Neither Master Nor Subject: Zionism, Empire, and the Balfour Declaration

Neither Master Nor Subject: Zionism, Empire, and the Balfour Declaration

It was just a three-sentence letter, written 100 years ago—and many claim it’s still shaping the Middle East. But we should be careful about what we read into the Balfour Declaration.

Postcard commemorating the Balfour Declaration (National Photo Collection of Israel via Wikimedia Commons)

To many Israelis, “It is basically yet another symbol of Albion’s perfidy,” journalist Anshel Pfeffer explained in Haaretz in 2012. To many Palestinians, it is “the single most destructive political document on the Middle East in the twentieth century,” historian Walid Khalidi told a British audience. To Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, it deserves an apology from the British; his foreign minister has deemed it “the crime which they committed against our nation.”

“It” is the Balfour Declaration, a three-sentence letter written on November 2, 1917, while the First World War still raged. Its author, Arthur James Balfour, was at the time foreign secretary and had previously served as prime minister. Balfour was a deeply committed Christian who was steeped in the Old Testament, a scion of the British aristocracy, and an influential member of the Conservative Party. The letter expressed vague “favour” for an equally vague “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Numerous historians have studied the multiple factors that led to the Declaration, though it’s safe to say that, among the parliament members who approved it, love for the Jewish people was not the primary one.

Of equal or greater importance was Britain’s rivalry with France and Germany, and its hope that the Declaration would rally Jews in the United States and Russia—whose influence it ludicrously overestimated—to the Allied cause in the war. As Tom Segev, one of Israel’s “New Historians,” has written, the British “loved ‘the Jews’ even as they loathed them, at once admired and despised them, and above all feared them. . . . The men who sired it [the Declaration] were Christian and Zionist and, in many cases, anti-Semitic. They believed the Jews controlled the world.” Among the Declaration’s many complicating factors was the fact that, two years prior, the British had promised, or sort of promised, postwar independence for several indistinctly defined Arab lands. But those promises, known as the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, were secret and nebulous—and, therefore, easy to disown. (Palestine itself was indistinctly defined, which is why, in 1922, Winston Churchill could sever Transjordan from the British Mandate, thus lopping off 75 percent of Palestine’s land mass.)

The Balfour Declaration was an important event in Jewish, Arab, and world history. But it was a flimsy document—“declaration” is a somewhat grandiose misnomer—and its importance should not be fetishized. It did not create the Zionist movement or overdetermine the destiny of the Arab-Israeli conflict; many, many other choices on all sides have been made since. And though the Declaration was certainly part of the imperialist world order, so were many of the Arab forces who opposed it.

Most Jews, and certainly most British Jews, were far from being Zionists in 1917. In fact, the one Jewish member of parliament at the time, Edwin Montagu, opposed Balfour and strenuously worked against it. “Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom,” he wrote in protest. He considered the Declaration to be anti-Semitic, for it would lead Britain and the other nations of the world to view their Jewish citizens as aliens: “Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine.” Of course, British anti-Semitism already existed: “I have always recognised the unpopularity . . . of my community,” Montagu averred, though he allowed that he could “easily understand” this antipathy, since Jews had “obtained a far greater share of this country’s goods and opportunities than we are numerically entitled to.” With more than a whiff of xenophobia, he added that the Zionist movement was “largely run . . . by men of enemy descent.”

Many of Montagu’s objections would be reprised five decades later by Maxime Rodinson, a Jewish-French scholar of the Arab world. Rodinson, a Communist, was strongly anti-Zionist (though he supported the two-state solution), and he viewed Zionism as a personal affront. The creation of Israel, he complained, “encouraged sentiments of solidarity among Jews everywhere . . . I do not believe that this is anything to be happy about.” Israel had burdened secular, assimilated Jews such as he with an unwanted identity: “In the countries in which the ‘Jewish problem’ was on the road to liquidation, Jewish identity has been kept alive for many Jews who did not at all desire it.” Rodinson thus foretold the “not in my name” politics that pervades certain segments of today’s left. But it was the State of Israel that he objected to, not the Occupation; in fact, he rarely mentioned the latter.

