonisation and the Bible. The secular founding fathers of Jewish Zionism sought to underpin the legitimacy of their European settler-colonial movement with the Biblical text.
From the start it became clear that the Jewish “restorationist” project could only be achieved with the backing and active support of the European powers. From Theodor Herzl to Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist leadership was fully aware that its programme could not be secured without the support of the imperialist powers. Herzl wrote frankly about the (non-European) Asiatic land “reclaimed” by Zionism and the setting up of a quasi-European white settler state in Palestine: “If His Majesty the [Ottoman] Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should form there part of a wall of defence for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilisation against Barbarism.”
However, testifying before Britain’s “Palestine Royal Commission” headed by Lord Peel in 1936, Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, declared, “The Bible is our mandate.” For Ben-Gurion the Bible was the master text of Zionism and the foundational text of the State of Israel. Like Ben-Gurion, Lloyd George and Balfour viewed the Bible not only as a reliable historical source but also as a guide for Christian and Jewish Zionist policies towards the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. The militarist land traditions and narratives of the Bible, reconfigured and reinvented in the last century as a “foundational” meta-narrative of Zionism and the State of Israel, have been instrumental in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Today the same militarist land traditions of the Bible continue to be at the heart of the displacement and dispossession of Palestinians (both Muslims and Christians) from Jerusalem. Ironically, modern Palestinians (unlike Ben-Gurion) are more likely to be the direct descendants of the ancient Israelites, Canaanites and Philistines than the European, Ashkenazi and white founding fathers of the Israeli State are.
British historian Arnold Toynbee once described Balfour as “a wicked man”. Toynbee believed that Balfour and Lloyd George knew the catastrophic implications of the Declaration for the indigenous Palestinians and of British fostering of a white settler-colonial community in Palestine.
Of course neither the Latin Crusaders nor modern Britain had sovereign rights over Palestine. Certainly Britain had no legal or moral authority to dispose of the land which did not belong to it to a third party and to people who did not reside in the country. However, the Balfour Declaration set the stage for the Zionist struggle to take over and control the land of Palestine, a struggle that has continued to this day. In this the Declaration became central to Zionist and Israeli juridical claims. Between 1914 and 1948 the British colonial power in Palestine allowed the Zionist movement to settle hundreds of thousands of European Jewish settlers in Palestine, establish hundreds of settlements, including several cities, and to lay the political, military-security, economic, industrial, demographic, cultural and academic foundations of the Israeli State.
Half a century before the Balfour Declaration, the first white colony in Palestine, Kerem Avraham, today a neighbourhood of Jerusalem, began as a small British colony founded in 1855 by the highly influential British Consul in Jerusalem, James Finn, and his wife, Elizabeth Anne. Finn combined an old crusading zeal with modern Protestant “restorationist” thinking and missionary activities with official British civil service work. He and his wife Elizabeth were originally members of the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews”. He was also a close associate of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, a prominent Tory MP, a millennialist Protestant and a key contributor to crusading Victorian Christian Zionism and back-to-the-Bible revivalism. Shaftesbury was driven by Victorian “Bible and sword” thinking; a combination of Victorian imperialism and Christian messianic prophecy. He argued that “Jewish restorationism” to Palestine would bring political and economic advantages to the British Empire and as a Biblical prophecy would expedite the second coming of Jesus. In an article in the Quarterly Review (January 1839), Shaftesbury, who invented the myth “A land without people, for a people without a land”, wrote: “The soil and climate of Palestine are singularly adapted to the growth of produce required for the exigencies of Great Britain; the finest cotton may be obtained in almost unlimited abundance; silk and madder are the staple of the country, and olive oil is now, as it ever was, the very fatness of the land. Capital and skill are alone required: the presence of a British officer, and the increased security of property which his presence will confer, may invite them from these islands to the cultivation of Palestine; and the Jews, who will betake themselves to agriculture in no other land, having found, in the English consul [James Finn), a mediator between their people and the [Ottoman] Pacha, will probably return in yet greater numbers, and become once more the husbandmen of Judaea and Galilee.”
