The Balfour Declaration’s many questions
Originally published on the Electronic Intifada, here.
Both questions were to become central to European imperial aims of splintering the Ottoman Empire and taking over its territories. By the early 20th century, as World War I was coming to a close, these Enlightened Europeans opted to resolve the two Questions by transmuting them through settler-colonialism into what they called the “Palestine Question.”
The Eastern QuestionThe Eastern Question was the question of the East encroaching on the West, which was the question of the Ottoman Empire that had to be defeated. Its defeat was finally at hand by the close of World War I, and with it, the West resolved the Eastern Question.
As for the Jewish Question, it was related to the persistence of the East within the West, which Enlightened and un-Enlightened European Christians found intolerable. It is true that both Judaism and Christianity are Palestinian religions. It is also an established historical fact that the inhabitants of what came to be called “Europe” later, whether Christians or Jews, had converted to these Palestinian religions centuries after the Palestinians had.
It is also true that these new Christians of what would become Europe never thought of themselves as direct descendants of the ancient Palestinian Christians who spoke Aramaic, but saw themselves correctly as more recent converts to this Palestinian religion.
Yet these same Christian converts often insisted that converts to Judaism in what would become Europe were somehow descendants of the ancient Palestinian Hebrews who also spoke Aramaic at the time of the so-called Roman expulsion of the first century.
This was important because these converts to Christianity accused the converts to Judaism of killing the Palestinian Christ. Still later, neither Orthodox nor Catholic Christianities ever thought of expelling these Jews to Palestine. Nor did these converts to Judaism ever seek to emigrate en masse from their countries to Palestine either.
As converts to Christianity pondered the geography from which the faith to which they converted had originated, they decided that it must come under their jurisdiction. This was the origin of the first European Christian Zionism that came to be known as the Crusades. The Protestants, the fundamentalist Christians of the Renaissance, became obsessed with European Jews, again seeing them not as local converts to Judaism, but as somehow still connected to ancient Palestine, and began to call for their so-called “return” to the Holy Land as part of the Millenarian project to expedite the second coming of Christ. European Jews resisted and, along with their American co-religionists, still resist these calls for mass self-expulsion from Europe and the United States to a distant Asian land.
The Jewish QuestionIt is in this context that Enlightened Europeans posed what they called in the late 18th century “the Jewish Question,” as a question of foreign Oriental Asiatics living in Occidental Europe. Napoleon called on French Jews to make sure they did not still practice Oriental Judaism, which allowed men to marry more than one wife, before he accepted them as equal citizens in post-revolutionary France. A delegation of French Jews assured him that European Ashkenazi Jews banned such un-Christian heresies in the 12th century and that they were thus practically Christian.
Droves of West European Jews rushed to convert formally to Christianity in the 19th century or to create a new kind of Judaism that they called Reform Judaism, a Judaism that so resembled Christianity, one could almost mistake them for one another – almost!
But that was not enough; by the middle of the 19th century, with the rise of the biological and racial sciences, the Jewish Question was no longer about a population that had been de-Europeanized and Asianized in its origins, but one about racial foreignness and inferiority.
This unfolded in the age of European nationalisms that often based themselves on common language and territory but increasingly on the fantasy of a common race. First articulated by European philologists in the late 18th century, the difference between what they called Indo-European or Aryan languages and Semitic languages was transformed in the middle of the 19th century into a biological racial question.
Never mind that European Jews did not speak a Semitic language at all; the false claim that they were descendants of the ancient Hebrews was sufficient. That the ancient Palestinian Christians like ancient Palestinian Jews spoke Aramaic, which was now designated a Semitic language, did not, however, render European Christians “Semites.” They were decidedly Indo-European, and the lucky amongst them, pure Aryans.
The Jewish responseThe response of European Jews to these developments varied and took the shape of four organized responses that vied with one another for the support of Jews as well as Christians.
