Palestine haunts British politics

By Brian Durrans

The dispossession of the Palestinian people haunts British politics - domestic as much as foreign - like no other issue, and never more than now. What can be learned from British government policy on Palestine about a hundred years ago.

Much effort has gone into trying to identify the parts played by imperial and more specifically Zionist interests [note 1] when the future of Palestine was being shaped in the first few years of the First World War up to the game-changing Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917. Yet two other, closely-interrelated, factors influenced imperialist thinking about Palestine at that time.

One factor was the rise of revolutionary Russia; the other, how a potentially re-assertive British working class might be managed through the uncertain decades to come. These merit attention by way of background to the place of the Palestinian cause in Britain and to false accusations of anti-Semitism currently targeting the Labour Party and any voices raised in support of Palestinians [note 2].


That British policy on Palestine didn't emerge fully-formed, or in a vacuum, is confirmed by its provisional and opportunistic development in relation to inter-imperial rivalry, internal UK politics and the specific circumstances of the Middle East itself. This is evident from three stages in the formulation of this policy during the First World War, all marked by centenaries celebrated, mourned or at any rate observed, around now. 


Two of these centenaries have already come and gone, attracting little attention. The first, on 24 October 2016, recalled the letter written one hundred years earlier by Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner to Egypt, to Hussain bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca. McMahon offered support for an independent Arab kingdom under the Sharif if the latter would organise an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Germany's ally at the time: an offer which the Sharif assumed included Palestine [note 3]. But the McMahon promise was spectacularly undermined by the second event recently commemorated in another centenary with an only slightly higher profile: the Sykes-Picot Agreement.


Concluded by British and French negotiators Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, this secret deal was ratified by their two governments on 16 May 1916, and annulled the McMahon promise of less than seven months before. Its later revelation caused embarrassment in London and Paris and outrage across the Arab world which is still felt today. Already anticipating the defeat of Germany and of its Turkish ally, the deal partitioned the Ottoman Empire in a larger carve-up of the region, which, in reflecting the primacy of British imperialism, also accommodated the lesser interests of former rivals. Britain would be the only power with strategically crucial maritime, thus both commercial and naval, access to the region both at the eastern end of the Mediterranean (exclusive control of a stretch of coast and an arc of hinterland from just south of Haifa northward almost to Lebanon) and in the Persian Gulf. At the same time its current wartime allies, France would receive a share of influence appropriate to its status as a junior partner (directly in Turkey, indirectly in Syria and with a role subsidiary to Britain's in Palestine) and Russia an even smaller say in Palestine on behalf of Orthodox Christianity. 

Sykes-Picot was the first formalisation of Palestine as a geopolitical asset of Western imperialism. This does not mean, however, that the 'asset' was of use only as territory in the logistics of running an empire. One clue to what else it was about is the fact that its secret was revealed and justifiably denounced as proof of imperialist double-dealing, on 23 November 1917, after the victorious Bolsheviks came across the Russian copy of the Agreement left behind by the previous administration. 


The third, best-known and most notorious of these events during the First World War is the Balfour Declaration, issued just eighteen months after the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed, and prompting both Zionists and their critics to a flurry of activity before its centenary this year. That Balfour himself was no moist-eyed humanitarian is underscored not only by his record of suppressing dissent as Chief Secretary for [British-occupied] Ireland and later against the Boers (as settler-colonists, perhaps the Israelis of their day). Also, still in South Africa, by importing cheap labour from China seen even at the time as a form of slavery; in Europe by promoting Anglo-French relations as an entry-ticket to the First World War; and, not least, by strongly opposing entry into Britain of Jewish refugees from the pogroms of eastern Europe. 

The Declaration was agreed by the British Cabinet on 31 October 1917 and conveyed two days later in a letter from Foreign Secretary and former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour to former Conservative MP and pillar of the Jewish community Lord Rothschild, who was close to Chaim Weizmann and other leaders of the Zionist Federation. The letter reads as follows (The actual Declaration is in italics to distinguish it from the rest of the letter although the original text does not make this distinction):

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.


Arthur James Balfour

The Declaration and the letter are not synonymous. The Declaration itself was approved by the Cabinet as a statement of government policy, and information on the process of drafting it, and who was involved, illustrates some of the interests and sensitivities at stake [note 4]. But it appears that Balfour had a free hand in how he referred to the final version in the letter itself. By introducing it explicitly as sympathetic to Jewish Zionist aspirations - an unnecessary comment in view of the main content of the Declaration itself - he may be trying to sugar the pill of its first caveat.

