Socialist Worker

Bloody Balfour’s century of oppression in Palestine

One hundred years ago Tory foreign secretary Arthur Balfour's declaration laid the basis for Palestinian oppression. Nick Clark looks at its legacy today

Issue No. 2578

It was a Tory foreign secretary who first signed away the right of Palestinians to live in their

 

own land.

 

The letter signed by Arthur Balfour 100 years ago this week was just three sentences long.

 

But it signalled the beginning of the dispossession and murder of Palestinians that continues

 

to this day.

 

It is still celebrated by supporters of Israel.

 

The Balfour declaration gave Britain’s official backing to the Zionist colonists who wanted to

 

found a Jewish state on Palestinian land.

 

It said the British government supported “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”.

 

Hard-line supporters of Israel celebrate the declaration because it’s when their occupation of

 

Palestine first won the help of a major imperial power.

 

They usually present it as the moment that their “right” to own Palestine as their “ancestral

 

home” was recognised as legitimate.

 

But even some critics of Israel today say signing the declaration was still the right thing to

 

do. They say it was the only way to ensure Jews could be safe from persecution, and for

 

Jewish people to realise their right to self-determination.

 

Some even claim Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is actually a betrayal of Balfour’s promise

 

that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-

 

Jewish communities in Palestine”.

 

Yet the oppression of Palestinians was implicit in the declaration. It was Britain’s attempt to

 

use a racist, colonial movement to prop up its empire in the Middle East.

 

Its realisation could only mean carving out a new state for colonisers on land that was

 

already inhabited.

 

As someone who had a hand in drafting the declaration—and the man widely credited with

 

convincing Balfour—Chaim Weizman knew what it meant.

 

He wrote in 1918, “We ought not to ask the British if we will enter Palestine as masters or

 

equal to the Arabs.

 

“The declaration implies that we have been given the opportunity to become masters”.

 

Jewish people in Europe undoubtedly faced brutal persecution. Zionism—the idea that

 

Jewish people should establish their own state in Palestine—was a reaction to that.

 

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, came from Poland where Jews were made

 

scapegoats for the failing Tsarist regime. Thousands of Jews were killed in state-backed

 

pogroms.

 

But although Zionism was a response to oppression it wasn’t progressive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a Tory foreign secretary who first signed away the right of Palestinians to live in their own land. 

The letter signed by Arthur Balfour 100 years ago this week was just three sentences long. But it signalled the beginning of the dispossession and murder of Palestinians that continues to this day.

It is still celebrated by supporters of Israel.

The Balfour declaration gave Britain’s official backing to the Zionist colonists who wanted to found a Jewish state on Palestinian land.

It said the British government supported “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”.

Hard-line supporters of Israel celebrate the declaration because it’s when their occupation of Palestine first won the help of a major imperial power. 

They usually present it as the moment that their “right” to own Palestine as their “ancestral home” was recognised as legitimate.

But even some critics of Israel today say signing the declaration was still the right thing to do. They say it was the only way to ensure Jews could be safe from persecution, and for Jewish people to realise their right to self-determination.

Some even claim Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is actually a betrayal of Balfour’s promise that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Yet the oppression of Palestinians was implicit in the declaration. It was Britain’s attempt to use a racist, colonial movement to prop up its empire in the Middle East. 

Its realisation could only mean carving out a new state for colonisers on land that was already inhabited.

As someone who had a hand in drafting the declaration—and the man widely credited with convincing Balfour—Chaim Weizman knew what it meant.

He wrote in 1918, “We ought not to ask the British if we will enter Palestine as masters or equal to the Arabs.

“The declaration implies that we have been given the opportunity to become masters”.

Jewish people in Europe undoubtedly faced brutal persecution. Zionism—the idea that Jewish people should establish their own state in Palestine—was a reaction to that.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, came from Poland where Jews were made scapegoats for the failing Tsarist regime. Thousands of Jews were killed in state-backed pogroms.

Oppression

But although Zionism was a response to oppression it wasn’t progressive.

Some Jewish organisations, such as the socialist Bund, fought back against the Tsar. The Zionists’ response was much more pessimistic. 

They accepted the right wing idea that antisemitism would always exist and that Jews could only live separately from other societies.

Tony Cliff, a Jewish socialist raised in Palestine by Zionist parents wrote, “The Jews were horribly oppressed but it didn’t guarantee they became progressive or revolutionary. Indeed, oppression associated with lack of power leads to reaction.”

