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Balfour celebrations a reminder that the colonial past is not past

The 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is many things, but it should not pass without observing how, in 2017, Israel’s friends are still justifying the Zionist project with the same lexicon of colonialism as they were 100 years ago.

Last week, a debate was held in Parliament on the “Centenary of the Balfour Declaration”, moved by Matthew Offord, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Hendon.

During the discussion, fellow Tory MP Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) marvelled that the State of Israel “rose out of the desert”; Offord enthusiastically replied that Israel’s scientific achievements are indeed “happening in a place that, not long ago, was simply desert, as my hon. Friend says”.

(Credit to SNP MP Joanna Cherry, who specifically rebutted Offord’s comments: “The Palestinian people…made up nearly 90 per cent of the population in Palestine in 1917. The land was not, as the hon. Member for Hendon said, desert. It was towns and villages…”).

There is a long tradition of describing Palestine as “empty”, a tradition maintained in Parliament as much as anywhere else (and perhaps more so). The Zionists “turned the desert into orchards”, said Lord Mitchell in a 2014 debate; they “made the desert bloom”, as Baroness Deech put it in 2015.

Such remarks would not have been out of place a century ago, in the early years of the British occupation. In 1922, Winston Churchill told Parliament that “anyone who has visited Palestine recently must have seen how parts of the desert have been converted into gardens”.

He added: “Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps towards the irrigation and electrification of Palestine”, but rather “would have been quite content to dwell…in the wasted sun-scorched plains”.

On 25 January 1937, the second reading of the “Empire Settlement Bill” took place, addressing support for emigration to Britain’s “dominions” – Canada, Australia, South Africa and others.

The debate is a worthwhile diversion in and of itself: one MP urged “a resumption of migration to Australia”, whose settlers “know that…between them and us are the teeming millions of Asia”.

He continued: “They have adopted a ‘White Australia’ policy because they realise that if they once opened the door to coloured immigration…they would be completely swamped. They have recognised that the ‘White Australia’ policy is the only alternative, to racial extinction.”

But back to Palestine, which one MP suggested was an example worth remembering.

“There was a country which was absolutely depopulated,” he said. “At any rate, there were few members of the Jewish race there, but as a result of the Balfour Declaration, and of making that a new home for the Jews, Palestine has flourished in the last few years.”

The precise significance of the famous slogan “A land without a people for a people without a land” can be forgotten. Zionist activist Israel Zangwill, for example, acknowledged that it was “literally inexact” to describe “Palestine as a country without a people”.

However, he continued, to do so was “essentially correct, for there is no Arab people living in intimate fusion with the country, utilising its resources and stamping it with a characteristic impress: there is at best an Arab encampment”.

Such views were commonplace amongst both Zionists and British officials. Aaron David Gordon, co-founder of Hapoel Hatzair (“The Young Worker”), wrote in 1918:

“Our land, which in days gone by was ‘flowing with milk and honey’…has become more poor, desolate, and abandoned than any other civilised country, and it is almost uninhabitable. This is a sort of confirmation of our right to the land, a suggestion that the land awaits us.”

Edward Said placed such views in the context of European colonial settlement. “Among the supposed juridical distinctions between civilised and non­civilised peoples,” he wrote, “was an attitude toward land, almost a doxology about land, which non-civilised people supposedly lacked.”

“A civilised man, it was believed, could cultivate the land because it meant something to him; on it, accordingly, he bred useful arts and crafts, he created, he accomplished, he built. For an uncivilised people, land was either farmed badly (i.e., inefficiently by Western standards) or it was left to rot.”

From this “string of ideas”, Said continued, “whole native societies who lived on American, African, and Asian territories for centuries were suddenly denied their right to live on that land.”

Churchill’s testimony to the 1937 Peel Commission instructively ties this all together. Zionism was a force for good, he said, since Palestine “never will be cultivated by the Arabs”.

He continued: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race…has come in and taken their place.”

In a recent interview, the current Earl of Balfour provided us with a remarkably explicit expression of the colonial worldview that shaped his ancestor’s declaration, and its contemporary justifications.

“You have to look at Palestine as it was then,” he told an Israeli journalist. “It was a desert, a mosquito-infested swamp. The Palestinians on the whole were looking after their goats and sheep.”

After a brief, awkward acknowledgement that “there was obviously a bit of resistance by the indigenous Palestinians”, the Earl returned to more comfortable ground: “But when you look at it, there was just a huge uninhabited land basically.”

For Palestinians, the celebrations of Matthew Offord and Earl Balfour are a reminder – not that they need one – of how, to adapt William Faulkner’s famous line, the colonial past is not past.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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