Balfour's two caveats 

The first caveat to the promise about a Jewish homeland in Palestine is this:

it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine

Although the Declaration says that what Britain is willing to help with is a 'homeland' rather than an actual state,  the distinction was never more than tactical, partly to allay the fears of non-Jews in Palestine. As set out in the Declaration, the statement about the rights of Palestinians is unequivocal and most often quoted as proof of Britain's perfidy in the matter, given that Britain has done nothing since 1948 to ensure that Israel abides by it. And yet the perfidy consists not only in failing to honour a commitment but in the bad faith of the commitment itself. In a memorandum dated 11 August 1919, prepared for the Paris Peace Conference cementing the new imperial order following the First World War, Balfour wrote:

In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country [Palestine] [....] Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, or far profounder import than the desires [and] prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. [note 5]

Decoded, this orientalist form of racism privileges a biblical narrative and lobby-argument, both familiar to non-Jewish Europeans, over the mere desires and prejudices attributed to the majority of Palestine's inhabitants, whose own traditions, needs and hopes are no less rooted in tradition or deserving of respect.

Less attention, however, has been given to the second caveat in Balfour's Declaration. This caveat asserts that in trying to create such a Jewish homeland in Palestine, nothing shall be done to prejudice

the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

Given the two-faced character of his first caveat, it is hardly surprising that this second caveat is also more devious than it initially appears. If in his letter Balfour's introduction to the Declaration sugars the pill of its first caveat, the second caveat sugars the pill of the Declaration's core promise itself.  The 'good news', as it were, is that we are going to give your own homeland in Palestine; the 'bad news' (as Edwin Montagu spotted) is that this could fuel anti-Semitism through the suspected dual or displaced loyalty of those British citizens who are Jewish.

The terms of the second caveat might have allayed the fears of the wealthier fraction of the Jewish community but left the majority more vulnerable to prejudice, including many first- or second-generation immigrants, and bearing in mind also that most Jews counted among the working class and many were prominent in working class politics and wider progressive movements. An earlier draft of this second caveat (the Milner-Amery draft of 4 October 1917 [note 6]) hints at the caveat's intention by specifying that the promise of a 'national home' for them in Palestine will not prejudice "rights and political status enjoyed in any other country by such Jews who are fully contented with their existing nationality" (emphasis added), which would have immediately raised the question as to what evidence there might be of someone being less than 'fully contented' with being British and the related question as to what treatment under the law such a person might be entitled or expect.

An attack on the working class

The Declaration thus offers British Jews at least the promise or dubious privilege of split loyalty, one effect and probable intention of which would have been to discourage some from joining with others to overcome the problems that capitalism creates for all workers, and thus to create or deepen divisions in the working class between Jews and non-Jews. Balfour's anti-Semitism is widely recorded [note 7] and it has been argued that he favoured a Palestinian homeland for Jews to reduce the numbers of Jewish refugees who would otherwise come to Britain. Being a promise of the British government alone, however, the Balfour Declaration did not ensure, nor did it pretend to ensure, that any other country would likewise regard Jews in its own borders as entitled equally to citizenship where they lived as well as the right to live in a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

That there was not complete unanimity in the government about the implications of the Balfour Declaration is suggested by reservations expressed about it by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the Cabinet, appointed as Secretary of State for India in 1917 but before the wording of the Declaration had been finalised. Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India and still influential in government (he would succeed Balfour as Foreign Secretary), was another critic. Montagu feared that a Jewish homeland in Palestine would prompt anti-Semitic pressure to send Jews 'home' to Palestine and undermine the rights they enjoyed in the countries where they already lived. At the same time, he rejected the idea that Jews were entitled to rule over Palestine [note 8]. Montagu, nonetheless, like Curzon and all their other colleagues, remained an imperialist and never questioned whether the British were any more entitled to rule over that or other countries than Jews were to rule over Palestine. The lack of enthusiasm for the Declaration by those whose main interests were British India, unarguably the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the empire, suggests that if it was not obvious that a client state in Palestine would best serve British imperialism directly, something else might be said in its favour. The toehold on the eastern Mediterranean coast provided under Sykes-Picot, and the extensive footing in the Gulf, and in Aden, meant that trade and naval needs were already catered for. Perhaps a Jewish 'homeland' in Palestine can be better understood as part of a geopolitical calculus, transcending even running and defending the empire from rivals, to address, from at least 1917, a concern that the working class at home might gain strength and even emulate the working class in Russia [note 9]; and, in due course, that Arab nationalism might threaten its regional interests in the future.

