The enduring relevance of the Balfour Declaration: exploring the settler-colonialist myth

This week marks the centenary of the highly acclaimed Balfour Declaration. A hundred years ago, British foreign secretary Lord Balfour pledged to ‘view with favour’, the establishment of a ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine.

The declaration was met with controversy upon its publication – how could Britain, a foreign power with no claim to Palestine, possibly promise a ‘national home’ to the then small Jewish minority in the land? Indeed, it was met with outrage and uproar by the Palestinian and Arab communities in the Middle East at the time.

The controversy over this Declaration has persisted and only grown ever more complex over the course of time. Today’s anti-Israel camp notoriously and mistakenly labels Zionism as a settler-colonialist enterprise and model of imperial racism. They often point to the Balfour Declaration as a fundamental piece of evidence for this assertion: the Zionists were sponsors of European colonialism and collaborators with British imperialism, whose ideology was embedded in the intent to dispossess the native Palestinian people of their land. Zionism is often characterised on the left to be a direct product of British colonialism, wherein Britain’s Balfour Declaration directly served to support the foreign, European, Zionist settlers in a land that was not their own. The ongoing suffering, statelessness, and injustice experienced by Palestinians today is frequently characterised to have derived singularly from the Balfour Declaration, the moment in time when a foreign colonial power promised the Jewish people a sovereign home in Palestine. This Declaration is thought to have marked the beginning of the colonisation of Palestinian land.

These claims are rooted in deep-seated misconceptions that warp fact and misrepresent history. Too often, those who identify Zionism as a settler-colonialist enterprise fail to situate the Balfour Declaration in its broader historical and political context. Zionism – the Jewish nationalist movement for political sovereignty in the historical and religious homeland of the Jewish people – far predated the Balfour Declaration. One simply needs to look towards the canonical documents of Theodor Herzl and Leo Pinsker, the socialist ideology of the Hovevei Zion, and the First Zionist Congress of 1897 to understand that Zionism was a nationalist movement of a people yearning for sovereignty, security, and independence in their homeland of Zion. One only needs to read the work of Herzl – the founder of modern political Zionism – to understand that Zionist policy at the time was one of pragmatic strategy. The Balfour Declaration thus manifested the first major strategic victory for the Zionist movement, and was the culmination of careful and intelligent international diplomacy on the part of this fledgling international political movement. The Declaration was Zionism’s most significant success to date; to be recognised by a major political power in the international arena. It is therefore deeply ignorant to declare Zionism as a mere outgrowth of British colonialism, or as a settler-colonialist ideology. To do this is to ignore Zionism’s longer, pre-established, pre-Mandate history, as well as its sincere goals. To describe Zionists as having been foreign settlers is to deny the indigenous nature of the relationship between Jews and the land of Palestine. Moreover, this narrow characterisation fails to grasp the Declaration’s essential political context: it is now widely recognised that the Declaration was part of a larger geopolitical strategy on the part of the British. Overestimating the Jewish community’s influence in the US, Britain hoped that by pledging support for a ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine, the American Jewish community would then assist the British in persuading their government to intervene in the war.

Those who hold up the Balfour Declaration as evidence that Zionism is settler-colonialism, and that this policy document was the root cause for the subsequent decades of Palestinian suffering, fail to place the Declaration in its true historical context and acknowledge other essential developments that followed it. Just five years later, Britain made new geopolitical calculations in favour of the native Arab population in Palestine. The Churchill White Paper of 1922 was drafted at the request of Sir Winston Churchill in response to the Jaffa Riots, where Arab attacks against local Jews showed their deep resentment with the British Mandate’s support for Zionism. This new paper emphasised that the establishment of a Jewish national home would not impose a Jewish nationality on the native Arab inhabitants of Palestine, and called for a severe limitation of Jewish immigration into Palestine from thereon forward. This paper was considered a great disappointment for the Zionist movement, and represented the first major shift in British policy towards the Zionist movement in Palestine. Finally the White Paper of 1939, issued by Neville Chamberlain in response to the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt, limited Jewish immigration to just 75,000 over the next five years, and further declared that any further immigration would only be determined by the Arab majority in the land. This policy paper was met with outrage by the Zionist community in Palestine, who would ultimately only realise the true calamity of this meagre quota following the Shoah.

Only a brief analysis of British policy papers issued following the Balfour Declaration clearly demonstrates a distinct shift in Britain’s policy in Palestine that clearly and tangibly favoured the Arab community in Palestine over the Jewish, Zionist community. Thus to hold up the Balfour Declaration as evidence of Zionism’s collaborative conspiracy with a colonialist power is simply historically and factually inaccurate. The Declaration represented no historical contingency or ideological equivalency of any sort between Zionism and colonialism.

The Jewish community’s aspirations to establish a sovereign homeland in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s were as much an anti and ultimately post-colonial movement as were the native Arabs’ desires and protests for political independence from the imperial British Mandate.

The Balfour Declaration was certainly a watershed moment in the history of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the continued unresolved and stateless status of the Palestinian people today is deeply complex. To trace back and blame the origins of this tragedy solely on the Balfour Declaration is historically narrow and analytically small-minded.

About the Author
Dana Segall was recently awarded a Bachelor of International Relations from the University of Sydney with Highest Distinction, and will be pursuing her Master's in Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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