The Balfour Declaration - 100 years of British collaboration with Zionism

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Balfour’s Shadow: a century of British support for Zionism and Israel
David Cronin, Pluto Press 2017, £16.99

On 2 November 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, signed a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist Federation in Britain, expressing support for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. This letter, made public on 9 November and known as the Balfour Declaration, set in train a process, as David Cronin describes, ‘whereby colonisers would be treated as superior to the native population’ and Palestinians living and farming the land became ‘non-Jewish communities’.

The horrific consequences of this for the Palestinian people, starting with the encouragement of Zionist immigration to Palestine, the crushing of the Palestinian revolt in 1936, the expulsion of around 750,000 Palestinians in the Nakba of 1948, up to the desperate situation of Palestinians today, are outlined in Cronin’s excellent book. Importantly, helped by his research through government papers and other sources, it documents the historic and continuing role of British imperialism in promoting and supporting the Zionist project and the state of Israel. There are one or two points missing, such as the endorsement of the Balfour Declaration by the Labour Party and TUC in their December 1917 War Aims Memorandum, but that does not detract from the book’s overall importance.

In writing his letter to Rothschild supporting a homeland for Jews in Palestine, Balfour was not motivated by any altruistic concern for the Jews who had been facing persecution in Eastern Europe and pre-revolutionary Russia for decades. In 1905, when he had been Prime Minister, he had enthusiastically supported the Aliens Bill, Britain’s first immigration act, which was aimed at preventing Jews fleeing Russian pogroms from entering Britain. He denounced an ‘alien immigration that was largely Jewish’. Balfour’s anti-Semitism existed alongside his later support for Zionism and the possibility of encouraging Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine.

Balfour was an imperialist politician who early in his career had served as Chief Secretary for Ireland, where in 1887 he had ordered the police to open fire on a demonstration against the prosecution of Irish Nationalist leader William O’Brien, killing three protesters. His active political conversion to supporting Zionism was based on British imperialism’s desire to undermine Jewish working class support for the Bolsheviks in Russia and to rally Jewish support behind Britain’s war aims in the First World War. A 1917 telegram from the Foreign Office to British envoys in Petrograd read:

‘We are advised that one of the best methods of counteracting Jewish pacifist and socialist propaganda in Russia would be to offer definite encouragement to Jewish nationalist aspirations in Palestine’.

Control of Palestine was seen as one of the key military objectives for British imperialism in the Middle East due to its proximity to Egypt and to the Suez Canal. Herbert Samuel, a Zionist and major supporter of the Balfour Declaration, when a Cabinet Minister in 1915, had advocated that Britain endorse the establishment of a Jewish colony in Egypt next to the Suez Canal to help prevent it falling into French hands. Cronin quotes a senior figure in the Foreign Office, Ronald Graham, briefing Balfour about ‘the very important role the Jews are now playing in the Russian political situation’. If Britain convinced Russian Jews that the success of Zionism depended on ‘their support of the Allies and the expulsion of the Turks from Palestine, we shall enlist a most powerful element in our favour’.

The architect of what became the Balfour Declaration was Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist, originally from Belarus, who was a research chemist at Manchester University and the inventor of an alternative method of producing acetone which was vital to the British arms industry during the war. As a reward for his invention Weizmann is reported to have asked the Prime Minister Lloyd George for help in pursuing his Zionist project.

One little quibble with Cronin is that he doesn’t give much detail about Weizmann’s political activities in Manchester where the Balfour Declaration was actually born. For instance he doesn’t mention the ‘Manchester School of Zionism’, a Zionist political group led by Weizmann which included Harry Sacker, an influential journalist on the Manchester Guardian, and the owners of Marks and Spencer, Israel Sieff and Simon Marks.

CP Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, became a supporter of Weizmann’s project and used the editorial column of the paper to promote the Zionist cause. It was Scott who reportedly first introduced Weizmann to Lloyd George. Weizmann had first met Balfour in 1906 when Balfour had been an MP in Manchester; they had also met in 1914 where Balfour had reportedly broken down in tears after listening to Weizmann’s pitch for a Zionist homeland in Palestine. However, it was only in 1917 that the political situation saw the convergence of the interests of both British imperialism and Zionism.

What became the Balfour Declaration went through a number of drafts as both the Zionists and the British government debated the exact wording; what is undoubted, though, is that the birth of it had taken place due to the activities of the Manchester School of Zionism. As Israel Sieff’s son Marcus writes in his memoir Don’t ask the price about the role his father and Simon Marks (his uncle) played:

‘The Marks family also were not religious minded, but for both families [Marks and Sieff] Zionism was a different matter... this developed to a great extent because of the relationship which father and Simon developed while still young men with Dr Weizmann, and the role they played in the genesis of the Balfour Declaration.’

British imperialism’s support for the Zionist project was completely tied up with its desire to control strategic areas of the Middle East after the end of the war. It was of no concern that the only Jewish cabinet minister, Edwin Montague, was completely opposed to Zionism and that, within the wider Jewish community in Britain, support for Zionism was limited to a small minority. The official war aims drawn up in 1917 stated that it was essential for the British Empire to secure ‘continuity of territory or control’ between Egypt and India. The 1916 Sykes-Picot accord drawn up with France which divided the Middle East between the two imperialist powers was amended so that Britain would be guaranteed ‘definite and exclusive control over Palestine’.

In 1920, the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate over Palestine. The arch-Zionist Herbert Samuel became Britain’s first High Commissioner there, and Britain agreed to allow 16,500 Jewish settlers to enter Palestine each year. It was in this period, as Cronin notes, that a system of ‘economic apartheid’ was set up, with the Jewish labour union, the Histadrut, playing a crucial role in pressurising Jewish employers to hire only Jewish labour. A Jewish Agency was formed, which was supposed to work under the British administration’s control, but which in reality became a parallel Zionist government. No equivalent body was proposed for the Palestinians.

The remainder of Cronin’s book deals with the way British imperialism first, fostered conditions in which Zionism emerged as the dominant force within Palestine, then allowed the establishment of a racist, colonial-settler state, and continues its close political, economic and military links with the Zionist state today. Cronin’s book covers this in substantial detail, and this is addressed in the longer version of this review online. (See: Balfour's shadow: A century of British support for Zionism and Israel)

This book is a strongly-recommended read.

Bob Shepherd

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 260 October/November 2017