Last month, as Israeli artillery destroyed buildings in Gaza, one of two slivers of territory into which Palestinians have been squeezed over the last century, the British government was once again asserting the benevolence of its imperial past against those demanding a reckoning with its harms. #BritishEmpire trended on Twitter even as Gaza burned.
These phenomena are connected: the persistent whitewashing of British imperial history ensures that condemnations of Israel’s actions as “settler colonialism” fail to resonate morally in many quarters. Far from tainting Israel’s origins, the country’s British antecedents are held up as validating. The British government’s Balfour Declaration proclaiming support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in 1917 is mythologised as having laid the foundation for a Jewish state in the Middle East and thus providing international legitimacy for the creation of the state of Israel. Awareness of the morally dubious origins and meaning of this declaration might help puncture the entangled myths of British imperial benevolence and Israel’s benign presence in Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration was one of several strategic “promises” the British made during the first world war concerning the territories of the Ottoman Empire, as the British busily dismembered it in the name of protecting the route to India and the oil-rich Gulf. To get the region’s Arab population on their side, they promised the Sharifian rulers of the Hejaz, in the Arabian Peninsula, an independent kingdom stretching through 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 an 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 fresh promise, this time to the Zionist movement. Palestine thus became a thrice-promised land – reason enough to doubt the sacredness of any one of the promises.
The new promise was officially authored by the British foreign secretary, leading 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 suspicious 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 the Middle East for them emerged partly out of his anti-Semitic assumption, which was shared by other influential British politicians, that Jews controlled public opinion and global finances. Balfour calculated that his propaganda statement would rally American and German Jewish opinion to the Allied cause, while also ending the flow of unwanted Eastern European Jews into Britain.
The declaration was in line with the type of British settler colonialism that shaped the history of violent dispossession in Kenya and other colonies. That the British thought Palestine was something they could promise to any group without consulting its population was typical imperial presumption. The difference here was that Jewish rather than British settlers would take on the “civilising mission”- and act as a loyal presence near the Suez Canal. The declaration implied Jews were racially and culturally superior to Palestine’s indigenous population, even as it implied that Jews did not properly belong in Europe and possessed conspiratorial powers.
Not everyone in the British government shared these views. The secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu, was Jewish and considered the declaration highly anti-Semitic. “Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine,” he feared. He insisted that the members of his family had no necessary “community of view” with Jewish families elsewhere: “It is no more true to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation.” Montagu feared that the declaration would mean that “Jews should be put in all positions of preference” in Palestine, and that Muslims and Christians would be made to “make way for the Jews”. He foresaw: “When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants.”
Montagu was just then formulating the Montagu Declaration, promising Indians greater self-government to secure their wartime loyalty. Conservatives, especially Balfour, baulked at this concession to anti-colonialism, arguing that Indians were incapable of such self-government. That’s the kind of imperialist Balfour was.
After the war, the British reneged on all wartime promises about the Middle East: They first betrayed the arrangements with the French by letting the Sharifian Prince Faisal set up a government in Damascus, but then let the French push Faisal out, in exchange for a free hand in oil-rich Mosul. Faisal was instead crowned king of Iraq under British rule – despite wartime promises of independence to Iraqis. Britain took direct control of Palestine (no international territory) – confirming that the Balfour Declaration’s ambiguous promise about a national home implied nothing about Jewish political control. In 1921, Britain also carved Jordan out of Palestine without any sense of having violated the Jewish national home. A White Paper of 1930 backed away from the very idea of a Jewish national home. A Zionist outcry forced the British government to withdraw the paper.
As Hitler rose to power, hundreds of thousands of desperate European Jews who found doors closed in Britain and the US arrived in Palestine. Increasingly landless and impoverished, Palestinians revolted in 1936. The British drew on brutal, terrorising, and destructive counterinsurgency methods developed in Ireland and Iraq, which shaped the practices of the Israeli military later.
The British changed policy in 1937 and 1939, by turns favouring the Jews and the Arabs. It was in the course of advising Palestine policy that Winston Churchill uttered his eugenicist defence of settler colonialism in general in 1937: “I do not admit…that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia…by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race…has come in and taken their place.” He saw Jewish settlement of Palestine as analogous to these earlier cases, including their genocidal implication.
At this time, Hitler was also looking to the genocide of Native Americans 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. Though Britons today celebrate Churchill for defeating Nazism, they have still not unambiguously condemned the settler-colonial ideology on which Nazism was founded.
Apologists for British imperialism instead pour their energies into defending Cecil Rhodes, another promoter of settler colonialism, even after a careful commission has recommended the removal of his statue at Oriel College in Oxford. Rhodes contended: “We are the finest race in the world and…the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” His private company killed tens of thousands of the Matabele in founding the settler colony of Rhodesia. As prime minister of the Cape Colony, he also established the foundations of South African apartheid – to which the current Israeli regime is often compared – depriving non-white people of the vote and claiming their land. Even his British contemporaries were outraged by his actions.
Recently, after former US senator Rick Santorum claimed on CNN that settlers created the US “from nothing,…there was nothing here”, erasing not only the existence of Native American cultures and life but also the memory of massive settler violence 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 allot generous space 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 civilisation.” It is time for wider, unequivocal condemnation of its false promise and of the settler-colonial ideology on which it was based.
British wartime promises were not founded on principle but made for the sake of expedience and grounded in racist notions – hardly ground for the sacred. Moreover, the declaration included self-negating language assuring that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Balfour’s Conservatism was all about avoiding radical change. The declaration was framed vaguely so that it might be broken, like the wartime promises to the Sharifians. There is little in its origins in expedience, colonial presumption, and anti-Semitism to give it the aura of legitimacy – much less sacredness – that it has in some quarters today.
The British launched settler colonialism in Palestine as carelessly and recklessly as they had in Australia and New Zealand and in Kenya and Rhodesia. Israel’s violence in Gaza is not merely self-defence but part of a longer story of settler colonialism dating from the heyday of European colonialism. Contrary to British myths, settler colonialism was an aggressive process of ethnic cleansing grounded in racism. The US’s support of Israeli encroachment into Palestinian territory is the support of one British-made settler-colonial nation to another. It is no coincidence that that support became especially generous during the Trump administration, which was also unapologetically proud of white supremacy in North America. Reckoning with the history of colonialism is essential to reckoning with colonialism itself.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.