Balfour and Zionist mythology
Britain’s present Conservative government led by Prime Minister David Cameron undoubtedly includes Zionists who would back such a celebration. Cameron himself once described Gaza as a “prison camp” and the other day vexed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by deploring Israeli settlement-building in East Jerusalem. Yet his commitment to the Zionist cause has never been in doubt — anymore than has that of the British political establishment at large.
A formal British celebration of the Balfour Declaration would incense those who regard it as the prime cause of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Not that the prospective anger of anti-Zionists would induce Zionist second thoughts on the matter. This after all is a time when the propaganda war between Zionism and its opponents is growing ever more furious. Israel is spending billions on PR, alarmed above all perhaps by the rise of the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Presenting itself as a continuation of the anti-racist struggle against apartheid South Africa, BDS is resonating with young people all over the world. Its success in terms of publicity goes far toward explaining the increasing stridency of Zionist denunciations of alleged attempts to “de-legitimize” Israel.
At the same time, Zionist propaganda is redoubling its efforts to make capital out of the recrudescence of anti-Semitism. In the UK, efforts on this score are bearing fruit. The British government is proposing legislation to punish local authorities that participate in the boycotting Israeli goods, implying it is inseparable from anti-Semitism. Underlying this development is the endlessly re-iterated Zionist claim that critics of Israel are crypto-anti-Semites. If there are such people, there are unquestionably many Zionists who, whether out of blind faith or duplicity, routinely equate all criticism of Israel with racist loathing of Jews. The self-styled victims of “de-legitimization” are pursuing a de-legitimization campaign of their own, which is also a campaign of intimidation aiming at cowing critics of Israel into silence.
It is a great irony that the personality at the centre of the mooted celebration of the Balfour Declaration was himself open to the charge of anti-Semitism. Certainly the attitude of Arthur James Balfour toward Jews as fellow human beings was ambivalent at best. As British prime minister in 1905, Balfour introduced the Aliens Act, specifically designed to keep out Jews fleeing from persecution in Tsarist Russia. Years later, when he signed his famous Declaration, he did so less as a friend of the Jews than as one who, in line with widespread British opinion, regarded Jews as a problem. Complex in its origins, the Balfour Declaration had the immediate objective of eliciting international Jewish support for the faltering British effort to defeat Kaiser Wilhelm 11’s Germany; more distantly, it was informed by the Christian belief that the in-gathering of the Jews in Palestine was a necessary preliminary to the Second Coming. Not the least of its motivations, though, was the concern of the British elite to resolve the so-called “Jewish Question.”
It is true that Balfour had a higher regard for Jews than Arabs — his Declaration does not even deign to identify Palestine’s indigenous Arab inhabitants, referring to them as “non-Jewish communities.” Yet the notion that he was a great friend of the Jewish people scarcely bears scrutiny. An aloof and snobbish British aristocrat, he was committed to the creation of a national home for Jews only as part of the maintenance of British imperial power. Attempts by Zionists to make propaganda out of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration could well founder in the face of shifting historical perspectives. At a time when received versions of the past are being challenged as seldom before they are at risk of scoring an own goal.
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