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Posted at: Nov 15, 2017, 12:33 AM; last updated: Nov 15, 2017, 1:33 AM (IST)

Balfour’s bully boy

UK owes apology for not honouring promise to Palestinians
Balfour’s bully boy
Unfinished business: The bogey of anti-semitism only complicated the issue.

Hasan Suroor

THE centenary of the Balfour Declaration that paved the way for the creation of Israel has come and gone but barely noticed in India despite its historic interest in the Palestinian cause. Elsewhere in the world, however, it has revived the debate on the moral and political aspects of a move whose legacy has been one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The declaration, named after the then British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour who cooked it up, was all of 67 words endorsing the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A key condition was that “nothing will be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. What was to happen, though, was exactly the opposite with Palestinians effectively rendered stateless in their own homeland, and the Jews becoming an occupying power.

A folklore has grown around the dramatic manner in which the declaration was announced. The story goes that on October 31, 1917, Sir Mark Sykes, MP and the British government’s Middle East adviser (of the notorious Sykes-Picot pact fame) “bounded out” of the cabinet office and told Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann (later to become Israel’s first President) excitedly: “It’s a boy!”  Zionists had won, but it was not until 1948 that their dream became a reality — and not before a period of uncertainty that nearly derailed it.

There’s a popular black-and-white narrative suggesting an unequivocal British support for a Zionist state in Palestine. The declaration, according to this narrative, was a conspiracy against the people of Palestine. The reality, however, is more complex. For example, it’s not widely known that despite the declaration Palestine was not the first choice for a Jewish homeland. Territories in Cyprus, Egypt and Uganda were offered to Jews. And Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of political Zionism, even accepted Uganda, but he died before an agreement could be reached among the squabbling Zionist lobby. His successor, Weizmann, was fixated on Palestine. He is said to have retorted that Moses would have smashed his tablets if he had been offered Uganda, according to Jewish historian  Simon Sebag Montefiore, one of whose ancestors, Claude Montefiore, was a leading anti-Zionist figure in British Jewry.

“Would you exchange London for Paris?” he asked Balfour. “But we have London,” Balfour said. To which Weizmann replied: “We had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.”

Weizmann’s persistence and the help he received from his influential friends, including CP Scott, the famously liberal editor of Manchester Guardian, apart, ultimately, it was Britain’s geopolitical considerations that influenced its decision to settle for Palestine. Claims that Britain acted out of some predisposed anti-Palestinian bias ignore the political complexities of the time. Another fallacy is that Zionism had overwhelming British support. The fact is that Jews themselves were deeply divided as was the British government, with Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India and the only Jew in the Lloyd George cabinet, fiercely opposed to it. In an official letter, he warned that giving in to Zionists would “prove a rallying ground for anti-semites in every country in the world”.  

More significantly, the opposition came from Britain’s most representative Jewish body, the Board of Deputies, and the Anglo-Jewish Association. They cautioned that creating a special Jewish homeland after displacing native Palestinians would be a “calamity”.

“The establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine, founded on this theory of homelessness, must have the effect of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands,” they wrote in a letter to the pro-Zionist Times newspaper. They were particularly opposed to giving special rights to Jewish settlers in Palestine. “The proposal to invest the Jewish settlers in Palestine certain special rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population...would prove a veritable calamity for the whole Jewish people.”

Historical accounts suggest that the events surrounding the declaration and the circumstances leading to the actual creation of Israel were not so much a result of a pro-Zionist and anti-Palestine conspiracy as a combination of  sympathy for Zionism at the top of the British government; pressure from a financially and politically influential Zionist lobby of bankers, politicians, newspaper proprietors; even a desire in some quarters to “get rid of the Jews”; and most crucially Britain’s wartime geopolitical calculations.

As Montefiore writes timing was “everything”. “Britain was exhausted by the World War: America had just joined the allies; Russia…was scarcely holding on. America and Russia had the two largest Jewish populations in the world and the (British) cabinet was convinced that the Jews possessed almost mystical influence.” Britain reckoned that by appeasing Jews it could get America and Russia to support its war aims. Balfour believed that a show of support for Zionism could be “extremely useful propaganda (against Germany) both in Russia and America”, according to an account in The Times. Typically, Britain was being opportunistic. 

So, when debating the tragic consequences of Balfour the historical perspective should not be lost sight of. Which is that, contrary to the popular narrative, the declaration plus the series of related events, leading up to the birth of Israel had little to do with British — or generally Western — love for Zionism. At least not until the Holocaust after which, no doubt, there was a scramble to atone for it. Until then, it was more about self-serving national interests. In a contra-factual scenario, where a war-weary Britain was not looking for quick fixes, the story of Zionism might have been very different. 

Typically, British stance kept changing as its geopolitical priorities changed. Thus, after instigating the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine when such a stance suited its political calculations, London later became opposed to the idea as it feared the move could hurt its relations with the Arab world and jeopardise its interests in the region. Americans, however, managed to push it through the UN, triggering a deadly regional conflict which shows no sign of abating in foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Balfour’s “boy” has grown into an international bully using the bogey of anti-semitism to silence any criticism of its behaviour while its friends wring their hands in faux helplessness. Theresa May has admitted that a century on “Balfour remains unfinished business as his fundamental vision of peaceful coexistence has not yet been fulfilled”.  What she did not do was acknowledge Britain’s own role in all this. Especially its contemptuous disregard for the solemn pledge it made to Palestinians to protect their rights. And for that alone it owes them an apology. 

The writer is a London-based commentator


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