Mans Inhumanity to Man – 100 Years of Balfour

by Stephen Brown

As the year 2017 closes our thoughts may turn to Burns and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ but it is perhaps timely to consider another quote from the bard –  ‘Mans inhumanity to man, Makes countless thousands mourn!’

Written in 1784 but apposite to the plight of the Palestinian people today – 100 years on from the infamous Balfour Declaration.

However before any discussion of the injustices endured by the Palestinian people can be undertaken it is necessary to dispense with the demeaning accusation that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. The best refutation of this that I have read appears in the Scottish Friends of Palestine publication ‘Twenty Questions on Palestine’. Q 13 begins:

”One of the ugliest tactics used by Zionist propagandists is the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-semitism in the hope of intimidating and suppressing the views of those who campaign for justice for the Palestinians. The nightmare destruction of millions of Jews by the Nazis makes this tactic a potent one”.

Q 13 then concludes with the revelation that Palestinians are themselves a Semitic people. The word “Semitic” originally referring to language and culture rather than to races or peoples – Hebrew and Arabic both being from the Semitic family of languages. With the corollary that opposition to Zionism is opposition not to a people but to a political philosophy that seeks to prevent the integration of Jews into a non-Jewish population and in consequence de facto demands that a  “Jews only” state must be established.

The Balfour Declaration. In its entirety the declaration amounts to nothing more than 68 words written by the former Home Secretary David Balfour to Lord Rothschild, who was an influential member of the British Jewish elite and friend of Chaim Weizmann who was a biochemist living and working in Britain at the the time but also President of the Zionist Organisation and later Israels first President.  The full text of the declaration is set out in bold below. For all its brevity the Balfour Declaration is one of the most infamous and divisive documents of the 20th century and its dark legacy remains a pall over Middle East politics today.

Dear Lord Rothschild

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, 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.

I should be grateful if you would be bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

The declaration was mostly worded by Weizmann – a Polish Jewish emigre who gained access to the upper echelons of Britains political elite through his acquiance with CP Scott then editor of the Manchester Guardian. In its original draft the declaration read that Palestine would be ‘reconstituted as the National home of the Jewish people’. This was toned down to ‘the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine’ and the caveat concerning prejudice to ‘the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine..’ was added to overcome Cabinet objections. The inherent racist slant relegating the status of the indigenous peoples in Palestine to ‘non-Jewish communities’ has not gone unnoticed by modern commentators (here) including Hanan Ashwari in her article ‘A century on from Balfour, I challenge the British Govenment to do the right thing’, published in The Guardian 2 November 2017.

Hanan Ashwari, Palestinian legislator, activist and scholar. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia]
The context of the Balfour Declaration is one of largely Christian empires fighting for world domination in the Great War of 1914 – 1918 (The Ottoman Empire being the exception to this). David Reynolds in his article for the New Statesman of 11 November 2017 provides an excellent summary of the deteriorating militiary situation in the European theatre and uses it as a backdrop into the possible motivations of the perfidious British government in their treatment and use of Palestine to further their own colonial objectives. The Ottoman Empire was seen as ‘the sick man of Europe’ yet were proving no military pushover as the disastrous Gallipoli campaign had demonstrated. A new strategy was therefore hatched using the Egypt Expeditionary Force under Gen Allenby to take Palestine. The aim was to bolster and protect British influence in Egypt and protect Suez and access to the eastern Empire. Reynolds argues convincingly that the real aim of the British government was not so much the promotion of Zionism but winning the war. To further this objective the British government reached an secret deal with France in 1916 – the Sykes-Picout agreement – which was in direct contradiction with an agreement reached with Arab leaders under the 1915 Hussein-McMahon correspondence. This accord was kept deliberately vague and designed to win over the Palestinian Arabs to the British cause and further undermine the Ottomans. Secret talks were even held with the Ottomans on the future of Palestine. Britain was playing the field.

There were a few Cabinet objections to the declaration at the time – notably from prominent Jewish members, Lord Curzon and Edwin Montague – but events and circumstances overtook them and their serious objections were nullified. However the concerns of Lord Curzon would come to haunt the region to this day. He warned against ‘raising false expectations which could never be realised’ and he even went further wanting to protect Christian and Moslem holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. If this were done he concluded he did not see how ‘the Jewish people could have a political capital in Palestine’. Indeed Balfour himself in 1919 admitted that ‘the literal fulfilment of all our declaration was impossible, partly they are incompatible with each other and partly because they are incompatible with the facts’.