With the support of the then British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, Shaftesbury began promoting Jewish “restorationism” to Palestine in Victorian England in the 1830s. Shaftesbury was also instrumental in the setting up of the British Consulate in Jerusalem in 1839. The public activities of Shaftesbury, James Finn and their English “restorationist” followers–which preceded the founding of the European political Zionist movement by Theodor Herzl by nearly half a century–demonstrate clearly that “Zionism” began as a distinctly crusading Christian Protestant movement, not a secular Jewish one.
However, it was the Palestine Exploration Fund’s surveys and mapping of Palestine by the British Corps of Royal Engineers in the 1870s which led to the growth of secular proto-Jewish Zionism. The peaceful crusade of the British PEF, which was founded in 1865 by a group of Bible scholars, scriptural geographers, military and intelligence officers and Protestant clergymen, most notably the Dean of Westminster Abbey, Arthur P. Stanley, was coordinated very closely with the British politico-military establishment and the intelligence community anxious to penetrate Ottoman Palestine, a country ruled by the Muslim “Sick Man of Europe”.
With offices in central London, the PEF today is an active organisation which publishes an academic journal, the Palestine Exploration Quarterly. In addition, the PEF presents public lectures and funds research projects in the Near East. According to its website, “Between 1867 and 1870 Captain Warren carried out the explorations in Palestine which form the basis for our knowledge of the topography of ancient Jerusalem and the archaeology of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sherif [sic]”; “In addition to his explorations on, under, and around the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sherif, Warren surveyed the Plain of Philistia and carried out a very important [military] reconnaissance of central Jordan.” Captain (later General Sir) Charles Warren, of the Royal Engineers and one of the key officers of the PEF sent to map the “scriptural topography” of Jerusalem and investigate “the site of the temple”, noted: “[British] King Consul [James Finn] rules supreme, not over the natives of the city, but over strangers; but yet these strangers for the most part are the rightful owners, the natives, for the most part, are usurpers”. Warren and Finn, apparently, both “literally burrowed” beneath the Muslim shrines in Jerusalem to chart the “original dimensions” of the “Temple Mount”. The Biblical archaeology, mapping and study of the topography and toponymy carried out by Warren and the Royal Engineers have remained basic data for many Israeli archaeologists, geographers and official strategic planners of today in their efforts to Judaise the Old City of Jerusalem.
When white Jewish settlers moved to Palestine, their attitudes to the indigenous population were typical of colonial attitudes towards “inferior” and “uncivilised” peoples, but the Zionist settlements remained very small until the British occupied Palestine in 1917. After that the colonisation process accelerated quickly under the protection of the colonial power. During this period the Zionists insisted on Palestine being referred to officially as the “Biblical Land of Israel”. The British mandatory authorities conceded the use of the Hebrew acronym for “Eretz Yisrael” (the “Land of Israel”) after the name Palestine on all official documents, currency, stamps and suchlike.
During this period (1918-1948) the Ashkenazi white settlers made no effort to integrate their struggles with those of the Palestinians fighting against British colonialism. On the contrary, the settlers proceeded from the conviction that the indigenous population would have to be subjugated or removed, with the help of the British.
By the 1930s the Balfour Declaration had become closely associated in official Zionist thinking with the practical colonisation of Palestine and the ethnic cleaning of the indigenous Palestinians. From the early 1930s onwards a series of specific plans, generally involving Transjordan, Syria and Iraq, were produced by the Yishuv’s “transfer committees” (a euphemism for ethnic cleansing committees) and senior officials. In 1930, against the background of the 1929 disturbances in Palestine, Weizmann, then president of both the World Zionist Organisation and the Jewish Agency Executive, actively began promoting ideas of Arab “transfer” in private discussions with British officials and ministers. He presented the colonial secretary, Lord Passfield, with an official, albeit secret, proposal for the transfer of Palestinian peasants to Transjordan whereby a loan of one million Palestinian pounds would be raised from Jewish financial sources for the resettlement operation. Lord Passfield rejected the proposal. However, the justification Weizmann used in its defence formed the basis of subsequent Zionist transfer arguments. Weizmann asserted that there was nothing immoral about the ethnic cleansing of the land; that the expulsion of Greek Orthodox and Muslim (“Turkish”) populations (“population exchange”) in the early 1920s provided a precedent for a similar measure regarding the Palestinians.
