J.A. Miller: 90th Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration

By J.A. Miller
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

It becomes, therefore, specially important to foster and develop any strongly-marked Jewish movement which leads directly away from these fatal [socialist] associations. And it is here that Zionism has such a deep significance for the whole world at the present time….The struggle which is now beginning between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people. -Winston Churchill, 1920

They own the [Holy] land, just the mere land, and that’s all they do own; but it was our folks, our Jews and Christians, that made it holy, and so they haven’t any business to be there defiling it. It’s a shame and we ought not to stand it a minute. We ought to march against them and take it away from them. – Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad, 1894

The Dual Purpose Declaration

Some time ago I attended a workshop on the Palestine conflict held in a nearby Protestant church.  You might know the sort of church; a liberal American congregation with a majority of aging, white parishioners who gamely troop off to construct community centers in Central America or cluster bedraggled and clutching flickering candles in ever-diminishing numbers at anti-war vigils.

For the opening act the organizers trundled out an employee from a nearby institution of higher learning who delivered an Introduction to the History of the Conflict in sepulchral tones.  When he had done with his twenty minutes of erudition, the professor smirked round at the audience and opened the floor for questions.  An elderly Palestinian woman in the audience stood up with considerable dignity and asked why he had dwelt on the secret Sykes-Picot agreement to divide imperial Middle Eastern spoils between Britain and France but neglected any mention of the Balfour Declaration which is regarded by Palestinians as the founding document of the crime against them.  His flustered answer came apologetically vague but the damage had been done. The timeline as delivered no doubt retained its Balfour-less authority with the audience by virtue of the subtle relief provided by the insinuation that at least Roman Catholics shared some of the blame.

Alas the good professor is not alone in regarding the Balfour Declaration as insignificant. A majority of the learned interlocutors of the “problem” tend to spin Balfour’s promise as deriving from the exigencies of WWI or simply evidence of a pottering British eccentricity.  Imagine those silly Brits thinking they could give away land not belonging to them: What a good joke!  But by trivializing or censoring Balfour yet another layer of cover to the illegality of Israel is provided, a service long and eagerly rendered gratis by much of western academia. It is instructive to note that the proclamation establishing British Mandate rule in Palestine as ratified by the League of Nations in 1922 included every single syllable of the Balfour declaration and nary a one from Sykes-Picot.

We are now staring down the 91st year since Balfour put the West’s larcenous intentions in writing. And although my local representative of the American intelligentsia expunged Balfour from his narrative the Arabs were perfectly aware from the outset that Bloody Balfour — as he was known to the Irish who had felt the sting of his lash — was no charming British lord but rather the author of a singular colonial document of cold and malign intent.  During Balfour’s 1925 tour of Egypt , Palestine and Syria demonstrations, strikes and editorial denunciation hounded him every step of the way and after spending only a single day in Damascus in which he dared not to leave his hotel room his Lordship was bundled hastily and in secret out of town ahead of a furious citizenry.[1]

The timing of his declaration on November 2, 1917 — those early heady days of the Russian Revolution — indicates Balfour certainly had red reduction on his mind. Indeed, Zionists both Christian and Jewish had long flogged their ideology as a remedy for the disturbing Jewish affinity for socialism. As Herzl made the rounds in Europe searching for a patron he not only adopted the anti-Semitic line that the Jews were the “problem” but eagerly offered up Zionism as the solution explaining as he did to anyone who would listen “that we were taking the Jews away from the revolutionary parties”.[2]

Marketing their ideology as revolution lite the early Zionists engineered an ingenious bait-and-switch operation by veiling its messianic/imperialist impetus behind the veneer of a faux secularist labor movement in order to co-opt and divert Jewish revolutionary energies while simultaneously pandering to the anti-Semites.  In Palestine the relentless squeezing out of any residual impulse for worker solidarity was embodied in the ominous Zionist slogan “the conquest of labor” which perfectly complemented the equally violent and exclusionary goal of land “redemption”.

