Around the world, people on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict are marking with gusto the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the British government’s pledge on 2 November 1917 to support "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."
A decade ago, there was little interest in this document, which was generally regarded as an old piece of diplomatic history, so very far away from contemporary politics.
>> Read Haaretz' full coverage of the Balfour Declaration centennial: Lord Balfour's modern-day descendants have a dramatic declaration of their own ■ Analysis // Britain downgrades the Balfour Declaration centennial ■ U.K.'s Boris Johnson defends Balfour Declaration: 'Proud of Britain's part in creating Israel' ■ Opinion // Balfour’s original sin >>
But since the conflict on the ground has become locked in an impasse, the war for legitimacy in global civil society has attained a new significance. And so, the international history of that fight for legitimacy is relevant again.
Unfortunately, however, most of the current public war of words about the Balfour Declaration tells us nothing new about its history or the conflict as a whole; supporters of Israel celebrate, while pro-Palestinian voices protest.
This familiar ritual - the same today as it was in the 1920s - seldom engages with perhaps the most important question: Why did the Declaration create such a mess? A significant part of the answer is to be found in the racism of the British government 100 years ago, which disturbingly, continues to reverberate in the conflict to this day.
One of the decisive developments of that year had been the decision in April of the United States government to enter the war on the side of the allies. Yet America’s military mobilization had been slow. At the same time, one of Britain’s most important partners, the Russian empire, had been struck by a revolution in March, and looked like it might bow out of the war entirely.
Significant figures in the British government, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary A.J. Balfour, thought that the world’s Jews could help Britain to deal with these urgent problems.
The British foreign policy elite, along with their counterparts on both sides of the global war, believed that Jews possessed a tremendous power around the world. No policymaker put down on paper how exactly this influence was supposed to work - it was understood as a nebulous force that could steer high finance, press, public opinion, and (!) revolutionary socialism. Nonetheless, in the minds of the political establishment, this power was very real and significant.
The notion of Jewish power is, of course, an elemental feature of anti-Semitism today, as it was in 1917. The idea was apparent already in the time of Martin Luther, who argued in 1543 that the Jews wanted to control the world (the coincidence of the anniversary of his 95 Theses and the decision to issue the Declaration should give us all pause for thought).
The British government’s interest in the weapon of supposed Jewish power far outweighed their concern with the future of Zionism in the Holy Land.
They did not engage in any wartime planning regarding the development of "a national home for the Jewish people." In contrast, the government invested significant resources in trying to convince world Jewry that the Declaration was the realization of the Zionist dream - in short, propaganda. Following the British military occupation of Jerusalem in December 1917, their administration promoted this idea widely in occupied Palestine.
Yet the Cabinet had no intention of giving Judaea to the Jews; they wanted the land for themselves - the key, as it was, to protecting the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf.
A set of racial assumptions about Jews contributed to this fateful step of exaggerating Britain’s enthusiasm for Zionism.
Most British policymakers who backed the Balfour Declaration judged that the majority of Zionists did not want, and would not want, an independent Jewish state. According to the dominant political thinking at the time in Britain, independent nationhood stood at the apex of human development, which was possessed only by white Europeans. Such a state of full sovereignty could not be held (or even expected) by lesser peoples - a belief held by Middle East adviser Sir Mark Sykes in 1917, as it had been by John Stuart Mill in 1861.
In the racial thinking of early 20th century Europe, the Jews had not reached this point of civilizational progress. Their fate was to be governed. Therefore, the British could quite comfortably wax lyrical about Balfour as the end of Jewish exile, without being concerned about Jewish political ambitions to control the land themselves.
On the Palestinian Arab side of the equation, the impact of racial thought on the policies of the British government was just as pronounced.
Heavily influenced by the stories of the Old Testament - the metatext of British culture - the likes of Lloyd George saw the Holy Land as the landscape of the Children of Israel. The Jews were, so the story went, the authentic inhabitants (though not rulers) of the land. The Arabs of Palestine, therefore, could not be a distinct people, rooted in that soil.
British Orientalists saw the Palestinian population, instead, as an impure mix of different races, who were not 'authentic', 'racial' Arabs. This was why the Declaration invoked the phrase "non-Jewish communities" to describe the Arabs who constituted approximately 90% of the population.
With this conception of Palestinian society, the British military administration in the Holy Land was perfectly relaxed about promoting the idea of Arab national liberation under the banner of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, the leader of the revolt against the Ottomans. British Middle East specialists assumed that Palestinian Arabs would not consider for a moment that this independent future would include them.
How wrong the British were. By the end of 1918, Arab political activists in the Holy Land spoke of "Palestine for the Palestinians", and the first Palestinian nationalist organizations were founded. In the Jewish world, the majority of Zionists and their opponents now believed that a Jewish state was imminent.
Such was the power of the racial imagination that for at least two decades the British government refused to acknowledge that most Zionists and Palestinians were fighting for an independent state of their own. Instead, British policymakers called statists "extremists", and labelled those who accepted colonial sovereignty as "moderates".
In 2017, we need not look far to find powerful echoes of the racist ideas of a century ago that led to the mess that followed the Balfour Declaration.
The chants of the marching fascists in Charlottesville made clear that racist conspiracists’ foundational idea of global Jewish power is alive and well, if anybody needed to be reminded. Indeed, the belief in the notion of a ‘Jewish lobby’ is far from being the preserve of the far-right; it’s mainstream.
In the West, Jews and Palestinians who are in favour of complete sovereignty over the land are quickly labelled extremists, as opposed to just nationalists. And many opponents of the Palestinians in Israel and abroad dispute that they constitute a nation, or that they are capable of governing themselves in a fully sovereign state.
These doubts about the ability of the Palestinians to administer a secure and stable country go well beyond the Israeli right. Let us remember that the Oslo peace accords, celebrated as the great hope for peace, did not stipulate the creation of a Palestinian state.
Even the international political consensus on how to remedy the conflict - the two state solution - was the product of European race thinking; in 1937, the British Royal Commission for Palestine were the first to advocate this solution on the basis that there existed an unbridgeable racial gulf between Jews and Arabs.
Instead of weaponizing the Balfour Declaration, global civil society would be much better served by reflecting on the deeply problematic racial ideas that were behind that act, and that are still with us today.
If we could shed the vestiges of these ways of thinking about the conflict, then maybe we will finally move beyond the arguments of the 1920s. For the time being, however, we are stuck in that very old groove, as the broken record player continues to spin slowly without pause.
James Renton is Reader in History at Edge Hill University, and a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute. He is the author of The Zionist Masquerade: The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance, 1914-1918, and has contributed to several programs made to commemorate the Balfour centenary, including on BBC Radio 4 and Al Jazeera. Twitter: @RentonJE
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now