Taken together, then, the two caveats to the Declaration's sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations bring together with great clarity the domestic and foreign prejudices of the British establishment. Even when failing to make decisions that are necessarily in its own best enlightened self-interest, the ruling class never forgets the link between home policy and foreign policy, even if the Labour Movement sometimes does.  Neither the Declaration nor Balfour's letter that enclosed it said anything specifically about the working class because it didn't need to; the meaning was implicit.

Imperial calculation

As for the international implications, the benign tone of the Declaration - sympathy with, viewing with favour, using best endeavours - is standard diplomatic disguise for imperial calculation and arrogance - arrogance because, with no more altruism than fencing a stolen laptop in a pub, the land being offered by Britain was not Britain's to offer. Neither, for that matter, were its imperial territories, in Africa, India and southeast Asia, which the Cabinet may have thought this act of sham benevolence would help keep more securely and profitably in British hands than in those of its rivals or (God forbid) those of their actual inhabitants.

The British establishment were concerned about the revolutionary developments in Russia, but the early exposure by the world's first socialist state of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement was only one of its concerns. Whitehall memoranda reveal a deeper worry about the effect of the revolution not only on the outcome and likely duration of the war, but on the balance of power after it. From an uncertain beginning, when the future of Palestine might have turned out differently, Zionist interests which found favour in the Balfour Declaration, were now pursued with the intention of prising Russian Jews away from the revolution and German Jews from the Kaiser, a strategy articulated even before the Balfour Declaration. Although in neither case was this successful at the time, British appeals to Russian Jews in the name of Zionism were tried again after the War as part of the attempt at defeating the revolution through military intervention. In 1920, for example, Winston Churchill, then British Secretary of State for War, publicly praised Zionism as far preferable to what he claimed were (Russian) plans, articulated by Trotsky, for world communism "under Jewish domination" [note 10].

The British establishment, in other words, in whatever related ways they would later 'play the Israel or Jewish homeland in Palestine card' before and after the founding of the Israeli state itself in 1948, recognised from the start its potential to divide the domestic working class, undermine the new state in Russia, and strengthen their own position.


  1. Bearing in mind the recommendations of the Chakrabarti Inquiry (30 June 2016:, p.12), the term 'Zionist' or 'Zionism' refers here to the political position promoting an exclusively Jewish state, synonymous since 1948 with Israel. 
  2. Including the broad-based (non-party-aligned) Palestine Solidarity Campaign and at least two senior Conservative MPs. The involvement of the Israeli embassy in these shenanigans was recently exposed by an undercover reporter for Al Jazeera:
  3. Avi Shlaim, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations. London, Verso, 2009, p.3.
  4. Leonard Stein, The Balfour Declaration. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.
  5. Alan Hart, The False Messiah (vol. 1 of Zionism: the real enemy of the Jews). Atlanta, Clarity Press, 2009, p.103, quoting Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939, vol. IV (London, HMSO).
  6. Stein, 1961, p.664.
  7. Hart 2009, p.81.
  8. Part of these calculations was that Jews in the US would pressure their country to join the War, for which Balfour himself argued at the War Cabinet meeting on 31 October 1917, the same day the Declaration received government approval: Doreen Ingrams, Palestine Papers: 1917-1922: Seeds of Conflict. London, Eland, 2009, p.16.
  9. Hart 2009, pp.96, 99-100.
  10. 10. Hart 2009, p.96.
"The British establishment were concerned about the revolutionary developments in Russia...Whitehall memoranda reveal a deeper worry about the effect of the revolution not only on the outcome and likely duration of the war, but on the balance of power after it...Zionist interests which found favour in the Balfour Declaration, were now...prising Russian Jews away from the revolution and German Jews away from the Kaiser, a strategy articulated even before the Balfour Declaration."

Winston Churchill pictured in 1911 when he was Lord of the Admiralty

In 1920, Churchill, then British Secretary of State for War, publicly praised Zionism as preferable communism under Jewish domination.