The Balfour Declaration; Let us not whitewash Arthur’s anti-Semitism

24th Nov 2017
The Balfour Declaration; Let us not whitewash Arthur’s anti-Semitism

Balfour Declaration in the Times 9 November 1917 (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Ali Reza Versi

In their most recent report on anti-Semitic incidents, the Community Security Trust recorded a total of 767 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of 2017, representing a 30% year on year increase, and perturbingly, the highest ever figure reported by the organisation. A glance across the Atlantic finds an equally depressing spectre where 167 bomb threats made against Jewish institutions, including schools and places of worship, since January alone.

The collective duty to confront and eradicate this heinous bigotry remains as pertinent as ever. Hence, on the occasion of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, I cannot help but reflect on the spirit by which Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, penned those sixty-seven words. Not to disregard the remarkable achievement of the Jewish people to attain a national homeland after centuries of depraved repression and persecution in Europe, I simply cannot accept the Declaration was a genuine personal expression from Balfour in support for Jewish self-determination. Rather, Balfour’s attitude towards the Jewish people, in his words ‘an alien population’, was rooted in his virulent anti-Semitism.

Evidence for Balfour’s anti-Semitism first manifests in his Government’s passage of the 1905 Aliens Act, a piece of legislation that succumbed to the worst prejudices of late Victorian and early Edwardian society through its deliberate scheme to prevent the flow of East European Jews seeking refuge in the United Kingdom from the Tsar’s murderous and barbarous pogroms.

Fourteen years later, after the issuance of his Declaration, Balfour’s anti-Semitism did not abate. In an introduction to Volume 1 of the 1919 edition of Nahum Sokolow’s History of Zionism, the then Foreign Secretary,  expounded on his support of the creation of a Jewish homeland, not as a means for the Jewish people to find relief from centuries of European persecution, but as ‘a serious endeavour to mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilisation by the presence in its midst of a body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb’.

Perhaps what is more monstrous is that Arthur Balfour was cognisant of the affliction of Jews across the continent of Europe – he even expressed utterances of sympathy – but instead, favoured their exclusion from the United Kingdom on the grotesque basis that they could not add to the ‘industrial, social and intellectual strength of the community’.

Unfortunately for Arthur Balfour but more significantly, to the United Kingdom’s benefit, his policy and attitudes of Jewish exclusion did not, and have not, been realised. British Jews, a number smaller than the population of Sunderland, have contributed immensely in all areas of public, commercial intellectual and cultural life.

To Balfour, the Jewish people were the other. An alien class of people who could not be a constituent in Britain’s successes, nor a people who could share a chapter in a common national story. Balfour’s notion of nationhood in Britain was saliently a racial one and, in my observation, no different to the bigotry espoused by America’s emboldened White nationalists and Europe’s growing far-right today, who both subscribe to the notions of racial impurity and conspiratorial tropes of Jews and other minority groups.

While many of my brethren in faith in the Jewish community will, understandably, celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration as the moment that affirmed support for their national self-determination, it is necessary to consider that the commitments made to not prejudice the civil and religious rights of ‘non-Jewish communities’, have yet to be fulfilled.

It is of little dubiety that the current circumstance of the Palestinians is not reflective of the aspirations of their predominately young citizens. Certainly, the Palestinian Authority’s hoary and maladroit leadership is partly responsible, however as the United Nations Secretary-General and key allies of Israel, including Britain and the United States observe, the continued construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank, accelerated by Israel’s political centre lurching ever towards its most extreme political voices, pose a severe obstacle to the desired two-state solution. Furthermore, with an ever-increasing number of Palestinians living under Israeli jurisdiction, exacerbated by generations of stateless diasporas in neighbouring states, the legitimation of Israel, as a state for the Jewish people, becomes ever more compromised.

It should be a source of great discountenance for those who celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and firm believers, such as myself, in a two-state solution, who long yearn for the Arab and Jewish peoples to again coexist in harmony and further the enrich plethora of commonalities that exist between them.

Balfour’s legacy is certainly contested and is only compounded when his rotten history of anti-Semitic attitudes towards the Jewish people is scrutinised and made apparent. It perhaps may be a disconcerting and conflicting reality to some, but Arthur Balfour’s passing of the 1905 Aliens Act, to his continued repugnant belief, that the Jewish people had no right of presence in Western civilisation to his decision to favour Jewish exclusion of their safety, was demonstrative of an iniquitous character who harvested and cultivated hatreds for his own political ends.

The collective duty and battle against this ever existent, increasing and lamentably prevalent bigotry must remain consistent in all cases. Arthur Balfour’s anti-Semitism simply cannot be exonerated on the virtue of the consequences of the Declaration that bears his name.

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