The Zionists’ goal was an exclusively Jewish state in which Palestinians, if not expelled, were at best second-class citizens. Racism towards Arabs was essential to their project.

From the outset Zionist settlers in Palestine set about carving out Jewish-only colonies. They bought up land from absentee landlords then evicted the Palestinian peasants who lived off it.

Zionist labour organisation the Histadrut demanded Jewish-only industry, picketing out Arab workers and enforcing boycotts on Arab businesses.

Racist myths justified the racist project.

Biblical references to ancient Israel were coupled with claims that Palestine was empty and neglected, or that the people living there didn’t really belong.

Palestine was “A land without people for a people without land”.

Actually, hundreds of thousands of Arabs lived in Palestine—an indisputable historical fact. Yet supporters of Israel today use similar lies to cast doubt on Palestinians’ right to their own land and even their existence as a people.

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Such lies are meant to obscure the fact that Israel forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Those lies began with the first Zionist settlers.

But while the Zionists used racism to justify their goal, they needed a major imperial power to help them achieve it. That’s where Balfour came in.

Balfour was a vicious racist. As head of the British administration in Ireland he said, “All the law and all the civilisation in Ireland is the work of England”. His brutal rule earned him the nickname “Bloody Balfour”.

As British prime minister, Balfour insisted that white Europeans should have more privileges than black people in South Africa.

And in 1905 he introduced Britain’s first immigration controls. They were aimed at keeping out “undesirable” migrants—particularly Jewish refugees from Russia.

So the Balfour declaration wasn’t really about helping Jewish people. It was about staking a claim to a strategically important part of the Middle East.

Britain didn’t even occupy Palestine when the declaration was signed in 1917. It was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Yet Britain, France and Russia had already started planning how they would carve up the Middle East between each other once the First World War was over.

The Zionists knew this and offered their loyal support to any power that would promise them a Jewish state in Palestine. Not only that, they would police the colonised Arabs on behalf of the occupiers.

Weizman convinced Balfour to make the declaration on that basis. 

So the whole point of the declaration was to ensure the British Empire’s domination over Palestinians. 

The declaration’s protection of Palestine’s “non-Jewish communities” was insulting at best. It never acknowledged the existence of the Palestinians as a people with their own right to self-determination.

In truth it was a lie. To an extent Britain tried to play the Jews and the Arabs off against each other. It had to do just enough to keep the Arab leaders happy, and turn Palestinian revolt away from the empire.

But Britain’s real support was always for its partners in the occupation, the Zionist settlers.

In his new book Balfour’s Shadow journalist David Cronin shows how the Zionists were used to police the Palestinians on behalf of Britain.

Britain allowed illicit arms to be smuggled into Palestine by the colonists. It even armed some of the colonies itself to “defend” them from the Palestinians.

Cooperated

The British administration cooperated with Zionist authorities to oversee Jewish migration into Palestine and the transfer of land to the colonies.

Palestinians were given no such say in how their country should be run. And acts of Palestinian resistance were brutally crushed.

During a major Palestinian revolt against Britain in the 1930s members of the underground Zionist paramilitary the Haganah were co-opted into the British army and police.

“Night squads” of combined British and Zionist forces carried out bloody dawn raids on Arab villages as collective punishment for Palestinian acts of resistance.

Cronin describes how, under the command of British soldier Orde Wingate, the squads, “Invaded nearby villages at dawn, rounding up all the male inhabitants. Forcing them to stand against the wall the squads whipped the men’s bare backs.

“At times Wingate would humiliate the villages; at other times he shot them dead.”

Britain’s polices and plans for partition paved the way for the ethnic cleansing of the Arabs when it left Palestine in 1948.

Zionist militias such as the Haganah began clearing out Arab villages before Britain had even left—and in most cases the British army did nothing to stop it.

It’s obscene to argue that such horror was necessary to save Jewish people from antisemitism and the Holocaust—undoubtedly one of the greatest crimes in history. Britain turned away thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.

And there’s still no reason why Jews and Arabs can’t live together in a single, secular state with equal democratic rights for all its citizens. But the Balfour declaration—and the imperialist legacy it left—prevents that. 

The two things that Israel owes its existence—and Palestinians their suffering to—racism and imperialism, were intrinsic to Balfour.

Celebrating Balfour means celebrating the causes of Palestinian suffering today.

100 years after Balfour, justice now - make it rght for Palestine: national march and rally, Saturday 4 November, assemble 12 noon, Grosvenor Square, London, W1K 6LF. Full details at www.palestinecampaign.org

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