The least powerful group, which antagonized the majority of Jews, was the Zionists. Founded at a congress in August 1897, this group decided to ally itself consciously with anti-Semites, Protestant millenarians, and imperialists and adopted a racialized Jewish nationalism that joined European racialized nationalisms in their colonial mission.
Its founder, Theodor Herzl, minced no words when he declared that “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.” Zionists believed that the Jews were a separate race and nation and that all Jews must join the Zionist national colonial settler project.
The second group was committed to socialism, and included Jews who joined socialist parties and the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland and Russia, known as the Bund. The Bund was founded a few weeks after the first Zionist Congress, in October 1897. Unlike the Zionists, the Bundists, and all the other socialist Jews, allied themselves with the enemies of anti-Semitism, and the enemies of imperialism and racialized nationalism. They saw the Zionists as right-wing enemies of the Jews and of communism.
The third group was mostly composed of assimilated Jews of Western Europe and the United States, who believed that their assimilation and their Reform Judaism made them inseparable from the country-specific nations where they resided and from their nationalisms. Thus German Jews, British Jews, French Jews and American Jews saw themselves as German, British, French and American, as most of them still do today. They also fought the Zionists as endangering their status in their own countries.
The fourth group was the Orthodox Jews who, in their majority, objected to Zionism on religious grounds, and saw it as a dangerous anti-Jewish heresy. The assimilated Reform Jews and the Orthodox Jews of Germany joined hands and banned Herzl from convening the First Zionist Congress in Munich and forced him to move it to the neighboring Swiss town of Basel.
The Zionists tried to find allies among the assimilated Jews during World War I (with more success in the United States than in Europe) and with the Orthodox (in the case of the latter, they only managed to get one group of Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews, who called themselves the Mizrachi movement, to join them).
It is in occupying the mantle of anti-communism, however, and in espousing anti-Semitic ideas about the foreignness of Jews and their racialization, as well as their support for imperialism, that they were able to find much more powerful allies among European Christian colonial powers.
Herzl made sure to approach all European governments that had Asian and African colonies and territories or were likely to acquire them soon (including Italy, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Britain, Russia) as well as the Ottomans to gain them as allies and supporters of his scheme to send European Jews to Palestine. His strategy took some time, but it would be his colleagues in the World Zionist Organization who would reap the benefits of these ties. Herzl’s successors would be able to secure a colonial sponsor on the occasion of the first global catastrophe of the 20th century, namely during World War I.
The pre-history of the Balfour DeclarationBut the story begins at the turn of the century. It was Herzl’s then British imperialist ally who would set the stage for the Balfour Declaration, namely Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain.
As Regina Sharif explains in her important 1983 book Non-Jewish Zionism, Chamberlain was an imperialist, a Protestant Zionist, and an early enthusiast supporting Jewish Zionism. As a known anti-Semite, he was not solely motivated by his Protestantism, but also by finances and money that could aid British imperialism, which, in line with common anti-Semitic views, he thought “the Jews” possessed.
During the Fourth Zionist Congress, held in London in 1900, Herzl had already postulated that Britain would be key to the Zionist movement. He declared that “From this place the Zionist movement will take a higher and higher flight … England the great … with her eyes on the seven seas will understand us.”
As East European Jews were fleeing anti-Jewish pogroms to Western Europe, including Britain, and to the United States, British officials, who opposed admitting them into Britain, set up a commission to deal with the problem. Herzl was invited in 1902 to testify before the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration.
Of the 175 witnesses to the commission, he offered a solution to the problem, namely, “a diverting of the stream of migration … from Eastern Europe. The Jews of Eastern Europe cannot stay where they are – where are they to go? If you find that they are not wanted here, then some place must be found to which they can migrate without that migration raising the problems that confront them here. Those problems will not arise if a home is found for them which will be legally recognized as Jewish.”
It is this testimony that impressed Nathaniel Rothschild, the first Lord Rothschild, who was a member of the Royal Commission as the Jewish representative, and who had been until then antagonistic toward Herzl and Zionism. (It would be his son Lionel, the second Lord Rothschild, to whom the Balfour Declaration would be addressed.)
