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The Balfour Declaration and contemporary echoes of imperialism

November 3, 2017 at 12:07 pm

Palestinians gather to protest 100 years since Balfour Declaration on 2 November 2017 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

The Balfour Declaration, which has its centenary this week, is part of Palestine’s present, imposing itself upon almost every aspect of everyday life. This is quite clearly not the only historical continuity. The emergency laws which Israel uses to justify its illegal conquest of the Palestinian West Bank can be traced back to the British Mandate period. Similarly, the actions of former Israeli prime ministers such as David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin bore more than a slight resemblance to imperial antecedents. When Rabin called upon Israeli soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian protestors, he invoked an established colonial article of faith, reproduced in colonial contexts the world over, which holds that “the natives only understand force”. This was held to be just as “true” in 1936 — when Jewish units helped to crush the Arab Revolt — as in 1987, when Rabin issued his infamous directive to Israeli soldiers.

I believe that the Balfour Declaration did not represent an unfortunate excess or misjudgement upon the part of the British government; on the contrary, it has much to say about a more general imperial mentality. The different aspects of this mindset are alluded to by three features of the document. Firstly, it clearly ascribed attributes of superiority and inferiority. Whereas this distinction would previously have been justified with reference to the harsh terminology of racial theory it is now, by virtue of modern proclivities and sensitivities, more likely to be articulated in the somewhat more agreeable and comforting tones of development theory. Secondly, Balfour’s ascription of an inferior status can be seen to have preceded, and legitimised, the political marginalisation of the “inferior” group. Finally, his letter was presented as part of a historical mission, duty or obligation.

There is a clear overlap with the exertion of imperial power in the contemporary context, which testifies to the perpetuation and perseverance of an imperial mindset. The practical implementation of the Oslo Accords, in spite of a formal commitment to uphold the condition of equality, evidenced a series of hierarchies; the sponsors of the “peace process” have repeatedly favoured elite-based engagement and consciously privileged Israeli security interests over the Palestinian need for political accountability and participation; and, in the contemporary period, US government officials have repeatedly sought to frame their engagement with the Palestine-Israel conflict in the terms of their own country’s historical duty to the wider world.

Read: Why the Balfour Declaration did not promise a Jewish state

Each aspect of the imperial mindset — the ascribed inferiority of the subject people, the presumed acceptability of their marginalisation and the self-righteous certainty of the imperial power — is further affirmed by the Balfour Declaration’s brevity. With just a few lines Arthur Balfour, the then-British Foreign Secretary, presumed to dictate the fate of an entire population. If we are shocked by the arrogance of this gesture, then this testifies to a defect on our part, an inability to adjust our perspective to the demands of imperial power. From there, all appears in small detail, as an item to be subordinated or manipulated. Human history appears as a continual elaboration of this theme, interrupted only by points of denial or resistance.

This perspective is not defined by its breadth or scope but rather by its sense of limitation. Whereas vision would ordinarily be viewed as something to be aspired to, imperial power instead privileges a very different set of criteria. A “wilful blindness” is instead celebrated and elevated. The British Mandate’s administrators evidenced this attribute in clear measure when they overlooked the inconvenient conclusions of the Palin Commission and the Haycraft Commission, both of which held that Zionist activities had provoked growing political unrest in Palestine. Commissions were hardly required to establish this fact. Indeed, it was already acknowledged widely and appreciated by observers such as Sir Louis Bols, the former British Chief Administrator of Palestine, who once observed infamously that the Zionist Commission “acted, in fact, as if it was the lord of Palestine”.

The perspective of imperial power also demands a blindness to long-term consequences. In some respects, this is a demand of statecraft; the uncertainty and volatility of the international environment necessarily entails that state actors should think and act in the short-term. Imperial administrators can act, safe in the knowledge that the long-term consequences of their actions were not foretold, and could not have been foretold. Appeals to conventional standards of morality also sound hopefully illusionary and naïve. Accountability cannot be upheld both because imperial power rests upon its own interior justification and because time detaches the initial action from its long-term consequence.

Nobody could therefore be held to account for Balfour’s establishment of the Jewish Agency, whose actions helped to establish many of the precursors of the Israeli state. Innumerable contingencies lay between the two stages. External observers could easily overlook the fact that the initial action was anticipated by clear intent. The declaration’s textual ambiguity — with which there is a clear parallel with the Oslo Accords — also further occluded the ultimate intentions of the imperial power.