The Balfour Declaration had little immediate material effect—the British Mandate over Palestine didn’t yet exist—though it achieved the status of international law in 1922 when it was ratified by the League of Nations. But the Declaration was public—and well-publicized, unlike the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. And far from being the unilateral declaration of the British, it was supported by the Allies and had been preceded by a French document known as the Cambon letter, which spoke of “justice,” “reparation[s],” and “the renaissance of the Jewish nationality” in Palestine. Russians and Poles fleeing pogroms weren’t thinking about Balfour, but the Declaration did construct a protective, if often leaky, umbrella for Jewish settlement in Palestine. In the 1940s, Zionists would fight the British, whom they had come to regard as an existential enemy. But for the previous two decades, it was the British who allowed the Jews to build their state-within-a-state in Palestine.

At the time of the Declaration, people of vastly different persuasions—from socialists to conservatives—agreed that Zionism was at best an unrealizable, sentimental dream. The vast majority of Jews in the United States and England had zero affiliation with, or loyalty to, the movement. Non-Jews too, on both left and right, regarded Zionism as a decidedly unattractive idea. The British Foreign Office was deeply anti-Zionist (as were foreign policy experts in the United States); once in Palestine, its representatives didn’t exactly hurry to support the Zionist project, even in a non-state iteration. (In the early 1920s, Winston Churchill estimated that 90 percent of the British troops serving in Palestine opposed the Declaration and the policies that derived from it.) Reporting on Palestine in the late 1930s, Arthur Koestler observed, “Among the lower strata of British civil servants . . . there is an atmosphere of anti-Semitism unparalleled anywhere else under the British flag”; the Brits regarded Tel Aviv as “some kind of leper city.”

But dislike of the Jews should not be mistaken for affection, much less respect, for the Arabs. Palestinian Arabs were not consulted on the Declaration—a manifestation, as historian Rashid Khalidi writes, of the “subtly racist rationale” behind the Declaration. Embedded in the document was the idea that “the Jews were important, were a people with significance, while the Arabs of Palestine . . . could be ignored, and indeed were not even thought of as a people per se.” Reaction to the Declaration by Arab leaders within and outside of Palestine was unsurprisingly and understandably negative, albeit also deeply imbued with racism. Aref Pasha Dajani, mayor of Jerusalem in 1917–18, explained that the Jews’ “history and all their past proves that it is impossible to live with them. In all the countries where they are present they are not wanted . . . because they always arrive to suck the blood of everybody.” Dajani stressed that Arab-Jewish coexistence was impossible, and all too accurately predicted “a river of blood.”

The Balfour Declaration has given rise to the notion, especially beloved by the left in both the West and the Arab world, that Zionism was a conspiracy between clever, devious Jews and their imperialist partners; it follows that the State of Israel was, and remains, an imperialist-colonialist project in its very essence. “The Zionist movement is nothing but . . . exploitation, for the profit of Jewish capitalists,” a Lebanese communist explained to Rodinson in a 1967 essay. “[Israel is] a commercial undertaking and a colonialist platform.” Similarly, the Egyptian Marxist Mahmoud Hussein insisted, in a 1974 dialogue with Israeli historian Saul Friedländer, that Arab nationalism is “exactly the opposite” of Zionism, which “was bound in with the perpetuation of imperialist domination.” Arab nationalism, in contrast, rejects “complicity” with foreign powers and is “a spontaneous rejection of all outside interference.” (Mahmoud Hussein was the pseudonym of two Egyptian intellectuals, Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat, who were living as political exiles in France.)

Hussein was wrong on both counts. Even critics of mainstream Zionism, such as Hannah Arendt, realized that the Zionist project could not be shoehorned into the colonialist-imperialist model. “The realities of Jewish achievement in Palestine were unique in many respects,” she wrote in 1948. “What happened in Palestine was not easy to judge and evaluate: it was extraordinarily different from anything that had happened in the past.” She delineated these extraordinary differences. The Zionists had come to Palestine not to steal its rich natural resources—in fact there were none—but to develop a desolate land with their own labor; not to oppress others, but to save themselves; not to extract labor power from peasants or proletarians, but to build an autonomous economy in which they would transform themselves into peasants and proletarians. “The building of a Jewish national home was not a colonial enterprise in which Europeans came to exploit foreign riches . . . at the expense of native labor,” Arendt observed. “Palestine was and is a poor country and whatever riches it possesses are exclusively the product of Jewish labor . . . Exploitation or robbery, so characteristic of the ‘original accumulation’ in all imperialist enterprises, were either completely absent or played an insignificant role.” The Zionists had created something new, something that “could not possibly fit into the political scheme of imperialism because it was neither a master nor a subject nation.”