Zionist colonization of Palestine would do away with having to deal with Jewish immigrants to Britain. The anti-Semitic and Christian Zionist Chamberlain would soon meet with Herzl to organize how British imperialism and Protestant Zionism could help Jewish Zionism get rid of Britain’s Jewish problem.
Balfour’s Zionist anti-SemitismIt is in view of this common goal that Chamberlain offered Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and El-Arish, which Britain controlled, to Herzl as a homeland for the Jews as early as 1902, and soon after also offered British East Africa, or Uganda, for Jewish colonization and the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
Chamberlain expectedly opposed Jewish immigration to Britain, and along with the Zionists had other possible destinations for East European Jews fleeing Russian pogroms. This was not only based on his Protestant Zionism but also on British imperial designs in the Sinai and the protection of the Suez Canal.
When British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, an ardent Protestant Zionist, shepherded the Aliens Act of 1905 through the House of Commons to ban East European Jewish immigration, Balfour’s concern was to save the country from what he called the “undoubted evils” of “an immigration which was largely Jewish.” Like Chamberlain, the anti-Semitic and Christian Zionist Balfour had in mind another colonial destination for Jewish immigrants.
Whereas the Sixth Zionist Congress rejected the Uganda offer, it would be the Seventh Zionist Congress meeting in Basel in 1905 that set it aside for good. On account of the Aliens Act, the Seventh Congress condemned Balfour as an “anti-Semite,” and declared that his views amounted to “open anti-Semitism against the whole Jewish people.” But at the same time, the Congress thanked the British government headed by Balfour for its pro-Zionist Uganda offer. The Congress registered “with satisfaction the recognition accorded by the British government to the Zionist organization in its desire to bring about a solution of the Jewish problem, and expresses a sincere hope that it may be accorded the further good offices of the British government where available in any matter it may undertake in accordance with the Basel program” of colonizing Palestine.
Chamberlain and Balfour both believed in the superiority and unique virtues of the Anglo-Saxon race. Balfour, also, like the Jewish Zionists, believed that the Jews were “a people apart, and not merely held a religion differing from the vast majority of their fellow-countrymen.”
As late as 1914, he told his friend Chaim Weizmann that he shared many of the anti-Semitic views of German Jews held by Cosima Wagner, wife of the notoriously anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner. At the time, Weizmann was busy selling the Protestant Zionist Prime Minister Lloyd George on the Jewish Zionist idea.
From 1914 onwards, the Zionists, in the person of the British Jewish politician Herbert Samuel, argued that once the Eastern Question was resolved with the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish colonists would fill the vacuum in Palestine in the interest of British imperial aims, protecting the country from being taken over by Britain’s imperialist rivals, the French, or worse, by the Germans.
Samuel, whose efforts were central to secure British support for Jewish Zionism, would become the first British High Commissioner of Palestine in July 1920.
The Communist QuestionAs the Eastern Question was being resolved, however, a new question was quickly taking its place as a threat to European imperialist interests, namely that of communism.
The specter of communism, as Marx had predicted, had been haunting Europe for half a century, and the assault on the Paris Commune in 1871, successful as it was, did not do away with the growing threat.
But the term “anti-Semitism,” which was invented in 1879 to distinguish Jews from Aryans racially, not religiously, was soon coupled with anti-communism. While the Zionists were colluding with anti-Semites as to which location European Jews should be relocated in Asia, Africa or Latin America, East European socialists – Jews and Christians alike – were working to end tyrannical and anti-Semitic regimes and free people from their yoke.
The association of Jews with communism by anti-Semites was expected. Beginning with Marx’s Jewish origins, the conspiracy theory would have it that communism across Europe, and Bolshevism specifically, were part of a Jewish conspiracy to end “Western civilization.” As the Russian communists (including the Jewish Bund) were gaining ground increasingly after the February 1917 revolution which brought Alexander Kerensky to power, and as British troops were approaching Palestine, Balfour would make his infamous declaration.
