The myths of British imperial benevolence and Palestine - Priya Satia

Article by ProfessorSatia

Arab protesters travelling to Amman for a demonstration against the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, Jordan...

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