Balfour at 100: A Legacy of Racism and Propaganda

Dan Freeman-Maloy

The coming months mark the centennial of Palestine’s forcible incorporation into the British Empire. In November 1917, British foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour declared his government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”; in December, Jerusalem fell to British troops. One hundred years later, the effects of these events continue to reverberate. This should be a time of sombre reflection about international responsibility for the unfolding tragedy in Palestine.
Balfour Declaration
This responsibility should weigh heavily on the West. Walid Khalidi put it well: “The Zionists were the initiators. But they were also, as they still are, the protégés of their Anglo–American sponsors and the emanations of their power, resources, and will.” The fact is that the Israeli state can’t be credited for much originality – either in its brutality or in the hypocrisy deployed to cover it. And it is all too fitting that it was British imperialism that propelled the Zionist movement onto the world stage.
Palestine was occupied, after all, amid one of the British Empire’s last great scrambles for territory in the Afro–Asian world. The scramble was pursued amid an outpouring of imperial self-adoration. Balfour was not alone in proclaiming, wherever and whenever he could, “the extraordinary novelty, the extraordinary greatness, and the extraordinary success” of the British Empire, a system drawn together, he insisted, not by “the bonds merely of crude self-interest, but the bonds of a common belief in a great ideal.” Freedom and justice marched with British troops. These may seem the banal platitudes of an imperial state. But during its “Great War,” the British state deployed them as never before. Its propaganda set a new world standard in its scale, its organization, and its impact.

Propaganda and Democracy

This is an appropriate time to look back to that propaganda and all that it revealed. The aspect of Britain’s wartime propaganda that has been most widely criticized is the manipulation of atrocity stories coming out of Belgium. That’s a reasonable place to start. The centerpiece of British atrocity propaganda was the “Bryce Report” of 1915, named after Viscount James Bryce. Bryce was chair of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages. As it happens, he was also a leading white supremacist and a pioneer of the kind of democracy that Britain helped Israel bring to the Middle East.
Those who know Israeli politics will find Bryce’s theories familiar. Democracy and self-government were, he insisted, the rightful preserve of civilized and conquering peoples. The key to democracy was therefore the establishment of a demographic basis for it. Africans, Asians, Indigenous peoples the world over – all were in Bryce’s judgement “subject races,” unfit for self-government. Only through colonial settlement and a restricted franchise could democracy flourish. Bryce lectured and wrote incessantly about “the risks a democracy runs when the suffrage is granted to a large mass of half-civilized men.” This great liberal’s theories were influential from Australia to the United States, and they attained near-biblical authority amongst settlers in South Africa.
Their application in Palestine, in turn, was made possible thanks to British power. This history was from the beginning steeped in propaganda. As the British war effort turned east, the Holy Land was a potent symbol. In the first instance it conjured images of the Crusades. Howevever, if the goal of Allied conquests was the defence of Christendom in the Levant, France had the stronger claim. British propaganda found a convenient alternative in support for Zionism. As Herbert Sidebotham, the Manchester Guardian’s military correspondent, explained, the Bryce Report didn’t have to do its work alone: “great as the ideal of relieving Belgium from the invader may be, the ideal of restoring the Jewish State to Palestine is comparably greater.” This could tap into deep public emotions, Sidebotham argued, and was another opportunity for Britain to deploy “ideal considerations as the allies of our military and political interests.”
No one did so with greater gusto than the Scottish writer John Buchan. Buchan is best remembered as the author of adventure novels, one of which, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was readapted for the screen in a feature film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But he was also an accomplished propagandist. More even than Bryce, Buchan had built his public service around the imposition of white rule in South Africa. In early 1917 Britain’s Imperial War Cabinet selected him to direct the wartime propaganda service, with instructions to whip up public support for British war aims in the Middle East.
Buchan spun Britain’s eastern war as “the Last Crusade.” Tolerance and secular justice, oddly, were its supposed hallmarks. He assured his readers that the capture of Jerusalem by Allied troops was nothing less than “a parable of the cause for which they fought. They would recover and make free the sacred places of the human spirit which their enemies sought to profane and enslave, and in this task they walked reverently, as on hallowed ground.” Today we see what this freedom has brought to Jerusalem. Buchan’s propaganda itself suggested a politics that was far from ecumenical.
Where Buchan excelled, after all, was in channeling racism in service of state. This is what he had done for the Empire’s cause in South Africa, using a combination of nonfiction studies and novels. And it is what he did for the Great War. Some of his bigotry will ring familiar. So it is with his description of the menace of Islam, “a fighting creed,” Buchan warned, its fanatics taking to “the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.” Buchan’s racist depiction of Jews, on the other hand, have fallen out of favor in polite Western society. Here, for example, is his fictionalized image of who was pulling the strings in Germany: “a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.”
The antisemitism expressed by Buchan, and by the imperial establishment for which he acted as mouthpiece, squared more easily with support for Zionism than one might think. Jews were cast in various roles: as a subversive threat in Europe (Buchan did not forget the “Jew-anarchists”!); as a justification for Britain to hold Palestine; and as potential settlers, allies of the Empire in the east. These were not contradictions so much as a faithful expression of British settler colonialism. For Britain, colonial settlement was indeed a means of territorial expansion; but it was also a means of offloading the contradictions of industrial capitalism onto distant frontiers. Empire, as the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams remarked, was represented in British culture as an “escape-route,” to which the ruined, the misunderstood, “the weak of every kind could be transferred.” This theme dovetailed with straight imperial calculations to structure British support for Zionism. A Jew settled in Palestine was a Jew not knocking on Britain’s doors. We would do well to remember that the first modern British statesman to clamp down on Jewish immigration, imposing the Aliens Act of 1905, was none other than Lord Balfour himself.
The worsening crisis in Palestine reflects more than a local record of colonial crimes, severe as these have been. Responsibility for it is global. Arundhati Roy was right to describe the Palestine tragedy as one of “imperial Britain’s festering, blood-drenched gifts to the modern world.” It is also a product of a history of racism and empire that extended across most of the West. On this centennial of the Balfour Declaration, reflection on this shared culpability should serve as a reminder of the responsibility for the political action that comes with it.
Dan Freeman-Maloy is an activist and writer based in Montreal.

