The myths of British imperial benevolence and Palestine

Last month, as Israeli artillery destroyed buildings in Gaza, one among two slivers of territory into which Palestinians have been squeezed during the last century, the British authorities was as soon as once more asserting the benevolence of its imperial previous towards these demanding a reckoning with its harms. #BritishEmpire trended on Twitter at the same time as Gaza burned.

These phenomena are linked: the persistent whitewashing of British imperial historical past ensures that condemnations of Israel’s actions as “settler colonialism” fail to resonate morally in lots of quarters. Far from tainting Israel’s origins, the nation’s British antecedents are held up as validating. The British authorities’s Balfour Declaration proclaiming help for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in 1917 is mythologised as having laid the inspiration for a Jewish state within the Middle East and thus offering worldwide legitimacy for the creation of the state of Israel. Awareness of the morally doubtful origins and which means of this declaration would possibly assist puncture the entangled myths of British imperial benevolence and Israel’s benign presence in Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration was one among a number of strategic “promises” the British made in the course of the first world conflict regarding the territories of the Ottoman Empire, because the British busily dismembered it within the identify of defending the path to India and the oil-rich Gulf. To get the area’s Arab inhabitants on their facet, they promised the Sharifian rulers of the Hejaz, within the Arabian Peninsula, an unbiased kingdom stretching via Palestine to Damascus. At the identical time, in secret negotiations with the French and the Russians to divide the area, they promised to make Palestine a world territory. When Russia withdrew from the conflict in October 1917, they noticed an pressing must safe the British place within the Middle East with a contemporary promise, this time to the Zionist motion. Palestine thus turned a thrice-promised land – purpose sufficient to doubt the sacredness of any one of many guarantees.

The new promise was formally authored by the British international secretary, main Conservative Arthur James Balfour. Known as “Bloody Balfour” for his suppression of Irish calls for for higher independence as chief secretary for Ireland, Balfour was a decided imperialist. He was additionally an newbie thinker suspicious of purpose and drawn to the occult – and the notion of the occult energy of sure teams. The thought {that a} promise to the Zionists would safe the Middle East for them emerged partly out of his anti-Semitic assumption, which was shared by different influential British politicians, that Jews managed public opinion and international funds. Balfour calculated that his propaganda assertion would rally American and German Jewish opinion to the Allied trigger, whereas additionally ending the move of undesirable Eastern European Jews into Britain.

The declaration was in step with the kind of British settler colonialism that formed the historical past of violent dispossession in Kenya and different colonies. That the British thought Palestine was one thing they might promise to any group with out consulting its inhabitants was typical imperial presumption. The distinction right here was that Jewish moderately than British settlers would tackle the “civilising mission”- and act as a loyal presence near the Suez Canal. The declaration implied Jews had been racially and culturally superior to Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants, even because it implied that Jews didn’t correctly belong in Europe and possessed conspiratorial powers.

Not everybody within the British authorities shared these views. The secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu, was Jewish and regarded the declaration extremely anti-Semitic. “Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine,” he feared. He insisted that the members of his household had no obligatory “community of view” with Jewish households elsewhere: “It is no more true to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation.” Montagu feared that the declaration would imply that “Jews should be put in all positions of preference” in Palestine, and that Muslims and Christians can be made to “make way for the Jews”. He foresaw: “When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants.”

Montagu was simply then formulating the Montagu Declaration, promising Indians higher self-government to safe their wartime loyalty. Conservatives, particularly Balfour, baulked at this concession to anti-colonialism, arguing that Indians had been incapable of such self-government. That’s the sort of imperialist Balfour was.

