ANDREW MURRAY recommends a new book exposing the real motives behind the 1917 Balfour Declaration — the maintenance of Britain’s strategic interests in the Middle East
The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate and Resistance in Palestine by Bernard Regan (Verso, £16.99)
IN THIS year of centenary observations — the October Revolution, the battle of Passchendaele — the Balfour Declaration is perhaps the 1917 event which casts the longest shadow in today’s politics.
By this act, the British government opened the door to the creation of a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine. In turn, this led directly to the establishment of the state of Israel 30 years and one further world war later.
At the time, it was a declaration without any legal foundation. Palestine was part of the Ottoman empire and Britain, albeit at war with the Ottomans, had no right to be parcelling out its territory.
At the same time as foreign secretary Arthur Balfour — himself anti-semitic — was making his declaration, other British diplomats, generals and agents were making conflicting pledges regarding the future disposition of the Middle East to Arab leaders and to other imperialists, mainly the French.
As the old saw has it, the British promised the Promised Land to just about everyone.
Today, and understandably, the Balfour Declaration will be reviewed mainly in terms of its enduring impact on the Palestinian people and on Jewish people worldwide.
But it is important to remember that at its origin, the 1917 policy of the British government towards Palestine was not mainly concerned with zionism — then a minority political trend among Europe’s Jews — but with its own imperial interests.
It is the great merit of Bernard Regan’s book that it restores this perspective. The 1917 Declaration was not a cunning Jewish plot to suborn the British government to its interests but a cynical plan — one of many — to maintain London’s strategic and economic hegemony in a vital part of the world.
This context is vital to recall, since British imperialism is more undead in the Middle East than in almost any other part of the world today.
Balfour and Lloyd George would have no difficulty in recognising as kindred spirits the Tory architects of Britain’s multi-sided interventions in Syria and Libya, or the New Labour invaders of Iraq.
Regan starts by reminding readers of both the world setting of the time — an inter-imperialist war of unprecedented scope and horror to secure global power — and of the developments in capitalism, as analysed by Lenin, which had led to the conflict.
Britain’s empire, pivoting on India and also already entrenched in Egypt and Iran, was concerned above all with preserving imperial security and communications and access to supplies including, of course, the increasingly important oil.
It was these impulses which prompted an alliance with the zionists with the aim of producing, in the words of a subsequent British governor of Palestine, “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”
As Regan outlines, many Jews in Britain, including community leaders, were thoroughly unconvinced by this project.
The declaration led to the creation of the Palestinian mandate after the first world war, with “mandates” being the lipstick then painted on the colonialist pig.
Regan describes how this was experienced by the Arab people of Palestine as a colonial enterprise as oppressive as any other, denying the population both democratic rights and economic development, while taxing them onerously.
On top of that, the government was committed to permitting Jewish immigration, the pressure of which only grew as a consequence of intensifying anti-semitism in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in the 1930s.
The Jews of Europe can hardly be condemned, of course, for trying to cash Balfour’s cheque given that the alternative was, literally, a death sentence.
In that context, it is important that Regan recalls that Arab hostility towards the mandate in the 1930s was as much or more directed against the British colonial apparatus as against the Jewish immigrants, although violence against, and by, the latter was not absent.
Regan does a service in explaining the essentials of this imperialist project while also registering the complexities of the situation.
“The preceding centuries of Ottoman rule, the British invasion and occupation of Palestine, the inter-imperialist rivalry, the growing Palestinian desire for self-determination, the anti-semitism within Europe and the revivalist nationalism of zionist politics were just some of the elements which came to produce the unique conjecture of the mandate period,” he writes.
For the British imperialists, the core of the matter was clear. Regan quotes Winston Churchill telling the 1937 Royal Commission on Palestine that he did “not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time … I do not admit that a wrong has been done to those people by the fact that a stronger races, a higher grade race … has come and taken their place.” Churchill’s outlook informs much Anglo-US support for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories to this day. It is still the mindset of racist colonialism.
Of course, what Balfour wrought is not going to be unwrought, and the idea that Israel today can simply be regarded as a colonial project which could or should be reversed in the way that, say, French Algeria was, gets us nowhere.
So the central message of Regan’s illuminating, carefully researched and well-written book which does retain its full force from a century ago is this — British imperialism is an enemy of peace and freedom in the Middle East and the British left must remain vigilant in opposition to it.