Not long after the Balfour declaration was promulgated, that well-known warlord Winston Churchill put it rather more plainly in the Sunday Herald opinion piece quoted above which article was accompanied by a grainy photo of a morose and bejowled Churchill inspecting the 4th Hussars at Aldershot.[3]  Although Balfour rushed the declaration into print just as the Russian revolution was triumphing, the colonies were never far from his sights. In addition to undercutting socialism Balfour hoped to insert a reliable settler European base in Palestine thereby taking up Herzl on his offer of Jewish readiness to "form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism". [4] Thus it was that Herzl first introduced the wall motif which was to become so integral to Zionism, a motif later expanded ferrously and ferociously by Jabotinsky and ultimately made tangible in the concrete monstrosity now strangling Palestine. 

At the same time Churchill was professing concern for Jewish souls he was busily extinguishing Muslim ones as he presided over the very first aerial bombardment of a colonial rebellion in his role as titular head of the newly-minted Ministry of Air and War. The resistance subjected to this first test of airpower’s efficacy was led by the Somali poet-warrior and dervish commander Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdallah Hassan a.k.a. the “Mad Mullah” regarded by the British in those days in much the same manner Americans regard Hassan Nasrallah or Muqtada Sadr today. The Mullah had inflicted a humiliating defeat on the British at Dulmadoba in eastern Somalia in 1913 in which the British commander was killed. Hassan impudently memorialized the event in a poem entitled “The Death of Richard Corfield”:

O Corfield! You are a traveler who
Will not stay long here below
You will follow the path where there is no rest
You are among the denizens of Hell

After twenty years of resistance however, Hassan’s lightly-armed forces proved no match for airpower even in its nascent form. A lethal combination of British aerial bombardment and smallpox decimated the Somali resistance by 1920.  As one of the pilots who flew in imperialism’s maiden bombing run laconically observed, the airplane was a “convenient weapon to bomb the old villain out of hiding place”.[5] The Somali experiment was so murderously successful that an enthusiastic Churchill advocated that using airpower to subdue rebellion in a newly conquered Iraq arguing that it would allow a cutback British ground troops by more than 80%.  Spurred by Churchill’s cost-effectiveness analysis, an RAF air campaign was launched and 97 tons of bombs were dropped killing 9,000 Iraqis.[6]. The airborne spirit of Churchill today animates the vicious American and Zionist air campaigns in Iraq , Palestine and Lebanon . Although nearly a century apart, in each instance the goal was to remotely impose destruction, misery and discipline upon an obstreperous Islam.

I am Cyrus! I am Cyrus!

Balfour’s two-pronged imperial goal of crushing impetus for social and economic equity from within and bludgeoning indigenous resistance in the colonies succeeded even beyond his Lordship’s wildest dreams. The spectacular and continuous success of his Declaration is due, I submit, to the innovation contained within it, one which has immeasurably enhanced its lethality and indeed ensured its longevity in spite of all odds. And that innovation is the introduction of Old Testamentary religion as justification for the crimes under consideration. 

Each year that has passed since that dark November day in 1917 has seen the minor and crack-brained ideology of Zionism — with only a few million official adherents worldwide –going from strength to strength while other ideologies with millions more followers have withered and died leaving not a wrack behind.  This persistence of Zionism in spite of its brutal racism has puzzled many.  In addition to a near universal tolerance of its crimes from a plurality of Western governments Zionism has also enjoyed almost complete immunity from effective assault by the left.  The continued silence of western progressives in the face of the Iraq and Lebanon wars – let alone the eighty-year war in Palestine – are I submit directly related to Old Testament-based religious Zionism that originated not with Theodore Herzel in 1896 but in Protestant Europe centuries ago.

