James Renton’s recent Haaretz article (The Balfour Declaration's Deep anti-Semitism and Racism - and Why It Still Matters) accurately exposes the anti-Semitic undertones of the authors of Balfour Declaration, a product of European race thinking in the early twentieth century.
His account of the Balfour-era racism of the British establishment is, however, only one side of the story, for these ideas were being increasingly challenged from the peripheries of the empire in the interwar years.
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The Balfour Declaration has an older history than that outlined by Renton. While the immediate needs of the First World War shaped the declaration, we can only really understand its genesis by looking back to the debates on the ‘Jewish Question’ and the attempts Britain made to divert away from its own shores the ongoing large-scale Jewish emigration out of Eastern Europe (where Jews faced persecution).
In 1902, when Arthur Balfour was prime minister, Theodor Herzl travelled to London to testify before the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration. This is when the Uganda Plan was born. The task for drawing up a potential Jewish colony in East Africa was given to a young lawyer called David Lloyd George.
Three years later the British Government passed the Aliens Act, in large part intended to limit the significant numbers of Eastern European Jews entering the country. When the Balfour Declaration was written in 1917, on the eve of Allenby’s Palestine campaign, Lloyd George was Britain’s Prime Minister, and Balfour was his Foreign Minister.
In many ways, the Balfour Declaration reflected these earlier conversations between Balfour and Lloyd George over Jewish immigration. They were also influenced by the Victorian class system. As honorary vice president of the British Eugenics Education Society, Balfour believed that aristocracy provided the dynamic element in society, and that the Arabs would benefit from the immigration of Jews in his ‘great experiment’ in Palestine.
After the war, Parliament extended the franchise in Britain by abolishing property qualifications for men and introduced limited female suffrage. But in Palestine, Britain did not even consult the inhabitants about the Balfour Declaration. No wonder the Balfour Declaration was attacked as reactionary by the Communists who seized power in Moscow for running counter to the doctrine of self-determination espoused by Lenin.
Palestinians themselves protested the Balfour Declaration from afar as Santiago de Chile, Mexico, and Bolivia and demanded freedom in petitions to British embassies. There were riots in Jerusalem and Jaffa.
Given the size of Palestine’s Arab majority, Lord Curzon, formerly Viceroy of British India, who had more experience in colonial affairs than the cerebral Balfour, expressed his view that the Balfour Declaration was likely to face significant opposition from the Arabs who would not be content to be 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'.
Lord Montagu, Secretary of State for India, was astonished that the government was promising Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people, when the Bolsheviks had just abolished the restrictions imposed on Jews in Russia. He was concerned that the Balfour Declaration would prejudice his status as an English gentleman since anti-Semites could now complain that Palestine was his ‘National Home’.
Just when Britain had published a declaration announcing its intention to encourage Jewish immigrants to people a new colony, four empires (the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman) collapsed. Colonialism was becoming an anachronism.
The League of Nations established Mandates over the colonies of these powers where self-government was the declared goal after a period of tutelage by ‘advanced nations’.
Britain soon realised that it was going to have great difficulty administering the Mandate, given its conflicting obligations to the Arabs and to the Jews, and consideration was given to abandoning the entire enterprise in a secret meeting of the cabinet in 1923.
Instead of giving up the Mandate to another European power, however, Whitehall chose to ‘water down’ its commitments to the Zionists in a series of White Papers.
The first of these papers made it clear that Britain never contemplated the disappearance or the subordination of the Arab population, Arabic language or culture in Palestine when it issued the Balfour Declaration. Nor did the declaration contemplate "that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home", but that such a Home should be founded "in Palestine."
Britain’s attempts at linguistic gymnastics failed to appease the Arabs, who continued to express concern over the Balfour Declaration throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
The Arab Revolt (1936-1939) in Mandate Palestine that Britain cruelly repressed, antagonized not just the Arabs but Muslims all over the world, from as far away as India where the All-India Muslim League adopted several resolutions denouncing Britain’s Palestine policy which, it claimed, was threatening the sanctity of the Holy Places.
This sudden interest in Palestine caused the governors of the empire serious concern, given that Britain was responsible for ruling over more Muslims than any other European power.
Whitehall took the criticisms expressed by the All-India Muslim League seriously, especially as they knew they would have to rely on its support for the Second World War, given the opposition to that war from the All-India Congress.
Britain’s decision to invite the Aga Khan to the Roundtable Conference on Palestine in 1939 - in order to co-opt at least part of the Muslim community - upset Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who saw himself as the sole spokesman of India’s Muslims. Jinnah was also under pressure from his own right-flank, in particular from his opponents in the Ahrars and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Hind.
Jinnah demanded a seat at the table, and also demanded that Britain include the Mufti of Jerusalem in the discussions, and when rebuffed, he sent a delegation to London to advise the Arab delegation from behind the scenes.
Jinnah’s representatives in London even sent a letter to British parliamentarians in February 1939, reminding them that one third of the troops that had served in Allenby’s Palestine campaign were Muslim. The not-so-subtle point being made was that Britain would have to rely on the loyalty of these troops again in the coming war with Germany.
The looming war, the persecution of Jews in Germany, the sharp increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine, the Arab Revolt, and pressure from British India, convinced Britain that it had to abandon the policy in the Balfour Declaration if it was to maintain quiet in imperial India and Mandate Palestine.
In its 1939 White Paper, the British Government set aside its support for a Jewish National Home and its endorsement of Zionism when it proclaimed that it desired to see the establishment of "an independent Palestine State" in which "the two peoples in Palestine, Arabs and Jews, share authority in government."
The 'one state solution' in Palestine envisaged in the White Paper was never established. The Second World War changed everything.
Instead, Britain relinquished the Mandate on 15 May 1948 without international agreement, after it prevented the United Nations from implementing the Partition Plan and after it had thwarted a UN Trusteeship proposal for Palestine. Britain encouraged the Arab Legion of Transjordan (then under British command) to enter the Mandate and annex the territory allotted by the United Nations to the Arab state.
Britain’s decision to abandon the Mandate was a flagrant violation of its obligations as the Mandatory Power and was condemned by the UN as a "catastrophic conclusion to an era of international concern for the territory." Israelis and Palestinians have been in conflict ever since.
It's an abiding irony of Britain's Mandate and its aftermath that Britain envisaged establishing that 'independent Palestine state' back in 1939. Consequently, India, Pakistan, and Israel indeed became independent states, but an independent Palestine is yet to be marked on a map of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Victor Kattan is Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and an Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Law. He is the author of From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Pluto Press 2009) and will be speaking on the Balfour Declaration and British policy at the British Academy in London on 2 November. Twitter: @VictorKattan
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