A century ago, 67 words changed the course of history in the Middle East. In a statement that could fit into two tweets, Arthur Balfour, then the British Foreign Secretary, announced that the British government would support establishing a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
One hundred years later, the profound legacy of what became known as the Balfour Declaration continues to define the dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians. And though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in London this week commemorating the centennial with Theresa May, it’s worth understanding why the Declaration is really nothing worth celebrating.
Though he may be most know for aiding the Zionist cause in 1917, it’s crucial to remember that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist. He made that much clear in his own words. In 1906, the British House of Commons was engaged in a debate about the native blacks in South Africa. Nearly all the members of Parliament agreed that the disenfranchisement of the blacks was evil. Not so Balfour, who – almost alone — argued against it.
“We have to face the facts,” Lord Balfour said. “Men are not born equal, the white and black races are not born with equal capacities: they are born with different capacities which education cannot and will not change.”
But Balfour’s troubling views were not limited to Africa. In fact, despite his now iconic support for Zionism, he was not exactly a friend to the Jews. In the late 19th century, pogroms targeting Jews in the Pale of Settlement had led to waves of Jewish flight westward, to England and the United States. This influx of refugees led to an increase in British anti-immigrant racism and outright anti-Semitism — themes not unfamiliar to us today. Support for political action against immigrants grew as the English public demanded immigration control to keep certain immigrants, particularly Jews, out of the country.
The public found a sympathetic ear in Balfour. In 1905, while serving as Prime Minister, Balfour presided over the passage of the Aliens Act. This legislation put the first restrictions on immigration into Great Britain, and it was primarily aimed at restricting Jewish immigration. According to historians, Balfour had personally delivered passionate speeches about the imperative to restrict the wave of Jews fleeing the Russian Empire from entering Britain.
It may seem astonishing that Balfour, whose support of the Zionist cause has made him a hero among Jews, would have implemented anti-Jewish laws. But the truth is his support of Zionism stemmed from the exact same source as his desire to limit Jewish immigration to Britain.
Both can be traced back to his white supremacist beliefs. Balfour lived in an era of stirring nationalism, highly defined by ethno-religious identity. Because of these sentiments, the early 20th century was a time when ostensibly liberal Western nations struggled with the challenge of incorporating Jewish citizens. What the Zionists provided Balfour with was a solution to the challenges Jewish citizens posed to his ethno-nationalist vision, a solution that didn’t force him to reckon with them. Instead of insisting that societies accept all citizens as equals, regardless of racial or religious background, the Zionist movement offered a different answer: separation.
Balfour saw in Zionism not just a blessing for Jews, but for the West as well. As he wrote in 1919 in his Introduction to Nahum Sokolow’s History of Zionism, the Zionist movement would “mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.”
By both giving Jews a place to go and a place to leave, Zionism seemingly solved two problems at once, in Balfour’s mind. In other words, his support of Zionism was motivated to an extent by his desire to protect Britain from the negative effects, the “miseries,” of having Jews in its midst. Rather than protecting the rights of one of its minorities, Britain could simply export them, or at least, not import any more.
Needless to say, this view of Zionism is steeped in the same kind of white supremacy as Balfour’s view of South Africa’s blacks. But his support of the Zionist dream had another problem. Rather than solving the problem of how to handle a minority living in a white majority country, the Balfour Declaration just shifted the same problem to a different geography.
For the tension between ethno-nationalism and equality is equally present today between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea, where the Israeli state rules over the fate of millions of Palestinians who either have no right to vote, are treated as second-class citizens or are refugees denied repatriation. Today, it is Israel that views Palestinians like myself as “demographic threats”, and sees “the presence in its midst of a Body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.”
That Balfour’s legacy of supremacy persists as much as British support for Israel does is no accident. We have arrived at this point today because the supremacist attitudes of Balfour informed policy, lending imperial might to a project in pursuit of national self-determination for Jews by trampling on the rights of native non-Jews.
Remarkably, Balfour was unabashedly aware of the hypocrisy of his stance. “The weak point of our position of course is that in the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination,” he wrote in a letter to the British prime minister in 1919. “We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
Those Arabs, of course, made up approximately 90 percent of the population. My grandparents were among them.
Therein lies the fundamental problem that continues through this day, 100 years later. Palestinians are denied the right to have rights because from the outset, their views, their human rights and by extension their very humanity, were consistently seen as inferior to those of others. That was clear in Balfour’s perspective and the British Mandate’s policy. And it persists in one form or another in many of the policies of the state of Israel through this day.
Today as much as in 1917, the battle between ethno-nationalism and equality, between particularism and universalism, has risen to the foreground, from Donald Trump’s rise in America to Theresa May’s Brexited Britain. Rather than resolving this tension, Balfour’s support for Zionism merely exported it to Palestine.
Resisting the legacy of his racism will be the key to peace in Palestine/Israel and beyond.
This article first appeared in the Forward.