What Balfour means to Jewish critics of Israel
Critics of Zionism within Judaism are trying to get fellow Jews to question the basis on which Israel was formed.
Despite being born and raised in London’s Jewish community to a family of committed Zionists, Barnaby Raine will not be celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
The PhD student at New York’s Columbia University is a practising Jew whose mother was part of socialist Zionist movements in her youth and later spent time on a kibbutz.
However, that commitment to the Zionist cause was not shared by her son, who is now an ardent critic of Israel and the role Britain played in its creation.
“I am now a firm anti-Zionist,” Raine told Al Jazeera, explaining that his ideas developed as a teenager when he could not reconcile his Jewish beliefs with Zionist ones.
“We as Jews are religiously committed to ‘tikkun olam’, ‘mending the world’, and for centuries, Jews have stood at the forefront of struggles against oppression and exploitation,” he said.
“In one corner of the planet in Palestine, we are asked to believe that Jewish values mean not fixing the world but smashing it, not fighting oppression but instilling it with gruesome violence.
“That betrayal of Judaism is hard to stomach.”
A student of history, Raine is critical of the British role in empowering the early Zionist movement, which he considers a result of colonial self-interest rather than genuine concern for the aspirations of the Jewish people.
He argued that imperial powers, such as Britain, had a long-standing policy of using settlers from Europe in colonial territories to help administer their empires.
“The British did a similar thing in South Africa. Settler-colonists, whether Jewish or Boer, became empire’s policemen,” Raine explained.
Palestine is not the unfortunate meeting of two legitimate national movements ... the problem is, and always, was a single colonial nationalism, which can permit no equal place in the land for its indigenous inhabitants.
British support for the Zionists was therefore not due to the legitimacy of their claim to Palestine, he continued.
“Palestine is not the unfortunate meeting of two legitimate national movements … the problem is, and always was, a single colonial nationalism, which can permit no equal place in the land for its indigenous inhabitants.
“The Declaration reserves full ‘political’ rights for Jews alone, licensed by the British empire to serve as civilised administrators over the natives.”
The argument is backed by historical evidence.
Some early Zionists actively encouraged the idea of Jewish settlers in Palestine serving as a vanguard of British interests in the Middle East.
In a letter dated to 1914, the leader of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann wrote: “Should Palestine fall within the British sphere of influence, and should Britain encourage a Jewish settlement there, as a British dependency, we could have in 20 to 30 years a million Jews out there … they would … form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal.”
In the build-up to the centenary of the Declaration, Britain has faced calls from pro-Palestinian activists to apologise for its role in the dispossession of Palestinians, a demand it rejects outright.
According to Raine, besides the futility of such an apology, there is little chance of the structures responsible for the continuation of Palestinian suffering going away.
“Balfour has been reproduced every day for 70 years. Apologising for Balfour would require dismantling that status quo, and few in power in the West would find that an appealing proposition.”
Independent Jewish Voices
Raine features in a short film alongside other Jewish critics of Israel titled, Independent Jewish Voices: 100 Years After Balfour, in which he sets out his criticisms of Zionism and the British role in creating Israel.
Al Jazeera spoke to Adam Sutcliffe, a reader in European History at King’s College London and one of those involved in commissioning the film.
Though born in London, Sutcliffe’s family come from South Africa and are of mostly Eastern Europe Jewish origin.
Raised in a secular Jewish household, his parents’ opposition to apartheid helped him recognise the “similar situation in Israel-Palestine”.
had a significant amount of support, but many Jews, in many places including in Britain and the United States, were concerned about ‘fitting in’ within the countries in which they lived”]
He told Al Jazeera that when the declaration was made, Zionism was a relatively minor ideological grouping within the world’s Jewish population.
“I don’t think the Balfour Declaration attracted a great deal of attention at the time … [Zionism] had a significant amount of support, but many Jews, in many places including in Britain and the United States, were concerned about ‘fitting in’ within the countries in which they lived.”
Sutcliffe explained that many Jews were concerned about being seen as “unpatriotic” in the countries they lived in and thought the establishment of a Jewish state could endanger their status as nationals where they lived.
Many other Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe, were committed to internationalist struggles, such as socialism, he added.
Together with other critics of Israel’s behaviour, Sutcliffe wants to return to a “forgotten” era when there was a greater diversity of thought regarding Israel among Jews.
The academic is a signatory to Independent Jewish Voices, a diverse collection of Jewish academics, journalists, and professionals, who want to challenge the dominant narratives on Israel within the Jewish community.
“We think there’s a particular power and a particular importance to us acting as Jews because so much of the mainstream Jewish community tries to claim the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community to support Israel uncritically,” he said.
‘Blip in Jewish history’
For Raine, Zionism represents a “tribalist” vision of what it means to be a Jew that conflicts with the Jewish ideal of opposing oppression.
“Zionism is a strikingly recent blip in the course of Jewish history, less than 150 years old … where universalists see oppression as a problem per se, tribalists object only, ‘it shouldn’t be me who is oppressed,'” he said, adding:
“Zionism is one brand of tribalism, made for an era of nationalism and empire. It has always had to contend with universalist currents in Jewish politics.
“Before the Holocaust, those currents were stronger in most Jewish communities, and the sheer scale of Israeli violence now risks generating enough revulsion for universalism to make a comeback. Watch this space.”