Like the Balfourian template, Zionism’s success can be attributed not only to its proven abilities in combating secularism and social/racial/economic equity that it has executed with a single-minded dedication as it assisted the West in its domination of the Muslim – or in the case of Apartheid South Africa – the African Other. The other less understood but even more powerful component of Zionism’s staying power derives from the ideology’s entirely Christian origins, a subject on which I have expanded in some detail elsewhere.[7]  Anyone who has labored in western progressive and antiwar movements has met the endemic reflexive gatekeeping by the membership on behalf of Israel’s crimes. Such near formulaic reflexivity derives, I believe, directly from a long, historic Protestant regard of Palestine as covenanted property owned not only by Jews but also by Protestants as well. And here I am not speaking about the easily identified and excoriated rapturist/dispensationalist crowd but rather what Hilton Oberzinger has identified as the less understood and therefore entirely unexamined Zionist ideological current that

…goes far beyond the narrower terrain of Likud politicians and conservative televangelists, an affiliation that involves broader, more liberal trends within Protestantism and Zionism, as well as more secular currents within Western nationalist discourse. [8]

Although Zionism’s zealousness in furthering the forces of reaction is unexcelled, the left has been unable to combat it precisely because of these origins and the deeply ingrained, almost subconscious belief held by many in the west — avowed atheists included — that Palestine is somehow legal property of both Jews and Christians.  Martin Buber, so admired by many on the left, minced no words in this regard: “Where a command and a faith are present, in certain historical situations conquest need not be robbery.” [9] Zionism’s vigor has been ensured by this very fusion of larceny and religion. As the end-product of a country that produced the world’s original Christian Zionists in the 17th century, Balfour finally succeeded in turning religious formula into official imperial policy.

Hundreds of years of Old Testament theological education overlays nearly all of western Christianity and its influence in enabling Israel to continue in its death’s head trajectory must not be underestimated.  Mark Twain understood this dynamic and succinctly sums it up in Tom Sawyer Abroad when he has Tom — exasperated by Huck’s inability to grasp the concept of land theft in the name of religion — state loftily: “[You can’t] try to reason out a thing that’s pure theology by the laws that protect real estate”!   Indeed you cannot as Bill Clinton would agree. The ex-President pulled an all-nighter on Sept. 12, 1993, poring over the retributive and genocidal Book of Joshua in preparation for his speech on the occasion of the “historic” Rabin-Arafat handshake. [10] Like a pair of sanctimonious parsons, both Rabin and Clinton quoted the Bible at Arafat in their respective speeches the next day, putting the Palestinians on notice yet again that not only would they never relinquish joint Jewish/Protestant covenantal claim of their ownership stake in Palestinian real estate but moreover that they had in hand the Biblical paperwork to back it up.

The egoism and violence engendered by using Old Testamentary justification for crime cannot be underestimated. Perhaps the finest example of this particular sort of madness was exhibited by none other than Harry Truman who in 1953 was introduced at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as the “man who helped create the state of Israel ”.  In as splendid a display of egomania suffused with biblical intoxication you could ever wish to see, an indignant Truman is reported to have shouted, “What do you mean ‘helped create’?  I am Cyrus!  I am Cyrus!” [11] As a beneficiary of an English public school education steeped in biblical and ancient history no doubt Balfour fantasized himself in much the same role – or perchance in one even more Exalted — as he penned his declaration that has in keeping with its author’s nickname spilled so much blood for so long.


1. al-Ahram Weekly Online, A Balfour Curse, October 26 – November 1, 2000.
2. See Chapter 1 of Lenni Brenner’s excellent Zionism in the Age of Dictators, 1983
3. Illustrated Sunday Herald, February 8, 1920, p. 5
4. Theodore Herzl, The Jewish State, 1896.  Ever eager to portray Zionists “pioneers” as naïve idealists, neo-Zionist Uri Avnery insists that Herzl was merely thinking of a “metaphoric wall” in The Mother of all Pretexts, Counterpunch, October 16, 2007
5. Said Samatar, Sarbeeb:The Art of Oblique Communication in Somali Culture, June 2005
6. Jonathan Glancey, Our Last Occupation, The Guardian, April 2003
7. J.A. Miller, Madness and Monotheism, State of Nature , Spring 2006; Home Court Advantage, Dissident Voice, August 3, 2006
8. Hilton Oberzinger, In the Shadow of “God’s Sun-Dial”: The Construction of American Christian Zionism and the Blackstone Memorial.  SEHR, Vol. 5, Issue 1
9. Martin Buber, On Zion:The History of an Idea, 1974, p. 146
10. Michael Prior. The Bible and Colonialism, 1997, p.40
11. Moshe Davis, With Eyes on Zion , 1977, p. 25

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