That the Protestant Zionism of Lloyd George and Balfour, who returned as foreign secretary from 1916 to 1919, was fully compatible with British imperialism was more than fortuitous. The timing of the Balfour Declaration, containing the British pledge to Lord Rothschild and the Zionists, being issued only five days before the triumph of the October Revolution in Russia, was hardly coincidental.
The triumph of Russian communists, Jewish and Christian alike, who were the enemy of anti-Semitism and Zionism, meant that East European Jews had no more reason to emigrate, putting in jeopardy the British imperial and Zionist plans for Palestine. By making the pledge to help secure a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine, the British were offering another venue for East European Jews and egging them not to support the communists.
Churchill’s Zionist anti-SemitismWhereas the anti-Semitic claim that communism and Bolshevism were “Jewish conspiracies” are often attributed to the Nazis who imported them from the propaganda of the White Russians, into Western Europe, it was none other than Winston Churchill who first articulated clearly the stakes of communism as a “Jewish conspiracy” to take over the world, versus Zionism as a colluder with imperialism, and which offered an imperial solution to “the Jewish problem.”
In an article he published in the Sunday Herald in February 1920, Churchill expressed support for assimilated Jews who identified with their country of citizenship, but thought of them as outside the power equation that he wanted to explicate, namely the one between Zionism and communism.
He started by heaping scorn on what he termed “international Jews” and identified communism as a Jewish “world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization”:
The fact that in many cases Jewish interests and Jewish places of worship are excepted by the Bolsheviks from their universal hostility has tended more and more to associate the Jewish race in Russia with the villainies which are now being perpetrated … It becomes, therefore, specially important to foster and develop any strongly marked Jewish movement which leads directly away from these fatal associations. And it is here that Zionism has such a deep significance for the whole world at the present time … Zionism offers the third sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race. In violent contrast to international communism, it presents to the Jew a national idea of a commanding character. It has fallen to the British Government, as the result of the conquest of Palestine, to have the opportunity and the responsibility of securing for the Jewish race all over the world a home and a center of national life. The statesmanship and historic sense of Mr. Balfour were prompt to seize this opportunity. Declarations have been made which have irrevocably decided the policy of Great Britain.Churchill finally concludes that:
Zionism has already become a factor in the political convulsions of Russia, as a powerful competing influence in Bolshevik circles with the international communistic system. Nothing could be more significant than the fury with which Trotsky has attacked the Zionists generally, and Dr. [Weizmann] in particular. The cruel penetration of his mind leaves him in no doubt that his schemes of a world-wide communistic state under Jewish domination are directly thwarted and hindered by this new ideal, which directs the energies and the hopes of Jews in every land towards a simpler, a truer and a far more attainable goal. The struggle which is now beginning between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people.Zionism’s enmity toward communist Jews would become a longstanding tradition. When official American anti-Semitism targeted Jewish communists as Soviet spies, and tried and executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 on flimsy evidence, Israel did not utter a word in protest. (Israeli rabbis, excluding the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, sent a plea to President Truman appealing for clemency for the Rosenbergs, though some of them later expressed public regret that they had signed it.)
When Hungarian fascists and Hitlerites were smuggled into Budapest from the Austrian border by the CIA during the regime of Imre Nagy and began slaughtering Hungarian communist Jews and Hungarian Jews as “communists” in 1956, Israel and other Zionist Jews remained silent and remain so today. Even when leftist Jews were targeted by the anti-Semitic Argentinian generals in the late 1970s, Zionist Argentinian Jews and Israel disavowed them, and Israel maintained its close alliance with the military regime.
Churchill’s explanation clarifies the connections between Protestant and Jewish Zionism, between racialist nationalism and anti-racialist communism, and between Zionist settler-colonialism and communist anti-imperialism. The imperial racism shared by the British and the Zionist movement toward the Palestinians and other Asians and Africans rendered their presence on their lands, let alone their opposition and resistance to settler-colonialism, of no import.
Balfour himself insisted that “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.”
