Last week marked the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. This took the form of a letter, written on 2 November 1917 by Arthur Balfour to Walter (Lord) Rothschild. Balfour was then Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government. Rothschild was an eccentric but well-respected zoologist who also happened to be the country’s richest Jew.
Authorised by Lloyd George’s cabinet, the letter asked Rothschild to inform the Zionist Federation of Great Britain that the British government viewed “with favour” the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people” and would do its best to facilitate this endeavour provided this did not involve anything prejudicial to “the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
It has been alleged that the Declaration was intended to garner American support for the British war effort against Germany. But the USA had declared war on Germany several months previously, partly as a result of German submarine activity against American shipping. It has also been said that the Balfour Declaration was part of a desperate attempt to keep Russia in the war against Germany. But the Bolshevik Revolution the previous month virtually guaranteed that Russia would make a separate, albeit humiliating, peace with Germany.
The idea has also been floated that the Declaration was a way of thanking the Manchester-based chemist Chaim Weizmann for his wartime work assisting in the manufacture of explosives. This is fanciful nonsense.
The Balfour Declaration was born out of religious sentiment. Arthur Balfour was a Christian mystic who believed that the Almighty had chosen him to be an instrument of the Divine Will, the purpose of which was to restore the Jews to their ancient homeland — perhaps as a precursor to the Second Coming of the Messiah.
The Declaration was thus intended to assist in the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. This appealed to Lloyd George, whose private immorality did not prevent him from believing in the prophecies of a Bible he knew inside out.
At the time, the Declaration was the subject of fierce controversy within Britain’s Jewish communities. The wealthy elites who controlled communal purse-strings were — with a few notable exceptions — dead set against it. They genuinely feared it would be used to undo the civic and legal equalities that had been granted to them little more than half-a-century earlier. If Jews were indeed a separate “nationality”, with a right to a “national home” in Palestine, then how could they possibly be “British”? Consequently anti-Zionism became, in certain Anglo-Jewish quarters, very respectable indeed.
How, then, can it be argued — as I maintain — that anti-Zionism is racism? The answer (as I pointed out at a recent conference hosted by the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism) is because the context of 1917 was very different from that of today.
At the 1919 peace conference, the principle of national self-determination was endorsed by the victorious allies. Among the ethnic groups that benefited were the Jews. The Declaration was approved by the League of Nations and again by its successor, the United Nations.
We can of course argue about the boundaries of the Jewish state that is now a member of the UN. We can certainly argue about the policies of the elected government of the Jewish state. But we cannot argue that the Jews — alone amongst the nationalities — are not entitled to a state, without inviting the description, “racist”, to apply to us.
A racist is someone who privileges some ethnic groups above others purely on the grounds of race, or racial or ethnic origins. “White supremacists” are therefore racists (as are “black supremacists”.) The hotelier who advertises “no blacks” — or “no Jews” — is a racist. Apologists for anti-Zionist racism, anxious to avoid the opprobrium that the word “racist” attracts, argue that they support the right of Jewish self-determination, but not in “Palestine”. But that’s precisely where the international community has decreed that the state of the Jews shall be located, and where it is located. Those (whose numbers, I regret to say, include British politicians, intellectuals and academics) who campaign for the overturning of these realities are undoubtedly, therefore, racists.