The racist worldview of Arthur Balfour

The Balfour Declaration led to the expulsion of Palestinians. (Wikimedia Commons)

Arthur James Balfour will, no doubt, be praised effusively by supporters of Israel in the coming weeks for a brief document he signed 100 years ago.

As Britain’s foreign secretary in November 1917, Balfour declared his backing to the Zionist colonization project. Through his declaration, Britain became the imperial sponsor of a Jewish state – euphemistically called a “Jewish national home” – that would be established in Palestine by expelling its indigenous people en masse.

An assurance in that document about protecting Palestinian rights proved worthless. Balfour himself was quite happy to negate that assurance.

In 1919, he argued that Zionist aspirations were “of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

Rather than being marked “with pride,” as Theresa May, the current British prime minister, has promised, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration ought to be a time for sober reflection. One useful exercise would be to examine Balfour’s wider record of violence and racism.

From 1887 to 1891, Balfour headed Britain’s administration in Ireland. On his appointment to that post, Balfour proposed to combine repression and reform.

The repression he advocated should be as “stern” – in his words – as that of Oliver Cromwell, the English leader who invaded Ireland in 1649. Cromwell’s troops are reviled in Ireland for the massacres they carried out in the towns of Wexford and Drogheda.

Siding with the gentry against what he called the “excitable peasantry,” Balfour prioritized repression over reform. When a rent strike was called in 1887, Balfour authorized the use of heavy-handed tactics against alleged agitators.

Three people died after police fired on a political protest in Mitchelstown, County Cork. The incident earned him the nickname of “Bloody Balfour.”

Blessings of civilization?

Balfour penalized dissent. Thousands were jailed under the Irish Crimes Act that he introduced.

John Mandeville, a nationalist campaigner, was one of the first to be imprisoned during Balfour’s stint in Ireland. Mandeville died soon after his release and a coroner’s inquest attributed his death to ill-treatment suffered while in detention.

Balfour tried to smear Mandeville by claiming he had taken part in a “drunken row” before suddenly falling ill. Mandeville, according to some accounts, was actually a teetotaler.

Balfour was a British and a white supremacist. “All the law and all the civilization in Ireland is the work of England,” he once said.

He used similar terms while defending the subjugation of other peoples. In 1893, he spoke in the British parliament of how Cecil Rhodes, an imperial marauder in Southern Africa, was “extending the blessings of civilization.”

While serving as prime minister from 1902 to 1905, Balfour insisted that Europeans must enjoy greater privileges than Black natives in South Africa. “Men are not born equal,” he said in 1904.

Two years later – then in opposition – he said that Black people were “less intellectually and morally capable” than whites.


There are strong reasons to suspect that Balfour was also anti-Semitic. In 1905, he pushed legislation aimed at preventing Jews fleeing persecution in Russia from entering Britain on the grounds they were “undesirable.”

One reason why Balfour may have been in favor of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was that he disliked having Jews as neighbors. He once described Zionism as a “serious effort to mitigate the age-old miseries created for western civilization by the presence in its midst of a body which is too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or absorb.”

Balfour was often callous. He tried to justify the use of Chinese slave labor in South Africa’s gold mines and atrocities committed by British forces in the Sudan. He opposed giving aid to people at risk of famine in India.

Despite his apparent commitment to law and order, Balfour encouraged illegal behavior when it suited him. He was a staunch supporter of militant loyalists who insisted that Ireland’s north-eastern counties should not become independent from Britain.

When the Ulster Volunteer Force managed to smuggle 30,000 rifles from Germany into the north of Ireland, Balfour effectively approved the 1914 gun-running operation by telling the British parliament: “I hold now, and I held 30 years ago that if home rule was forced upon Ulster, Ulster would fight and Ulster would be right.”

It was extraordinary that a former prime minister should voice approval for subversion. Yet that stance did no harm to Balfour’s political career.

Within a few years, he was back in government as foreign secretary – it was in that role that he issued his declaration on Palestine.

The effects of that declaration were swift and far-reaching. Through pressure exerted by Chaim Weizmann (later Israel’s first president) and other senior figures in the Zionist movement, it was enshrined in the League of Nations mandate through which Britain ruled Palestine between the two world wars.

Herbert Samuel, himself a staunch Zionist, introduced a system of racial and religious discrimination when he served as Britain’s first high commissioner for Palestine from 1920 to 1925. Those measures facilitated and financed the acquisition by European settlers of land on which Palestinians had lived and farmed for many generations. Mass evictions ensued: more than 8,700 Palestinians were expelled from villages in Marj Ibn Amer, an area in the Galilee, as they were bought up by Zionist colonizers during the 1920s.

Balfour was unperturbed by the upheaval that he set in motion. Worse, he denied that any problem existed.

In 1927, he wrote “nothing has occurred” that would cause him to question the “wisdom” of the declaration he signed a decade earlier.

The remark says much about Balfour’s hubris. He was prepared to trample on an entire people and to dismiss their grievances as irrelevant.




