“Disenfranchising the Palestinians”
On Nov. 2, 2017, Palestinians mark the hundred-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a letter from British foreign secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild that committed Britain to establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Its 67 words dispossessed the Palestinians and incubated Zionism, imperial Europe’s last settler colonial project. Certainly, the ongoing conflict is linked to the broader colonial legacies in the Global South.
British colonial policies and political machinations were designed to aggravate existing ethnic, religious, economic and political conflicts. The Balfour Declaration and the British ruling class’ adoption of Zionism represented a broader regional divide-and-rule strategy as well as a global plan to protect its colonial possessions of Egypt and India.
On this anniversary, we must revisit the development of and strategy behind this Declaration and how it has affected the Palestinians. More importantly, London owes the Palestinians an apology, restitution and a verifiable end to all forms of support to this colonial project.
The Balfour Declaration reads:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.”
In reality, the Declaration is a colonial legalism that reeks of dishonesty in each word used and at its very foundation, for its sole purpose is to provide a cover for the outright “civilized” thievery of Palestine. Why does this colonial legalism attempt to masquerade as a type of civilized international law? First, the Declaration was issued on Nov. 2, 1917, at a date and a time when the British had not yet become the occupying power — the Ottoman Empire surrendered Jerusalem on Dec. 9, 1917. In other words, London promised a territory over which it had neither sovereign power nor control to a third party.
Second, the Declaration is contained in a letter to a private citizen. Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, lacked any national or international legal standing to claim Palestine as a national home. This British promise concerning a land and country that was inhabited and belonged to its own people, namely, the Palestinians, represents the highest form of illegality.
Third, the letter was intended to be transmitted to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, which likewise lacked the legal standing to receive and represent claims over Palestine. Clearly, Balfour communicated and granted to British subjects a territory to which Britain had no legal rights. Also, the Zionist Federation did not represent a legal body that could speak on behalf of all Jews inside and outside of Palestine on this subject.
Fourth, the indigenous Palestinians, who made up 97 percent of historical Palestine’s population, were neither consulted nor considered. Fifth, Palestine’s Jewish population was not consulted and, whenever Theodor Herzl sought their support, forcefully rejected it.
Sixth, the Declaration’s actual text is problematic. For example, it doesn’t define “a national home,” which is not the same thing as a nation-state. It also introduces “the Jewish people” as a singular national identity that most of Jews living as citizens in various Arab and European countries as well as in the U.S. opposed. The Declaration stated at the end that “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country” — a way to create a “peoplehood” out of a diverse religious community.
Seventh, the Declaration completely erased the Palestinians, for it spoke only of the “non-Jewish” communities. Affirming their“civil and religious rights” is a mockery masquerading as a form of legal protection to a soon-to-be dispossessed indigenous population. No political rights are mentioned for the Palestinians, despite constituting 97 percent of the population, whereas the Zionists are granted “a national home” and “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” All of this translates into a British government intent on denying political and national rights to the indigenous Palestinians.
Why London issued the Declaration and what political forces brought it into existence are important questions. Certainly, the Declaration fits into British colonial plans that started much earlier than 1917 and involved colonial expansion into Ottoman territories. London’s fomenting of the June 5, 1916, Arab Revolt and the Sykes-Picot Agreement fitted perfectly into its colonial plans. At present, it is taken for granted that the Arab world’s current borders were drawn by British and French colonial administrators, for an Arab’s passport, citizenship and the name of his/her state is largely shaped by the former European colonial powers.
The records show that as early as December 1914, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith and his cabinet held lengthy discussions on Palestine’s fate — discussions in which the British Zionist leader Herbert Samuel, who held a seat due to being president of the Local Government Board, participated and provided input. Samuel’s very influential memoirs, “The Future of Palestine,” which he presented to the Cabinet in 1915, state: “I mentioned that two things would be essential—that the state should be neutralized, since it could not be large enough to defend itself, and that the free access of Christian pilgrims should be guaranteed… I also said it would be a great advantage if the remainder of Syria were annexed by France, as it would be far better for the state to have a European power as neighbor than the Turk.”
The Declaration was the result of deliberate and careful considerations and the involvement of Zionist leaders in Britain and the U.S. with a group led by the secular Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1856-1941). This group offered to help with the drafting and lobbying efforts directed at President Woodrow Wilson and the State Department. The final 67-word text was agreed upon after at least four known drafts and language changes were sent back and forth between U.S. and European Zionist leaders and political operatives. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann held that it was critical to get Wilson’s support. This support arrived in the form of a note sent on Oct. 13, 1917, and was due to the intense work of Brandeis and his dedicated Zionist group. In his “Zionism” (1926), Leonard Stein notes that the Declaration “was by no means a casual gesture. It was issued after prolonged deliberations as a considered statement of policy.”
In his “History of the Peace Conference in Paris” (1920), H.W.V. Temperly (ed.) states, “Before the British Government gave the Declaration to the World, it had been closely examined in all its bearings and implications, and subjected to repeated change and amendment.” In his two-volume “History of Zionism: 1600-1918” (1919), Nahum Sokolov, who served as president of the World Zionist Federation from 1931-35, writes that “every idea born in London was tested by the Zionist Organization in America, and every suggestion in America received the most careful attention in London.”
Lastly, “The Balfour Declaration was in process of making for nearly two years,” writes Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, chairman of the Provisional Zionist Committee in New York, while adding, “its authorship was not solitary but collective” (Noha Tadros Khalaf, “Falastin versus the British Mandate and Zionism (1921-1931),” Journal of Palestine Studies, no. 45 ).
Not all British Jews agreed with the Zionists’ plan, and thus two camps gradually emerged. Believing that this split could damage the efforts underway to secure Wilson’s and American support, the Jewish assimilationist camp led by Edwin S. Montagu spearheaded the counter-Zionist effort in London. For Montagu and others, theDeclaration threatened the status of Jewish communities in Europe and the U.S. with the possibility of dual allegiance, a subject of intense debate and draft changes that brought about the phrase “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Furthermore, Montagu took offense at the Declaration and charged London with forcing him and other British Jews into a new ghetto.
The then-Prime Minister Lloyd George, whose legal firm had represented Zionist interests in terms of securing Uganda as a possible homeland, testified before the Royal Commission in 1937 that “stimulating the war effort of American Jews was one of the major motives” for issuing it. It was also issued to counter the changes brought about by the Czar’s overthrow and the decreased “bitterness of the Jews in Russia,” who were increasingly turning toward supporting more revolutionary movements and were less inclined to continue to support the war effort. More importantly, the prime minister thought of constituting a “Jewish ‘garrison colony’ in Palestine as a buffer for Egypt and the Suez Canal.”
Critically, among London’s interests and needs in the region were (1) securing the status quo in Egypt (occupied and administered since 1882), (2) creating a buffer protection for the vitally strategic Suez Canal, (3) retaining its commercial and military advantages, and (4) maintaining broader links with its Asian and African colonial possessions. Furthermore, incubating a client Zionist colony would counter any threat to British supremacy in that part of the world.
The Zionists and Weizmann did not shy away from making explicit offers to connect themselves to British interests and proclaim Jewish Palestine “an essential link in the chain of the British empire.” Britain, the Zionists asserted, needed “somewhere in the countries abutting on to the Suez Canal, a base on which, in case of trouble, she can rely to keep clear the road to Imperial communication.” Here is the idea of the Zionist state function of securing for Britain the “vital Cape-to-Cairo and Cairo-to-India routes” (John Quigly, “Palestine and Israel,” 1990, p. 9).
Even at this early stage, the discovery of oil played an important role in British designs, as can be seen in the proposed IraqHaifa pipeline passing through transJordan, which was already on the drawing board. Interestingly, this idea was revived during and after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, as well as the new imperial design of a water supply channel to satiate Zionist settler demands. Indeed, London largely viewed the Zionist state as constituting a buffer state that would protect its regional interests with an emphasis on Egypt, a critical gate to the empire’s vast trade network and territories. Unlike India, held to have a set of natural buffer zones in the north, geographically strategic Egypt had no such protection. However, a buffer state allied to or incubated by Britain would serve the same purpose.
The Balfour Declaration must be situated both within imperial Britain’s broader designs to protect its interests and the Zionist leadership’s machinations to secure a foothold in Palestine. As such, Zionism and the Zionist project were born in the imperial womb and functioned within its epistemic foundations. According to the GermanAmerican political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906-75), when it came to London’s colonial alliance and machinations, Zionism “sold out at the first moment to the powers-that-be.”
The British promise to the Zionists must be examined within Herzl’s broader strategy. Essentially, the London-approved Declaration was a Zionist authored document that involved more than Englishmen before the Cabinet made it the effective policy of successive governments. This reality gives rise to a critical question: What is its significance for the Zionist settler colonial project? Answering this question takes us back to August 29-31, 1897 and, in particular, to Herzl’s declared intent for his movement: “to obtain for the Jewish people a publically recognized, legally secure homeland in Palestine.” The Declaration, the first public document sanctioned by Washington and the imperial European powers, established the needed framework for securing an internationally sanctioned Zionist foothold in Palestine.
Even before it was issued, on May 20, 1917 Weizman announced, “while the creation of a Jewish commonwealth is our final ideal… the way to achieve it lies through a series of intermediary stages… Under the wing of this Power (Great Britain), Jews will be able to develop and to set up the administrative machinery which, while not interfering with the legitimate interests of the non-Jewish population, will enable us to carry out the Zionist scheme.” In other words, the Declaration was part of a multistaged approach to set up a state under a major Western power’s protection to facilitate immigration and build an institutional framework for its future emergence. While its text is rather short, its implications and inclusion in all subsequent legal documents pertaining to Palestine made it a trans-historical knife directed at the heart of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.
In conclusion, the Declaration created “legal colonial facts” on paper that were then mobilized to create settler colonial facts on the ground by encouraging and facilitating Zionist immigration, building settlements and systematically dispossessing the Palestinians. In the years following WWI, representatives of the World Zionist Organization were included and actually became parties to the negotiations and agreements pertaining to the status of Palestine and other parts of the Arab world. All of the Palestinians’ efforts in this regard were either curtailed or blocked. Furthermore, early articulations on how London should facilitate the Zionist project are almost identical to those that were included in the League of Nations’ British Mandate for Palestine.
This British-incubated settler colonialism achieved success with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The British Occupation and Mandate should be designated as the actual date for this colonial project, which culminated in the dispossession and eventual expulsion of vast numbers of indigenous Palestinians. The Mandate provided the systematic infrastructure that led to the eventual establishment of a Jewish homeland while denying Palestine to the Palestinians.
The actual Mandate, adopted by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, came into effect on Sept. 29, 1923. On the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, we must re-center the discussion of Palestine around colonial discourses and place as much emphasis on the British, European, and the major Western powers’ contribution to the Palestinians’ dispossession as we do on the Zionists in this regard. The time is right for London to publically admit that this Declaration was a major historical mistake, was illegal, led to ethnic cleansing and created a 12-million member Palestinian diaspora. Achieving peace is contingent on justice and can begin to take shape only when this original sin is admitted and recognized as such.
Originally Published: Islamic Horizons November/December 2017 Pgs. 48-50 https://issuu.com/isnacreative/docs/ih_november-december_17