Nine by Five Media
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Nine by Five Media

The Balfour Myth

How history has been used, abused and rewritten on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration

At the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, we are invited to reflect on its legacy. As usual, the use and abuse of history becomes very apparent, reinforcing the idea that what we say about history reflects the present, more than it does the past.

Theresa May and Benjamin Netanyahu celebrated together, implying that the Jewish state should be seen as something which Britain helped achieve. A grotesque performance of two leaders deluding themselves, desperately clinging to a history they are attempting to rewrite. The seemingly warm embrace of May and Netanyahu is a sign of weakness, the self-delusion of two formerly powerful leaders who feel their legitimacy declining.

Two myths have characterized the celebrations:

Myth 1: Britain facilitated the creation of Israel through the Balfour Declaration out of sympathy with the plight of the Jewish people worldwide.

The Balfour Declaration was a remarkable piece of opportunist double-dealing in the midst of World War 1. Britain needed the Americans to join the allies against Germany. Support of the Jewish communities in the United States would encourage the Americans to join the war effort. Furthermore, Britain hoped that Jewish communities in Germany and the rest of Europe would look favourable upon British efforts, which were deliberately vague and open to interpretation. The Balfour Declaration was a token gesture, precipitated upon short-term self-interest and never intended to serve any higher principle. This becomes especially clear when considering other pieces of official British diplomacy, like the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915, which promised the Arab nationalists a pan-Arab state in return for their support against the Ottoman Empire. Britain didn’t intend to keep its promise to either the Zionists, nor the Arab nationalists, as in 1916 a secret arrangement was made with the French, dividing up the Middle-East amongst the two imperial powers, in the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement, which remained the basis for the new borders in the Middle-East after World War 1.

Winston Churchill, colonial secretary during the Mandate era, considered a potential Jewish state to be a useful counterweight to the “International Jew”. Sir Ronald Storss, the first British Governor of Jerusalem, hoped that a Jewish state would “form for England a ‘`little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.” The British-Zionist partnership was drenched in racism, underpinned by British imperial motives.

Attempts at peaceful coexistence between Jewish and Arab communities in the famous Faisal-Weizmann agreements of 1919, were frustrated by British mandate authorities in favour of more direct British control, further reinforcing the idea that Britain acted out of self-interest.

Myth 2: The Balfour Declaration finally recognized the Jewish historical rights to Palestine and thus signifies the first step towards the international Jewish diaspora’s fulfilment of their historical and religious destiny. Today, Israel stands out as a beacon of freedom and democracy in a region which is otherwise hostile to these ideals, justifying its existence at any cost.

This is very far from the truth. Theodor Herzl and the early Zionist movement talked about a Jewish State, preferably in their historic homeland Palestine, but Argentina was also mentioned as an option, while Uganda had been seriously considered as a possible option for some time as well. Like most other forms of nationalism, the Jewish longing for self-determination was genuine and justified. Jews had suffered discrimination and anti-Semitism in most European countries for centuries. There is no doubt that the specific historical experiences of the Jewish diaspora have intensified their initial quest for self-determination, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, one of the worst crimes against humanity in all of human history.

But the forceful and violent conception of Israel in 1948 have transformed Zionism into an expansive, oppressive, exclusive and aggressive force which can only be sustained with a state of permanent mobilisation and an-ever more racialized narrative, supposedly justified by history. In spite of the official narrative, in which Israel initially faced hostility from all sides, the opposite is true, as Zionist forces vastly outnumbered Palestinians, while the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan allied itself with the Zionist leadership. Both the USA and the USSR immediately recognized Israel, while the Palestinians were ethnically cleansed.

Israel is now a state which has illegally occupied great swathes of land since 1948. Even those who reluctantly acknowledge this, will attempt to justify it by pointing to the inability of the Palestinians or even some Arab neighbours to ‘properly’ administer their own territories, in a frightful echo of colonial arguments used to justify the exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East in the 19th century. This is a racial argument, which the state of Israel unfortunately extends to its policies of citizenship. Citizenship is granted to any Jew in the world who wishes to immigrate to Israel, in stark contrast to more than 7 million Palestinian refugees who have lost their homes in the past and are still living in as refugees. Their right to return to their homeland is unnegotiable to Israel. The difference between, let’s say Mark Regev, Israeli ambassador to the UK, who only came to Israel in 1982 and a Palestinian driven from his home in 1967 is thus ethnicity, making Israel an apartheid state.

Any consideration of a possible Palestinian state comes only if Palestinian factions ‘recognize’ Israel’s right to exist, something which the PLO has already done in 1993 and even Hamas has de facto accepted Israel’s existence. This was once again echoed by May in the past few days, while Netanyahu is rapidly expanding so-called Israeli ‘settlements’, annexing more and more land illegally. In other words, even today, the Palestinians, who have recognized Israel’s right to exist, have not even had a chance to exist themselves and are forced to submit themselves to the never-ending appetite of its oppressors, a state which actively practices apartheid and military expansionism.

The last resort of apologists for Israel is calling criticism of the Jewish state anti-Semitic. This is perhaps the most dishonest practice of all. Anti-Semitism is of course a form of racism and needs to be rejected unconditionally, but racism is an assault on unchangeable characteristics of a group, religion or individuals, dehumanizing them in the process. A state is by nature a temporary political arrangement, subject to change and never unquestionable. It is the rulers of the Jewish state who have equated their own state with Judaism, claiming exceptionalism to be recognized as a ‘Jewish State’ and thus giving it a universal legitimacy which no state on earth possesses. Such an absolute conception of any political entity leads inevitably to paranoia and aggressive exclusion. Many Jews worldwide have consequently been ‘excommunicated’ and branded as traitors. This too, is a trait of totalitarian societies.

The ‘celebration’ of the Balfour Declaration really is as tragic as its inception.

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