Boris Johnson – the man likely to be Britain’s next prime minister – is widely seen as an elitist buffoon.
By searching a little, it is nonetheless possible to find at least one incisive comment that Johnson has made.
He has described the 1917 Balfour Declaration as “bizarre,” “tragicomically incoherent” and “an exquisite masterpiece of Foreign Office fudgerama.”
Johnson appeared to understand the absurdity of how Arthur James Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary during the First World War, supported establishing a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, while pretending that the step would not harm the indigenous Palestinians.
“Another way of putting it might be that the British government viewed with favor the eating of a piece of cake by the Jewish people, provided that nothing should be done to prejudice the rights of non-Jewish communities to eat the same piece of cake at the same time,” Johnson has written.
Though perceptive, the comment is contained within an apologia for imperialism. It features in Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill – a leader with whom he has long been obsessed.
When the comment is read carefully, it becomes apparent that Johnson is not really concerned about the rights of Palestinians – or “non-Jewish communities” as he describes them, echoing the Balfour Declaration itself.
Instead, he is noting that the Balfour Declaration contradicted an earlier pledge granted by Henry McMahon, a senior British diplomat, to Hussein, the custodian – or sharif – of Mecca.
Under that 1915 promise, Britain would support the establishment of what Johnson calls a “big new Arab state stretching from Palestine to Iraq and to the borders with Persia” in the hope that doing so would weaken the Ottoman Empire.
Wisdom and impartiality?
The result of these conflicting commitments was, according to Johnson, a “mess that Churchill had to clear up.” Churchill rolled up his sleeves – at least metaphorically – as Britain’s colonial secretary in the 1920s. Visiting Jerusalem in that capacity, Churchill displayed “Solomon-like wisdom and impartiality,” Johnson writes.
Far from being impartial, Churchill was an ardent supporter of the Balfour Declaration and the Zionist colonization project which it endorsed.
When the project encountered resistance Churchill advocated stern measures so that Palestinians would not succeed in “frightening us out of our Zionist policy.”
His response to unrest included setting up a gendarmerie and sending it to Palestine.
The gendarmerie was comprised of men who had served with the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries.
Based in Ireland during its War of Independence, those forces had deployed such tactics as burning down homes, pubs, shops and factories.
The numerous civilians they killed included my great granduncle Patrick Hartnett, a postman in County Limerick.
Churchill used genocidal reasoning to defend the Zionist project. Incoming settlers were, in his view, “civilizing” Palestine in a way that its indigenous people could not.
“I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time,” Churchill stated at one point. “I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the Black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, or, at any rate a more worldly wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
In his aforementioned biography, Boris Johnson claims that Churchill “believed in the greatness of Britain” and “that led him to say some things that seem quite bonkers today.”
Alas, Johnson himself proves that it remains possible to be prejudiced and attain high office.
His very real racism has not sparked anything like the relentlessly hostile coverage that the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn has encountered over concocted allegations of anti-Semitism.
Johnson appears to have conveniently forgotten how he once labeled the Balfour Declaration “bizarre.”
In 2017, Johnson held the post of foreign secretary – like Arthur Balfour 100 years earlier.
Marking the centenary of the declaration, Johnson praised it as “an historic event, which led to a giant political fact.”
The “giant” fact in question was, needless to say, Israel’s foundation. According to Johnson, that was “one of the most stunning political achievements” during the 20th century.
Despite fancying himself as a historian, Johnson did not use the occasion to explain how Israel’s foundation came about through decades of brutality, often administered directly by Britain.
It is logical that someone who reaches for superlatives when speaking of Israel should be hostile to Palestinians and the Palestine solidarity movement.
With his customary brio, Johnson has dismissed activists who urge a boycott of Israel as “corduroy-jacketed, snaggletoothed, lefty academics.”
Undoubtedly, Johnson has a more colorful turn of phrase than his recent predecessors. Still, he will be a typical prime minister.
He will follow an ignominious British tradition of trampling on the oppressed.