Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Towards a Genealogy of the Question of Palestine

On November 2, 1917, 97 years ago, the British Foreign Minister, Arthur James Balfour, wrote a short memo to Lionel Walter Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement.  In it he suggested that 'His Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people'.  Zionism was not a new phenomenon, having achieved institutional and political expression in the 1880s and 1890s, but the 'Balfour Declaration' represented what the movement's leaders had long desired - the positive support of one of the great imperial powers.  That great power - Britain and its vast and rich empire - was at this time at war with the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Palestine.  Zionism hoped to benefit from the likely defeat of the Turks, as the 'sick man of Europe' collapsed and its various Middle Eastern and Levantine territories and provinces came within the British sphere of influence.

The 1919 Paris Peace Conference brought the decision to award control of the territory of Palestine to Great Britain, under the terms of a 'mandate' of the newly-formed League of Nations.  Balfour, attending this conference, was well-aware of the contradiction between supporting Jewish-Zionist nationalism, and the support that had been given to the Arabs during the First World War in their struggle against their Ottoman masters.  Palestine was still at this time an overwhelmingly Arab-populated region.  Balfour wrote at this time that 'the contradiction between the letter of the Covenant [of the League of Nations] and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the "independent nation" of Palestine… For in Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country'.   And so, he concluded, 'The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism.  And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land'.   From this central and founding position of European imperialism has flowed much of the conflict that has stricken the region ever since.

The Institute of Palestine Studies, to mark this anniversary, is providing on its website a 'special focus collection' of materials pertaining to the Balfour Declaration, for the month of November.   Included in these documents are the text of the Declaration, demographic maps of pre-Mandate Palestine, and no less than ten articles on this topic from past issues of the Journal of Palestine Studies - a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to examine the roots of the present situation.

Special Focus collection around the Balfour Declaration and the effects of British imperial power


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