In addition to a limitation of perspective and ambiguity, impartiality appears as another tactical device of imperial power. In instances where recourse to direct force is not a viable option, imperial power is obliged to adopt more covert or subtle manoeuvres. This requires no great effort upon the part of imperial power, as it is well-versed in the dark arts of deception and subterfuge. However, these skills notwithstanding, its performances frequently take on a stylised or artificial character. Observers are required, as with any dramatic performance, to suspend their credulity and indulge the representations of what, to all intents and purposes, appears to be a farce. In 1917, Palestinians were required to overlook the fact that former Home Secretary Herbert Samuel, the British Mandate’s first High Commissioner of Palestine, was a committed Zionist; in 2017, Palestinians are required to overlook the fact that the US, the foremost actor in efforts to engineer a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement, openly sponsors the suppression and denial of Palestinian human rights.

Read: 100 years after the signing of the Balfour Declaration… What to do now?

The performativity of power is necessitated by the fact that it is obliged as something other than what it is. The visual demonstrations of power – the monuments, statues and grand buildings — represent a sustained effort to divert attention away from the true character of imperialism. The perversity of its rendition is that its administrators and adherents are forced to abide with norms, conventions and rituals which they know to be false. Articles of faith are similarly without foundation. It has been a long-standing convention, for example, to deny the political character of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For a variety of reasons, local and international actors have repeatedly insisted upon the precise opposite; that it is instead religious, cultural or civilisational in character. In ascribing Palestinians as a “non-Jewish community”, the Balfour Declaration explicitly denied their political existence and status. Contemporary sponsors of the largely apolitical Palestinian state-building project similarly continue to fall prey to the illusion that sustained economic growth and “development” will offset the continued denial of Palestinian political rights.

These illusions are sustained by duplicity, and by the advancement of propositions and proposals which the various protagonists know to be false. The illusion of economic development; the ongoing fetishisation of Palestinian “good governance” (which is simultaneously a denial of occupation and its innumerable consequences) and the “good faith” of the international community: each proposition is, at some level, known to be false or at the very least questionable. It cannot be sustained through its own interior logic or appeal to truth and must therefore be situated in relation to a set of external enticements such as donor aid, trade concessions or personal benefits.


In each of its preceding contributions the document has suggested that imperial power provides a clear continuity which links past and present. However, it is just as likely that imperial power will originate acts of denial and resistance. The First Intifada, which broke out 70 years after the Balfour Declaration was signed, is instructive in this respect. In my reading, it can be theorised and understood as the inversion of the infamous letter to Zionist leader Lord Rothschild. This interpretation can be justified with reference to three features: it refused the hierarchical ordering that is integral to both Zionism and colonial power and grounded its appeal to justice within universal values and principles; whereas the Balfour Declaration was defined in all respects by its exteriority, the Intifada originated within local roots and forces; and, whereas the declaration was rooted within elite machinations, the Intifada was a grassroots initiative that was sustained by local energies and a local leadership. An analysis of the contemporary echoes of imperialism should, to this extent, also incorporate themes of resistance and refusal.

In the contemporary period, the echoes of imperialism were indicated clearly when Theresa May, the incumbent British Prime Minister, insisted that her dinner invitation to her Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu was meant to “mark” and not “celebrate” the Balfour Declaration. It is also evidenced by the thousands of letters which Palestinian children have sent to Downing Street, which will presumably remain unanswered. In both respects, imperial power again reiterates (although this reiteration is hardly required) its considerable capacity for callousness and indifference to human suffering.

Despite the above claim, May has recently called upon the British people to join her in “celebrating” Balfour. She insults them by presuming their ignorance or indifference. Sadly, she did not then proceed to clarify whether Britons should take equal pride in the less frequently acknowledged consequences of their country’s glorious achievement. These consequences include children swimming in Gaza’s sewage-contaminated waters; refugees drowning in the Mediterranean; and butchered men, women and children strewn across the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Imperial power does not see fit to acknowledge them, but they linger in the background, haunting its grotesque, deceitful and self-serving representations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.