It was left to Lord Sydenham, a British conservative member of parliament, to identify with the Palestinians against Zionism: “the Jews,” he said, “had no more right to Palestine than the descendants of the ancient Romans had to this country.”
The story of the last century of Zionist colonialism and colonization of Palestine that the British sponsored and continue to sponsor and the Palestinian resistance it fostered remain with us today. Early Palestinian protests and opposition to the theft of their country and lands by European converts to Judaism, facilitated by European converts to Christianity, were dismissed as baseless.
In his meetings with the British government in 1923, Herbert Samuel insisted that Arab opposition to Zionism was based on a misunderstanding of its goals and that responsible Zionist leaders did not intend to confiscate Arab lands or flood the country with Jewish immigrants. All that the Palestinians feared and expected came true, but all that Christian and Jewish Zionists expected did not. The Palestinians did not surrender and they continue to fight against Zionist colonialism and racism today.
Israel has killed more than 100,000 Palestinians and Arabs since 1948, thousands more were killed by the British and the Zionists between 1917 and 1948. Israel has expelled half the population of historic Palestine who continue to live in exile while the other half lives under different racist and colonial laws and regulations in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.
The majority of the world’s Jews today live in their countries of origin and refuse to go to Israel. These include the majority of US Jews, Latin American Jews, French Jews, Russian Jews and British Jews, among others.
When the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, a majority of prominent British Jews opposed it. When the US government endorsed it soon after its issuance, 300 prominent public American Jewish figures, including congressmen, rabbis and businessmen, signed petitions against it. This Jewish opposition remained strong until the end of World War II. While the Zionist movement and Israel were able after the Nazi holocaust and 1948 to sway world Jewry from their former opposition to Zionism, it has failed to convince a majority of them to leave their countries and move to it. The majority of Jews who did go to Israel went there not out of ideological commitment, but fleeing oppression and denied any other destination (in the case of Arab Jews, Israel organized attacks on them, as the Mossad did in Iraq, to spur their emigration). Yet Israel’s colonial oppression of the Palestinian people and the theft of their lands proceed apace.
Britain’s continuing crimesMeanwhile, the Eastern Question, the Jewish Question and the communist threat have all been transmuted into the Palestine Question, which persists against all odds in the form of Zionist settler-colonialism. All the efforts to defeat the Palestinian people by Britain, Israel, France, Germany and the United States (not to mention the Arab countries) have failed over the last century.
The British government’s celebration of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration is in fact an expression of pride in the anti-Semitic, anti-communist and racist colonial legacy of Britain, which the British government insists on perpetuating in the land of the Palestinians and on the Palestinian people.
Prime Minister Theresa May recently declared: “We are proud of the role that we played in the creation of the State of Israel, and we will certainly mark the centenary with pride.” Like Balfour before her, May refused to even name the Palestinians. If the Balfour Declaration referred to the Palestinians as “the non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” May conceded only that “We also must be conscious of the sensitivities that some people do have about the Balfour Declaration and we recognize that there is more work to be done” (emphasis added).
The collaborationist Palestinian Authority has threatened to sue Britain over its celebration of the centennial unless the latter offers a mere “apology” to the Palestinian people for having issued the Balfour Declaration in the first place. Such obsequiousness is to be expected from an authority whose sole role has been to suppress Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonialism and which has worked assiduously in the last quarter century to repress the political and national rights of the Palestinian people.
But a century on, Zionist colonialism is no more secure than it ever was and lacks a sense of permanence today as much as it did in 1917. That official Britain, as May’s “pride” demonstrates, has been and remains an implacable enemy of the Palestinian people is not in dispute. As for the “more work to be done,” it is an urgent necessity that Britain should be put on trial, not only for issuing the infamous declaration, but also for all its past and present crimes against the Palestinian people.
This essay is based on a lecture delivered on 2 November 2017 at the French National Assembly in Paris hosted by parliamentarian Fabien Roussel, and at Dar al-Janub in Vienna on 4 November.
Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of Islam in Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2015).