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Balfour: Then and Now

Balfour Declaration

November 2, is exactly 100 years after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the pledge given to the World Zionist Movement in a letter signed by the British Foreign Secretary to support the establishment of a ‘national home’ in the then Ottoman millet of Palestine.

Certainly ‘a day of infamy’ for the Palestinian people and their friends around the world, while unfortunately treated as ‘a day of pride’ by the British Government, and all in the West those morally bankrupt enough to regret the passing of the colonial era, and to pretend without embarrassment that the Balfour legacy is something to celebrate, rather than to mourn, in the year 2017.

The British pledge was an unabashed expression of colonialist arrogance in 1917, ironically made at the dawn of the worldwide movement of national upheavals that would lead in the course of the century to the collapse of European colonialism. At the end of World War I colonialism was being increasingly questioned morally, but not yet challenged legally or politically. Such challenges only began to emerge as the struggles of national liberation gained political traction globally after 1945.

It is worth noticing that there was a certain amount of diplomatic pushback even in the post-1918 diplomacy, especially by way of Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of ethnic ‘self-determination’ for the Ottoman held territories of the Middle East. More strongly in the same direction was Lenin’s radical critique of colonialism as a system of oppression that needed to be opposed and crushed wherever in the world it existed. This pushback did lead Britain and France to moderate their colonial ambitions as embodied in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, but these two unrepentant colonial powers still managed to gain essentially uncontested de facto control of political communities throughout the Middle East by way of the mandate system, which might be better understood as ‘tutelary colonialism.’

I am led to wonder whether if Wilson had had his way at Versailles in 1919 would the Balfour impact have been lessened with respect to the unfolding reality of Palestine? Presumably, Arab self-determination throughout the region would have drastically reduced the British and French role. Perhaps this European displacement would have been to an extent as to prompt a shift of Zionist energies away from Palestine, leading to a willingness to find a secure homeland somewhere that would be more receptive to the establishment of a Jewish state in their midst.

Trump’s outrageous assertion that there were good people on the white supremacist side of the Charlottesville demonstrations and General John Kelly’s more recent obtuse contention that the American Civil War resulted from the failure of the two sides (North and South) to strike a compromise, as if a compromise with slavery was a preferred option.
This might have spelled a different tragedy for a different people than what has befallen the Palestinian people. Of course, ‘what might have been,’ is only of interest as a way of historically decoding the injustices that currently afflict oppressed and deprived peoples. We are helpless to change the past, although we can imagine unfolding in more benevolent ways. As much as the Palestinians, the Kurds throughout the region were fragmented and subjugated, and continue to this hour to struggle for some measure of ethnic autonomy, collective dignity, and self-determination. The Kurds were promised by World War I victors a state of their own situated mainly in present day Turkey and embodied in the Treaty of Sévres (1920). A few years later what was given was taken away, reflecting geopolitical moves that adapted to intervening political developments at the enduring expense of the Kurdish people. The main intervening event between the two treaties was the shocking Ataturk victory over European powers in Turkey, which helps understand why the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) abandoned the arrangements proposed at Sevres.

Reverting to reality, Britain became the mandatory administrator of Palestine in 1923, opening the country to the incremental realization of the Zionist agenda, which concentrated during the 1920s and 1930s on buying land from Palestinians that could be given to Jewish settlers, doing it all it could to induce Jews to emigrate to Palestine, and resorting to a terrorist campaign that was intended to make the British position in Palestine untenable.

To make the whole Zionist undertaking credible ideologically, economically, and politically it was imperative to overcome the huge demographic imbalance that existed in Palestine during the early phases of the Zionist movement. It is instructive to recall that the Jewish presence in Palestine at the time of Balfour was no more than 5-7%. Such a small minority could not possibly succeed in establishing and dominating the government of a state that was to be ethnically oriented and yet democratic. Not a single Zionist expected the resident population to accept willingly such an outcome. Israel as a viable sanctuary for Jews escaping persecution necessarily depended on finding the right formula for combining armed struggle and political deception.

In this sense Balfour launched a project that was utopian from the Zionist point of view and dystopian from the Palestinian perspective. On the utopian side, establishing a Jewish state that could show a democratic face to the world seemed well beyond the horizon of feasibility. To attain the Zionist goal of a democratic Jewish state in Palestine ran directly counter to the anti-colonial historical tide in the 20th Century that swept away all in path elsewhere in the non-Western world. And then to overcome such a one-sided demographic imbalance seemed a mission impossible no matter how much the Jewish diaspora was goaded into migrating to Israel.

On the dystopian side as experienced by the Palestinians, the Nakbah dispossession and expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians, reinforced by discriminatory immigration policy, rigid security policies, and by Zionist expansionism that continues to this day has inflicted a tragic destiny upon the Palestinian people. This kind of ethnic restructuring also was coupled with the legitimation of a settler colonial state, including by the United Nations, at a historical moment when colonialism was entering its sunset phase and the UN was supposed to reflect the moral will of the organized global community. This outcome was permanently disillusioned for the Palestinians, and involves a cruel and paradoxical twist to the long Palestinian ordeal.

As an American terrified by Trump and Trumpism I cannot refrain from noting the analogies with the efforts of this leadership to airbrush the Confederate past of the United States, featuring slavery, with broad strokes of moral relativism. Trump’s outrageous assertion that there were good people on the white supremacist side of the Charlottesville demonstrations and General John Kelly’s more recent obtuse contention that the American Civil War resulted from the failure of the two sides (North and South) to strike a compromise, as if a compromise with slavery was a preferred option. A rejection of this kind of high profile posturing is not only a matter of political correctness; it is much more a matter of elemental moral sensitivity and political vigilance then and now.

Without letting Britain off the Balfour hook, the main international culprits since 1945 are surely the United States and the UN, jointly and separately failing to produce a sustainable and just peace for both peoples. At this time such a peace will not be achieved by continued recourse to the two-state solution that with each passing Israeli settlement expansion becomes, at best, an empty slogan, and more realistically, a way of changing the conversation to avoid considering the step that alone could bring peace to both peoples: ending the apartheid structures that have fragmented, subjugated, and victimized the Palestinian people ever since the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948.

Until Israel is persuaded to dismantle its apartheid regime (as the racist South African regime was a decade earlier), peace diplomacy is bound to be a farce that does more harm than good. If this more realistic appreciation of the preconditions for peace between Palestinians and Israelis were to begin emerging on this day of remembrance, the Balfour century could at least claim to end on a more hopeful note than it began.


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