Monday, 6 November 2017

That Letter - the Balfour Declaration

On November 2, 1917, Arthur James Balfour, Britain's Foreign Secretary,  wrote the letter below to Baron Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Britain:

This is the notorious 'Balfour Declaration', which is one of the crucial documents and statements in the history of Palestine, and which represented a very significant victory in the story of Zionism.

Zionism is best understood as an ethnic nationalism, much like the ethno-nationalisms that were taking form in eastern Europe in the middle- to late-nineteenth century at the moment of Zionism's  birth.  Unlike the nationalisms of Russia,  Poland, Germany, Zionism was not in possession of, or  anywhere near, a recognisable  national territory.  One possible location for a 'national territory' was Palestine, home then to a small but ancient Jewish community and long yearned-for in the Judaic tradition.   Palestine at this time was an Ottoman province, but Britain now committed itself to facilitating a 'Jewish national home' in anticipation of the collapse of the Turkish empire.

Zionism, a century ago, and in our own time, has always offered itself as an ally or instrument of imperialisms.  In the era of the Balfour Declaration, Zionists had already sought aid from Tsarist Russia, from France and Britain, and even (paradoxically) from the Ottoman Porte.  In each case, the movement sold itself as useful to those great powers: Zionism would bring its  financial resources to the bankrupt and tottering  Turkish empire,  in return for land purchases in Palestine; it would 'solve' Russia's 'Jewish problem' and its revolutionary instability, by removing or luring away the Jewish radicals who contributed so much to Russian dissent; it would set up a bastion of Western values in the Middle  East, and guard Britain's access to the Suez Canal, and the route to India.  Most recently, of course, Israel has allied itself to the last remaining global power, the United States (especially since the 1967 war), and taken an eager part in America's proxy struggles with the USSR and then its real  struggles with Arab nationalism since.

We can see the future of Zionist exclusivism already in the Declaration - its reference to the  'non-Jewish communities in Palestine' adopts the Zionist terminology of 'non-Jews' to discuss in negative terms all other potential national identities or national communities in the territory.  The seemingly anodyne nature of the reference is also undercut by observing only their 'civil and religious rights'.  No Palestinian Arab political sovereignty is even imaginable, let alone desirable, in this vision.  The discourse of what Baruch Kimmerling called 'politicide' is already in place.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Here are some essays on the Declaration and its centenary, taken first from Jacobin - Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Middle East Studies at Columbia:

After Balfour

Now from Mondoweiss: Jonathan Cook


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