Shashi Tharoor; book, Inglorious Empire. What the British Did to India has another number. 31 famines from 1756 the battle of Plassey, the first famine with 10 million dead untill 1947 and the last British caused famine in Bengal in 1942/1943 with 4, 5 million ( by Churchill ) dead. Total number of Indians starved is estimated at 50 million


Herbert Samuel repented of his Zionism as he reveals his co-authored work "The Threefold Cord: Science, Philosophy and Religion". He changed his mind because of the mess that he had helped create in Palestine. He should not be tarred with the same brush as Balfour, and spent the rest of his life trying to understand where Western philosophical thought had gone wrong! His efforts are worthy and need to be investigated by all serious Palestinian rights groups.

David Cronin's picture

In fact, the similarities between Balfour and Samuel are extremely strong. Both were enemies of the Palestinians and the Irish. Herbert Samuel was responsible for incarcerating people suspected of involvement in Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising. He also approved the execution of Roger Casement, a supporter of Irish republicanism. And, as my article illustrates, he did immense harm in Palestine. He put the Balfour Declaration into effect at a crucial moment. 


Fortunately, Samuel came to diverge widely from Balfour's view - and his own former complicity - after having been High Commissioner of Palestine for 5 years. He also long outlived Balfour, dying only in 1963. His co-authored book Threefold Cord dates from 1961. Samuel's original line of thought was NOT followed by other elites in Britain. His co-author, Herbert Dingle eventually had his work censored by the British elites. It is a history well worth investigating by supporters of Palestine seeking greater understanding of the depth of the difficulties we face.


Beware the words “in fact”. And please forgive this intrusion but a nerve has been struck and it’s only reflex. And I don’t know the facts here but I recognize a familiar at-odds.
It’s my experience that the more committed one is to an ideology certainly, but even to a cause simply, the more likely one is to sacrifice context, empathy and consideration of basic human fallibility, to the exigencies of persuasiveness. It is, in my humble opinion a fatal flaw.
And as usual, irony illustrates why because it’s exactly those two elements of rational thought that are most critical to progressive politics. But it seems the dynamisms of ‘left and right’ or, more subjectively, ‘good and evil’ are so strong that clear, holistic analysis appears weak and foolish in the face of undefined exigencies.
For my part, I will heed Sam’s advice to look deeper before judging. Not that a century old issue is all that urgent.


Read Ariel from José Enrique Rodó in which the allegorical conflict between Ariel, the lover of beauty and truth and Caliban the evil spirit of materialism and positivism has come to be regarded as a metaphor for the conflicts and cultural differences between Latin America and the US.

In our context the UK should be read for US and Latin America should be read for ..... ? I don't know . Maybe the Arab world or Asia?


I haven't read Samuel's book and don't know if he repented of his support for the Balfour Declaration. INdeed it was more than support. He was the person who lobbied the strongest and most effectively for it. Perhaps he recanted of murdering Sir Roger Casement who the Home Office under Samuel smeared as a homosexual (in the days when this was something to be ashamed of). Casement, a member of the British aristocracy was held to have been a traitor for supporting Irish Republicanism.

It is easy, when you are a war criminal to repent after the fact. Hans Frank, the Governor General of the Generalgouvernment (Nazi occupied Poland) also repented of what he had done when he was tried at Nuremburg. It didn't save him from being executed. Unfortunately Samuel wasn't even incarcerated for his crimes.


Samuel very definitely repudiated his Zionist activities as seen in his preface to the Threefold Cord. 'Repentance' smacks too much of Christian sentimentality - Samuel was also one of the appeasers of Hitler in the 1930s in the attempt to avoid another world war. What matters is that in his first book "Belief and Action" (Cassell, 1937) he had already realized that the West was immersed in perverted values based upon a perverted philosophical understanding. His original insights so shocked the establishment that he received a reply from none other than that staunch Zionist (and hypocritical socialist) Albert Einstein. He was unsatisfied with Einstein's replies as they sought to evade the underlying issues. This is why he wrote another book and at last the joint book with Herbert Dingle.


It’s interesting that Samuel and Casement were on the same liberal side more than a decade earlier when then MP Samuel motioned that Balfour’s conservative government investigate what amounted to massive human rights abuses in the Belgium held Congo. Together, with others, they were successful in forcing Belgium to regularize their colony.
Neither man worked for Congolese independence, nor probably even conceived of it. They were both functionaries of the British Empire and liberals, within that context. True, Casement grew into a revolutionary and died a martyr, while Samuel remained a loyal subject and as such Casement’s executioner but I doubt Samuel relished the task and I expect Casement didn’t even blame him, exactly. Casement had conspired with the Germans at the exact moment WWI was dramatically intensifying and Britain was completely shrouded in a fog of nationalism and paranoia. I don’t believe it’s rational to expect any other outcome.
And in Palestine; again, one must remember that Samuel is a still rising British imperialist. He is invested in the notion that The Empire can be made right and goes to the Holy Land with the intention of beginning its reform there and then. He undertakes initiatives to relieve distrust and find a just path. He envisions Israel/Palestine as a bi-national state within his empire and so entitled to everything he is. Just the fact that he would undertake such a task, as a Jew amid growing Arab mistrust, tells me he was naïve and given the facts that he gained nothing and pleased no one, I’m convinced of it.
He was a good liberal man who wanted peace and justice but didn’t know how to get there. He was not a hard brutal man like Balfour. And what gets people like Samuel on hit lists like yours, is the fact that he tried and so got his hands dirty.


Oh I don't doubt that Roger Casement didn't bear Samuel any grudge but I don't accept your apologia for the judicial murder carried out at the behest of British imperialism by its faithful servant the Viscount Samuel.

Of course having been a functionary of the British state, albeit at nearly the pinnacle of it, Samuel operated as any other cog would have done in similar circumstances. however as Home Secretary he did have the power to pardon Casement and did not. Instead he presided over the Establishment's deliberate besmirchment of him as a homosexual, using that as an additional justification for his murder. His body was cast into quicklime in order that it would disappear as quickly as possible and there would be no trace or remains with which to remember him by.

This argument is one that could equally be used of Nazi executioners such as Hans Frank in Poland or even Eichmann. They were just cogs in a machine that was not of their creation. It assumes that there is no human agency. the fact is that Samuel was one of the main lobbyists for the Balfour Declaration. I'm not saying it would not have come about even if he were not in a position of power. Indeed the alliance between British imperialism and Zionism would have come about even if there were no BD. There was e.g. no BD in South Africa and the Boer settlers even went to war twice against the British but that did not stop the eventual alliance. The BD is in many ways symbolic of the convergence of interests of the existing settlers and British imperialism. Of course it was helpful to the settlers but there is no doubt that Zionism would nonetheless have established itself regardless


Thanks for telling us about Balfour's dealings in Ireland. As you say, he was not a very nice man.


Balfour was, in the language of his peers, a rotter.


I don't agree with the attack on Einstein. By the late 1930's he was no longer a staunch Zionist and was very sceptical.

In 1939, he wrote: “There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us and the Arab people….we must strive for a just and lasting compromise with the Arab people…. Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.” (Einstein and Zionism by Banesh Hoffmann)
To quote Albert Einstein from his testimony before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in January 1946 when he was asked whether refugee settlement in Palestine demanded a Jewish state, he replied: “The State idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-mindedness and economic obstacles. I believe it is bad. I have always been against it.”

There is no point in trying to make out that Einstein was a dedicated Zionists when he wasn't. Let Zionism have its idols Einstein was not among them


Einstein refused the presidency of Israel; he cursed Menachem Begin as a Fascist and condemned the Deir Yassin massacre. However he remained a dedicated Zionist, not in some spiritual but a clear earthly sense since in “Our Debt to Zionism” (April 17, 1938), written after the Anschluss, he states “Fields cultivated by day must have armed protection… against fanatical Arab OUTLAWS. … Everyone knows that BANDITRY would cease if foreign subsidies were withdrawn” – by which he means that anyone aiding Palestinians in their struggle to hold onto their land against Zionist domination is illegal by definition (& therefore BDS would be included). That is, Einstein was a consummate hypocrite, criticizing Zionism’s means, but never the goal, never Zionism generally; see “A Letter to an Arab” (March 15, 1930) where he tries to manipulate mainly wealthier Arabs into a subordinate role. Einstein was, as you show, also anti-nation-state, proposing some sort of international agreement, but this is an empty gesture evading the increasing national religious conflict of his and our day. Thus will Einstein remain a preeminent idol for Zionists of all stripes.

In contrast it is a tribute to Herbert Samuel that he broke from this Einstein-aura, his intermediate works (Essay in Physics, Basil Blackwell, 1951, and In Search of Reality, ditto, 1957) showing that he well understood that mankind was on the road to disaster - and that Einstein's reply to him served only to obscure the situation.


Einstein wasn’t there. He was here and wrung his hands while supporting unlimited Jewish emigration to Palestine. At a time in history, the verge of Israel’s establishment of itself, when he was one of its most influential characters, India emblematic of democratic independence from oppression, when the ovens were still warm in Aushwitz, he pleaded with Nehru for Indian support for “a home for Jews”.
What would it be but a state? He didn’t implement the Balfour declaration, he didn’t have to. He wasn’t there remember. But what he did do was commend it as a way to find justice for the Jews. India recognized Israel just as soon as it could, given its sizable Muslim minority and business relationships with Arabs. Einstein asked that of India with Gandhi (staunchly opposed to an Israeli state), while Gandhi had not yet grown cold, he may even have been alive, I’m not sure.
Beyond our own, I’m not sure whether there’s a more worrisome alliance than the one that exists between Israel and India today. Do I blame Einstein for that? Naw, and I don’t blame him for the Bomb either…still, he was there.
How is it that liberal Zionists are so roundly criticized on these pages but the good doctor gets a pass?