After the conflict, the British reneged on all wartime guarantees concerning the Middle East: They first betrayed the preparations with the French by letting the Sharifian Prince Faisal arrange a authorities in Damascus, however then let the French push Faisal out, in trade for a free hand in oil-rich Mosul. Faisal was as a substitute topped king of Iraq beneath British rule – regardless of wartime guarantees of independence to Iraqis. Britain took direct management of Palestine (no worldwide territory) – confirming that the Balfour Declaration’s ambiguous promise a couple of nationwide home implied nothing about Jewish political management. In 1921, Britain additionally carved Jordan out of Palestine with none sense of getting violated the Jewish nationwide home. A White Paper of 1930 backed away from the very thought of a Jewish nationwide home. A Zionist outcry pressured the British authorities to withdraw the paper.

As Hitler rose to energy, lots of of 1000’s of determined European Jews who discovered doorways closed in Britain and the US arrived in Palestine. Increasingly landless and impoverished, Palestinians revolted in 1936. The British drew on brutal, terrorising, and damaging counterinsurgency strategies developed in Ireland and Iraq, which formed the practices of the Israeli army later.

The British modified coverage in 1937 and 1939, by turns favouring the Jews and the Arabs. It was in the midst of advising Palestine coverage that Winston Churchill uttered his eugenicist defence of settler colonialism on the whole in 1937: “I do not admit…that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia…by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race…has come in and taken their place.” He noticed Jewish settlement of Palestine as analogous to those earlier circumstances, together with their genocidal implication.

At this time, Hitler was additionally trying to the genocide of Native Americans as a mannequin for his conception of Lebensraum and commenced to use the violent logic of settler colonialism in Europe itself. Churchill admired Hitler, devoting a chapter to him in his 1937 ebook on Great Contemporaries. Though Britons as we speak rejoice Churchill for defeating Nazism, they’ve nonetheless not unambiguously condemned the settler-colonial ideology on which Nazism was based.

Apologists for British imperialism as a substitute pour their energies into defending Cecil Rhodes, one other promoter of settler colonialism, even after a cautious fee has beneficial the removing of his statue at Oriel College in Oxford. Rhodes contended: “We are the finest race in the world and…the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” His non-public firm killed tens of 1000’s of the Matabele in founding the settler colony of Rhodesia. As prime minister of the Cape Colony, he additionally established the foundations of South African apartheid – to which the present Israeli regime is usually in contrast – depriving non-white folks of the vote and claiming their land. Even his British contemporaries had been outraged by his actions.

Recently, after former US senator Rick Santorum claimed on CNN that settlers created the US “from nothing,…there was nothing here”, erasing not solely the existence of Native American cultures and life but additionally the reminiscence of huge settler violence towards them, CNN parted methods with him, responding to intense stress from the general public, together with the Native American Journalists Association.

Major British information shops similar to The Times, nonetheless, proceed to allot beneficiant house to apologists for settler colonialism. Last month, the Guardian formally regretted its help for the Balfour Declaration in 1917, when its editor wrote: “The existing Arab population of Palestine is…at a low stage of civilisation.” It is time for wider, unequivocal condemnation of its false promise and of the settler-colonial ideology on which it was based mostly.

British wartime guarantees weren’t based on precept however made for the sake of expedience and grounded in racist notions – hardly floor for the sacred. Moreover, the declaration included self-negating language assuring that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Balfour’s Conservatism was all about avoiding radical change. The declaration was framed vaguely in order that it could be damaged, just like the wartime guarantees to the Sharifians. There is little in its origins in expedience, colonial presumption, and anti-Semitism to present it the aura of legitimacy – a lot much less sacredness – that it has in some quarters as we speak.

The British launched settler colonialism in Palestine as carelessly and recklessly as that they had in Australia and New Zealand and in Kenya and Rhodesia. Israel’s violence in Gaza will not be merely self-defence however a part of an extended story of settler colonialism relationship from the heyday of European colonialism. Contrary to British myths, settler colonialism was an aggressive technique of ethnic cleaning grounded in racism. The US’s help of Israeli encroachment into Palestinian territory is the help of 1 British-made settler-colonial nation to a different. It isn’t any coincidence that that help turned particularly beneficiant in the course of the Trump administration, which was additionally unapologetically happy with white supremacy in North America. Reckoning with the historical past of colonialism is important to reckoning with colonialism itself.

The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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