If the Balfour Declaration became central to the Zionist collective memory, myths and propaganda, the Declaration, known as “Wa’ad Balfour” or the “Balfour Promise” in Arabic, became central to Palestinian collective memory of resistance. Throughout the mandatory period the anniversary of the Declaration (2 November) was marked widely by nationalist protests and strikes. The memory of British deceit and betrayal was mobilised by Palestinians as a tool of peaceful resistance to British and Zionist colonial policies in Palestine.
The white settler-colonisation of Palestine culminated in the establishment of the Israeli State in 1948 and the Palestine Nakba–the catastrophe of the ethnic cleansing and destruction of much of historic Palestine. From the territory occupied by the Israelis in 1948, about 90 per cent of the Palestinians were driven out by Zionist psychological warfare and military pressure, often under the watchful eyes of the British who were still in charge of the country until mid-1948; a very large number went at gun-point. The war simply provided the opportunity and the necessary background for purging of the land and the creation of a Jewish state largely free of Arabs. It concentrated Jewish-Zionist minds, and provided the security, military and strategic explanations and justifications for purging the state and dispossessing the Palestinian people. Today some two-thirds of the Palestinians are refugees; millions live in squalid camps in the Middle East and many more are spread worldwide.
The Bible has been used by militarist Zionism and Israel not only as a tool for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the “exiling” of millions of Palestinians from their ancestral homeland but also as a way of erasing Palestinian history and suppressing Palestinian memory. Today, the Palestine Nakba is more or less absent from both British and Western collective memory.
Moreover, not only are the Palestinians still subject to ongoing ethnic cleansing and crusading policies in Jerusalem in the twenty-first century, for the past six decades Palestinian attempts to constitute a coherent narrative of their own past have been challenged and silenced by Israelis and the pro-Israel Lobby. Even today the 1948 Catastrophe is still being excluded from official discourse in Britain while Israel enjoys extraordinary support in the corridors of Whitehall; most Conservative MPs are members of “Conservative Friends of Israel”.
Publicly the British establishment chooses a “neutral position” on Palestine which often takes the form of silence or selective amnesia. In view of Britain’s historic responsibility for the Palestinian catastrophe, there can be no such neutrality or indifference about the injustice in Palestine.
To mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the symbolism of the British-Zionist alliance and their catastrophic impact on the Palestinians, the Balfour Project has been set up. The project seeks a) honesty in public debate and an acknowledgement of the disastrous consequences of British actions at the time of the Balfour Declaration and throughout the British Mandate in Palestine, and particularly the deceit surrounding Britain’s true intentions; b) an apology for British wrongdoing; c) an official British apology to the Palestinians for having intentionally ignored their legitimate political aspirations; and d) integrity in future British dealings with the Palestine question.
Prof Nur Masalha is Programme Director of the MA in Religion, Politics and Conflict Resolution. He has served on a Postgraduate Panel of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and was a member of the AHRC Peer Review College. He has been Director of the Holy Land Research Project since 2001 and Centre for Religion and History since 2007. Prof Masalha also edits Holy Land Studies: A Multidisciplinary Journal(published by Edinburgh University Press).
His recent books include: The Bible and Zionism: Invented Tradition, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Israel-Palestine (2007) and La Biblia leída con los ojos de los Cananeos (2011) and The Palestine Makba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory (2012). His forthcoming books include The Politics of Reading the Bible in Israel (2013).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.