Last month, as Israeli artillery destroyed buildings in Gaza, one of two stretches of land that Palestinians have been forced into over the past century, the British government was again to affirm the benevolence of its imperial past against those who claim account for its misdeeds. #BritishEmpire was all the rage on Twitter even as Gaza was on fire.
These phenomena are linked: the persistent whitewashing of British imperial history ensures that condemnations of Israel’s actions as “settler colonialism” fail to find moral echo in many quarters. Far from tainting Israel’s origins, the country’s British history is presented as validating. The British government’s Balfour Declaration proclaiming its support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in 1917 is mythologized as having laid the foundations for a Jewish state in the Middle East and thus providing international legitimacy for the creation of the State of Israel. Awareness of the origins and morally dubious meaning of this statement could help unravel the tangled myths of British imperial benevolence and Israel’s benevolent presence in Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration was one of many strategic “promises” made by the British during World War I regarding the territories of the Ottoman Empire, as the British actively dismembered it in the name of protecting the route to India. and the oil-rich gulf. To rally the Arab population of the region, they promised the Sharifian rulers of the Hejaz, in the Arabian Peninsula, an independent kingdom stretching from Palestine to Damascus. At the same time, in secret negotiations with the French and the Russians to divide the region, they promised to make Palestine international territory. When Russia withdrew from the war in October 1917, they saw an urgent need to secure the British position in the Middle East with a new pledge, this time to the Zionist movement. Palestine thus became a thrice-promised land – reason enough to doubt the sanctity of one of the promises.
The new pledge was formally drafted by the British Foreign Secretary, headed by Conservative Arthur James Balfour. Known as “Bloody Balfour” for his suppression of Irish demands for greater independence as Chief Secretary for Ireland, Balfour was a determined imperialist. He was also an amateur philosopher wary of reason and drawn to the occult – and the notion of the occult power of certain groups. The idea that a promise to the Zionists would secure them the Middle East arose in part from his anti-Semitic assumption, shared by other influential British politicians, that the Jews controlled public opinion and world finances. Balfour calculated that his propaganda statement would rally American and German Jewish opinion to the Allied cause, while also halting the influx of unwanted Eastern European Jews into Britain.
The declaration was in line with the type of British colonialism that shaped the history of violent dispossession in Kenya and other colonies. That the British thought Palestine was something they could promise any group without consulting its people was a typical imperial presumption. The difference here was that the Jewish rather than the British settlers would take on the “civilizing mission” – and act as a loyal presence near the Suez Canal. The statement implied that the Jews were racially and culturally superior to the indigenous population of Palestine, just as it implied that the Jews were not strictly speaking of Europe and possessed conspiratorial powers.
Not everyone in the British government shared these views. Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu was Jewish and viewed the statement as highly anti-Semitic. “Jews will henceforth be treated as foreigners in all countries except Palestine,” he feared. He insisted that his family members had no necessary “community of view” with Jewish families elsewhere: “It is no longer true to say that an English Christian and a French Christian are the same. nation. Montagu feared that the statement meant that “Jews should be placed in all positions of preference” in Palestine, and that Muslims and Christians would be forced to “make way for Jews.” He predicted: “When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately want to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants. “
Montagu was then in the process of formulating the Montagu Declaration, promising the Indians greater self-government to ensure their fidelity in times of war. Conservatives, especially Balfour, balked at this concession to anti-colonialism, arguing that Indians were incapable of such autonomy. That’s the kind of imperialist that Balfour was.
After the war, the British reneged on all promises of war concerning the Middle East: a free hand in oil-rich Mosul. Rather, Faisal was crowned King of Iraq under British rule – despite the war’s promises of independence made to the Iraqis. Britain took direct control of Palestine (no international territory) – confirming that the Balfour Declaration’s ambiguous promise of a national home implied nothing about Jewish political control. In 1921, Britain also cut Jordan off from Palestine without any feeling of having violated the Jewish national home. A 1930 White Paper moved away from the very idea of a Jewish national home. A Zionist outcry forced the British government to withdraw the newspaper.
As Hitler rose to power, hundreds of thousands of desperate European Jews who found the doors closed in Britain and the United States arrived in Palestine. Increasingly landless and impoverished, the Palestinians revolted in 1936. The British drew inspiration from the brutal, terrorizing and destructive methods of counterinsurgency developed in Ireland and Iraq, which later shaped the practices of the United Nations. Israeli army.
The British changed their policies in 1937 and 1939, favoring Jews and Arabs in turn. It was during his advice on Palestinian politics that Winston Churchill made his eugenic defense of settler colonialism in general in 1937: “I do not accept … … by the fact that a stronger race, a race of upper level… entered and took his place. He viewed the Jewish colonization of Palestine as analogous to these earlier cases, including their genocidal involvement.
At this time, Hitler was also addressing the Native American genocide. as a model for his conception of Lebensraum and began to apply the violent logic of settler colonialism in Europe itself. Churchill admired Hitler, devoting a chapter to him in his 1937 book on Great Contemporaries. Although the British today celebrate Churchill for defeating Nazism, they still have not unambiguously condemned the colonial settlement ideology on which Nazism was founded.
Apologists for British imperialism are instead devoting their energy to defending Cecil Rhodes, another promoter of settler colonialism, even after a cautious commission recommended the removal of his statue from Oriel College in Oxford. Rhodes argued, “We are the best race in the world and… the more we inhabit the world the better it is for the human race. His private enterprise killed tens of thousands of Matabele while founding the Settler Colony of Rhodesia. As Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, he also laid the groundwork for South African apartheid – to which the current Israeli regime is often compared – by denying non-whites the right to vote and reclaiming their land. Even his British contemporaries were outraged by his actions.
Recently, after former US Senator Rick Santorum claimed on CNN that the settlers created the United States “out of thin air, … there was nothing here,” not only erasing the existence of cultures and Native American life, but also the memory of the massive violence of the settlers against them, CNN parted ways with him, responding to intense pressure from the public, including the Native American Journalists Association.
Major British news outlets such as the Times, however, continue to give prominence to apologists for settler colonialism. Last month, the Guardian formally regretted its support for the Balfour Declaration in 1917, when its editor wrote: “The existing Arab population of Palestine is… at a low stage of civilization. It is time to condemn more broadly and unequivocally its false promise and the colonialist ideology on which it was founded.
British wartime promises were not principled, but made for the sake of expediency and based on racist notions – barely grounded for the sacred. In addition, the declaration included self-negative language assuring that “nothing will be done that may infringe the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Balfour’s conservatism was about avoiding radical change. The declaration was worded loosely so that it could be broken, like the promises of war to the Sherifians. There is little in its origins of opportunism, colonial presumption and anti-Semitism to give it the aura of legitimacy – let alone sacredness – that it has in some circles today.
The British initiated settlement colonialism in Palestine with as much negligence and recklessness as they did in Australia and New Zealand, Kenya and Rhodesia. Israel’s violence in Gaza is not just self-defense, but part of a longer history of settler colonialism dating back to the height of European colonialism. Contrary to British myths, settler colonialism was an aggressive process of racist ethnic cleansing. US support for Israeli encroachment on Palestinian territory is support from one British-built colonial nation to another. It is no coincidence that this support became particularly generous under the Trump administration, which was also proud of white supremacy in North America. Counting with the history of colonialism is essential to counting with colonialism itself.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.