Hanan Ashwari has characterised the declaration as a colonial decision emanating from the myth of the ‘white man’s burden’, the idea that ‘advanced nations’ needed to administer the territories of ‘peoples not yet able to stand by themselves’ in the words of the League of Nations covenant. This was a largely racist perception of the day, yet a legacy which Britain today is failing to recognise and come to terms with.

Whatever the original context and intent of the declaration it is clear that it denied the indigenous population the inalienable right of self-determination and paved the way for The Nakba 1948 after the first Arab/Israeli War, and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israeli militia with the forced removal of over 800,000 men, women and children from their homes, towns and villages. This was largely a consequence of Zionist activities in Palestine under the British Mandate. This forced evacuation was brutal and several massacres were perpetrated including the infamous Deir Yassin massacre as described by Catrina Stewart in her article for the Independent on 9 May 2010. The Deir Yassin massacre has come to symbolise the Palestinian sense of dispossession and which the State of Israel seeks to erase from its collective memory much as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam has been expunged from the American ‘conscience collective’. But massacres like Deir Yassin were not isolated incidents and, of the 475 Palestinian villages inside the 1948 Armistice Line, 385 were destroyed by Israel to supply kibbutzim with the land needed to build Jewish settlements. In October 1956 in another blatant exercise in ethnic cleansing, farmers from the village of Kafr Qasem were murdered in cold blood. No distinction was made between men, women or children – the only important factor was the eradication of Palestinians.

Today movement of Palestinians is still strictly controlled by Israel and only day workers can return to that part of Palestine within Israel’s pre 1967 boundaries.

Gaza Strip – an open prison. [Image courtesy of The Guardian].
Workers must return home at the end of each day and since the 1987 Intifada harsh measures have been implemented to restrict the entry of Palestinians into Israel including residents of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

It may not be true to say that the Balfour Declaration is responsible for all of the ills of modern Palestine but it is true to say that under the British Mandate the British government facilitated and encouraged mass migration of Jews from Europe and the rest of the world to Palestine and between 1922 – 1935 the Jewish population in Palestine grew from less than 10% to around 27% and although under the declaration ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine..’ the mandate was set up in a way to equip Jews with the tools to establish self-rule at the expense of the Palestinian-Arabs. Moreover, Britain had allowed Jews to establish self-governing institutions such as the Jews Agency in preparation for statehood whilst Palestinians were forbidden from doing the same. By 1947 when Britain handed the mandate over to the United Nations the Jews already had a fully trained and equipped army, courtesy of the British, paving the way for the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.  Zena Tahhan ‘100 years on: The Balfour Declaration explained‘ .

Zena al-Tehran [image courtesy of Wikipedia]
A century on the doctrine of ‘relative humanism’, as defined by Omar Barghouti in the booklet ‘Palestine and the Legacy of Balfour’ edited by Hugh Humphries and published by the Scottish Friends of Palestine, remains an insidious doctrine poisoning the politics of the Middle East, and whilst Great Britain is no longer the pre-eminent global power it once was it is time for Britain to atone for the Balfour Declaration. It should be a matter of personal and national shame that our Prime Minster Theresa May stated publicly – and in our name – that Britain ‘takes pride in the declaration and that Her Majesty’s Government will celebrate its anniversary’. Britain must recognise its culpability; it must come to terms with its colonial past and acknowledge the historic and long standing injustices caused, which, since 1917, all Palestinians have inherited. It is time to hold the State of Israel to account for apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Palestine. We must press for a two-state solution – something that the Palestinians have been willing to concede for 30 years.

Israeli extra-judicial killings condemned by Amnesty International [Image courtesy of The]
We must demand that Israel upholds international law including UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and work towards ending illegal occupation and illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Israeli repression and extra-judicial killings perpetrated by the Israeli military (as here) must be subject to the justice of the international criminal courts as called for by Amnesty International.

Abu Thurayeh a legless Palestinian protester shot dead by Israeli troops. [Image courtesy of Reuters].

The State of Israel may have a right to exist under international law but we should not tolerate an expansionist and imperialist Israeli state and Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for Israel to end its occupation of Palestine.

I humbly dedicate this piece to Abu Thurayeh and to all those Palestinians who have lost their lives struggling for their basic human rights denied under brutal Israeli oppression.


Editor’s note: The tone and arguments in this article are not necessarily endorsed by The Voice.