On November 2, 1917, the British government made a public statement via the U.K. Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a prominent leader of the British Jewish community, concerning the establishment of a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine:
“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.”
This declaration, despite its clause on “the civil and religious rights of existing, non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” effectively allied the world’s strongest empire with international Zionism, a political movement committed to establishing a sovereign, Jewish-majority state in all of Palestine. Its leadership and membership were Jewish and overwhelmingly European, and their mission to colonize Palestine crystallized in 1897, at a congress in Basel, Switzerland.
When Balfour issued his declaration in support of Zionism, 90% of the population of Palestine was Arab (Muslim and Christian).
The Past is Never Dead
The Balfour Declaration was a major victory for Zionism. It declared Great Britain’s intent to violate the rights of the Arab indigenous population in Palestine, and to lend its legitimacy, resources, and considerable power to facilitate the success of a European settler-colonial enterprise.
In case anyone is in doubt on where Great Britain truly stood in 1917 in relation to the Zionist project and the native Palestinians it was committed to permanently displacing to establish a Jewish state, here is what Balfour wrote in a secret memorandum to a critic of the declaration that bears his name:
“In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country…. The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land…. In short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.”
So much for the civil and religious rights of the “non-Jewish” communities of Palestine.
It would be a serious mistake to historicize the Balfour Declaration into oblivion. Or to think of it merely as imperial folly of a bygone age.
William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The Zionist settler-colonial mission in Palestine that Great Britain endorsed one hundred years ago this November is certainly not a thing of the past. It is ongoing, violent, repressive, and devastating on so many levels, and its roots go deep, thanks in no small part to the Balfour Declaration and the imperial policies of Great Britain’s post-World War I, Mandate administration in Palestine.
Those policies, with the full backing of the British military, protected, justified, and nurtured the Jewish colony for three decades. Eventually, Jewish leaders and institutions were well positioned to flex their muscles independently of and against their British sponsors, and engineered a turbulent and violent end to the Mandate. Then, they took most of Palestine by force.
Israeli militias and terrorist bands in the War of 1948 ethnically cleansed an estimated 750,000 Palestinians from their ancestral lands, destroying hundreds of Arab villages and towns in the process. A few years after the Nazi genocide, on the ruins of nearly 80% of Arab Palestine, the new State of Israel planted its flag and determined that Palestinian refugees would never be allowed to return home. Those refugees and their descendants number in the millions today.
In 1967, Israel’s armies completed the work unfinished in 1948, conquering Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem and driving into exile another 300,000 souls. The military occupation it quickly instituted is now the longest of modern times.
The legacy of the Balfour Declaration finds expression in different ways, notably in the values and choices of 650,000 Israeli Jews who reside illegally in Jewish-only settlements – colonies, to be more exact – on stolen Arab land in the occupied West Bank, and in the horrific siege and torment of occupied Gaza.
Settlers live as lords of the land, protected by one of the most brutal and powerful militaries in the world, with all the amenities of a privileged life at their disposal, including as much water as they can drink and swim in, and an ample supply of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in their supermarkets.
They don’t give a damn about the Geneva Conventions or international law generally, which Israel violates with impunity at every turn, nor do they care about the 4.5 million Palestinians under military occupation who are denied fundamental civil and human rights.
Gaza is a lockbox of horrors, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is the primary site of Israel’s aggressive colonialist policies. There is no end in sight to the suffering, oppression and crimes of the occupation, which the United States subsidizes to the tune of more than $3 billion dollars annually in military aid.
Inside Israel proper, Palestinian citizens of the Jewish state are victims of entrenched, institutional racism and discrimination. This as an Israeli-Jewish version of “Jim Crow,” rarely exposed or reported on in the U.S. press, and it, too, is directly attributable to the political and cultural processes of Zionist exclusion and dominance that Balfour and his racist contemporaries embraced uncritically.
Looking Back & Looking Forward
2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. It is also the 50th anniversary of Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
In light of the congruence of these anniversaries, and their historical linkage, on Thursday, November 9, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine (www.vtjp.org), in tandem with the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series, is sponsoring a presentation by Steven Salaita titled:
Palestine: Long Road to Freedom
Reflections on Resistance to Occupation and Colonialism
On the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration
The event will be in the Davis Center, in the Silver Maple Ballroom, at the University of Vermont, 7 to 9 p.m. It is free and open to the public.
Mr. Salaita is a scholar, political commentator, and activist. He is the author of eight books, including, most recently, “Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.”
His talk will explore the genesis and consequences of the Balfour Declaration, its meaning for the Palestine liberation struggle, and the lessons activists can draw from this history as we confront and mobilize against the domestic and global scourge of colonialism, occupation, racism, and war.
– By Mark Hage, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine