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.