But Arendt never suggested that Zionism did not harm Palestinian Arabs. On the contrary, she well understood how and why “the Arabs considered the whole Jewish venture a strange interlude out of a fairy tale at best, and, at worst, an illegal enterprise which one day would be fair game for looting and robbery.” She insisted, however, that the straitjacket of European colonialism could not be imposed on the Zionist body.

And, pace Mahmoud Hussein, almost all Arab nations gained independence through negotiations between the colonial powers and local elites. The great exception was Algeria, which won its independence through a revolutionary war of liberation. Far from eschewing dialogue with imperial powers, the Arab elites realized—quite rightly—that they needed to negotiate with them. (The Armenians had shown what could happen to a people who lacked the support of a great power; today, the Kurds find themselves in a similarly perilous position.) The Palestine Liberation Organization, too, was happy to dance with the devil, revolutionary rhetoric notwithstanding. In the 1970s and ’80s, Yasser Arafat spent much if not most of his time traveling throughout the world beseeching scores of countries—including those in Western Europe—for diplomatic support, money, and/or arms. This is understandable; as a stateless, powerless people, the Palestinians had few other choices—just like the pre-state Zionists. Beginning in 1974, the PLO sought to meet with Henry Kissinger, the world’s number one imperialist, and it became increasingly desperate for recognition from the United States. In 1979, the academic Sameer Abraham reported that “a low-level PLO-U.S. ‘dialogue’ is a reality.”

By the late 1930s—the years of Nazi ascendance—the British were hardly viewed as Zionism’s friends. Following the Arab Revolt of 1936–1939, the Arab world won a major victory from the British, who were anxiously anticipating the coming world war. Britain’s 1939 White Paper revoked the Balfour Declaration and declared Palestine off-limits to all but a trickle of Jewish refugees—just before the extermination commenced. Jews everywhere, whether Zionists or not, viewed the new policy as a death sentence and referred to it as the Black Paper; the Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri has called the White Paper “politically . . . reasonable” and “morally . . . despicable.” Historians of the Palestinian national movement argue, correctly, that the Palestinians were pawns of the British. But so were the Jews.

In writings from the late 1930s through the 1947–48 Arab-Israeli Wars, many left journalists viewed Britain as the imperial power of the Middle East and Zionists as the anti-imperialists. Koestler denounced the White Paper as “a Palestine Munich”—Neville Chamberlain was one of the policy’s leading lights—and organized furiously against it. So did I.F. Stone, America’s preeminent left journalist, who wrote that the White Paper “seemed more inhumane than the pathological cruelty of the Nazis.”

To the astonishment of many, the British defied the United Nations and simply refused to implement the 1947 partition decision. In stark contrast to its policy in India, they withdrew from Palestine without establishing any self-governing institutions among the Arabs or supporting those that existed among the Jews. Left behind, in Koestler’s words, was “a country without legal government, administration, police or public services, cut off from the outside world and ravaged by war.”

Koestler’s major point is one that would sound strange to much of the contemporary left. This is especially true for much of the British left, for whom anti-Zionism has become the almost non-negotiable ticket of entry into left discourse (and who have conveniently repressed Britain’s nefarious role in the Arab-Israeli conflict). Koestler argued that Zionism, far from being an extension of British imperialism, was the main impediment to British plans in the Middle East. The Zionists’ demand, and capacity, for self-rule made British control of Palestine unworkable and redundant. Even worse, the Zionists were interlopers in Britain’s desired alliance with (and domination of) the Arab nations. Zionism was, in short, “the nigger in the Levantine woodpile.”

To gain Arab support against the Nazis during the Second World War, Britain halted Jewish immigration into Palestine. To gain Arab support against the Soviets in the postwar period, it fought the Yishuv and opposed partition. Its substitute proposal was a one-state entity, which in practice meant an Arab-dominated Palestine, though Jews were promised a “guaranteed minority status.” The only problem with this plan, Koestler noted, was “the experiences of the Armenian, Greek, Syriac, Kurdish, Maronite, Hindu, Moslem, Sikh and other national or religious minorities in the East. . . . ‘Guaranteed minority status’ is equivalent to that of a ‘licensed persecutee’.” Britain’s soothing assurances of multicultural tolerance could not hide the splintered, antagonistic realities of Palestine.

I.F. Stone held a similar view of the conflict. His 1946 book Underground to Palestine, which originally ran as dispatches in the left-wing newspaper PM, documents his journey with a group of “illegals”—that is, Holocaust survivors—as they try to break the British blockade and make their way to Palestine. (Though a Labour government was now in power, the old policy of barring Jews from Palestine was very much alive.)

The villains of Stone’s book, too, are the British. The key to his outlook—and his anger—can be found in the book’s first paragraph: Stone sits in the press gallery of the UN Security Council watching Sir Alexander Cadogan, Britain’s representative, make “a professionally astringent argument designed to prevent action against Franco.” For Stone, there was an unbroken line between the betrayal of Spain and that of the Jews: “In Sir Alexander’s subtle apologetics for a Fascist dictator, I had seen one aspect of the Empire’s postwar policy. I was soon to see another.” And for Stone, there was an equally direct bond between defense of the Spanish Republic and that of the Yishuv.

By this time, Stone had become convinced that the British government would offer the Jews only “disappointment, betrayal, and attack . . . The British Empire is now waging a war designed to smash what the Jews have accomplished in Palestine.” (In 1946, Stone quoted a high British military official who says, “The world took the killing of six million Jews and if we have to destroy half of Tel Aviv, the world will take that, too.”) The British-Arab coalition, Stone charged, offered backwardness and oppression to both Arabs and Jews.

Stone predicted that the mighty British would emerge from their Palestinian sojourn covered in shame. His 1948 book This Is Israel, with photographs by Robert Capa, then the world’s foremost left-wing photojournalist, was an equal if not fiercer attack on the British Foreign Office (and the U.S. State Department). Stone dubbed them “The Wicked Midwives” and accused them of trying to abort the new Jewish state. He would have been shocked by Tariq Ali’s contention, widely shared today by his colleagues at the New Left Review and elsewhere, that “Israel was created in 1948 by the British Empire.”

If the Zionists were imperialists, it follows that their enemies represented an opposing, and therefore progressive, ideology. Again, this was hardly the understanding at the time. Koestler and Stone viewed the Muslim-Arab bourgeoisie, who were Britain’s allies and Israel’s foes, as one of the world’s most retrograde forces: phobic about socialism, fearful of the immiserated Arab masses, hostile to the modern ideas the Jews had brought to Palestine, and deeply undemocratic. Stone noted that the mélange of unsavory volunteers who joined the Arab forces included former Nazis, Polish reactionaries, and Yugoslav Chetniks: hardly a revolutionary alliance. The Daily Worker, Britain’s Communist Party newspaper, likewise described the Arab detachments as a kind of International Brigade turned on its head: they included Iraqi fascists, German Nazis, and Yugoslav Royalists. The Yishuv’s main military antagonist, the Arab Legion, was founded, funded, and led by the British. Today, it is the left that opposes Israel’s brutal Occupation of the Palestinians—and, often, rejects the existence of Israel itself. This has given rise to the false belief—a kind of anachronistic projection—that this was always so. In fact, I can think of no global conflict in which there has been such a stark reversal of positions and allies.

In 1917, few people expected the Soviet regime to last more than a few months. Even fewer expected that the Zionist movement would build a state in Palestine. A hundred years later, the Soviet Union is, as they say, “history,” though its revolution was one of the twentieth century’s seminal events; we continue to live with its aftershocks. As for Israel, it survives as a remarkable achievement and a heartbreaking failure. It remains as contentious, if not more so, than at any time in its history. In 1949, Koestler predicted that “In fifty years’ time . . . few will take an interest” in Israel’s birth. He could not have been more wrong.

The neo-Marxist historian Enzo Traverso has recently written that it is hard to know whether the founding of Israel was a miracle or a tragedy. It will be a sign of progress—for Israelis, for Arabs, for the left, for the world at large—when it can be viewed as neither. Mahmoud Abbas’s demand that Britain apologize for Balfour is a useless, pathetic act—but no more useless and pathetic than Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The British will not repent for Balfour any more than the Arab states will repent for the 1948 invasion of Israel (which they hoped would be, in their words, a “war of extermination”) or the Israelis for the Nakba. Such demands reflect the hopeless wish that history can be undone, which is always an evasion of the challenge to face the future. That is the only place where hope—and politics—reside.

Susie Linfield is completing a book on the views of eight left-wing intellectuals towards Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her previous book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2010), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is on the editorial board of Dissent.

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