This article extends from a longer piece, entitled “Remembering Balfour: Empire, Race and Propaganda,” which the journal Race & Class is publishing to mark the centennial of the Balfour Declaration. The journal’s editors have lifted paywall restrictions to make that article widely accessible for the centennial, and it is available in full

Tough choices for low-wage families

A report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative found the richest half of Ontario families raising children took home 81 per cent of earnings in 2013-2015, leaving the bottom half to share 19 per cent.

The gap has widened from a 78-22 ratio, in 2000 to 2002.

For families in the bottom half, the rise in precarious and low wage work has meant touch choices.

“If your kids have a field trip, you’re in trouble, if your kids have a growth spurt, you’re in trouble,” said Isabella Daley, whose daughters are now 19 and 24 and living at home.

Even trips to the grocery store can mean choosing between shampoo and household cleaning supplies, said Daley, who advocates for living wages through the Hamilton Round-table for Poverty Reduction.

Bill 148, the so-called Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, proposes raising the minimum wage from $11.40 to $15 by 2019, along with changes supposedly to make it easier to join a union.  Socialists advocate $18 an hour minimum wage now, and automatic union certification in every work place where over 50 per cent of the employees sign up to join a union.

Lessons of Parkdale Rent Strike Win

After 3 ½ months of a rent strike by 300 people in 12 buildings in the Parkdale district (in the downtown south-west) of Toronto, tenants forced landlord MetCap Living Management Inc. to make a number of concessions.  These include reductions in planned above-guideline rent increases, some relief for tenants facing financial hardship, as well as a program of maintenance and repair work.

Strike organizer Cole Webber told the Toronto Star in late August, “The rent strike was successful because tenants organized in their buildings and then linked up across the neighbourhood in order to put that pressure on the landlord.”

“They would hold meetings in lobbies of their buildings, they would do door-to-door outreach, they would have conversations one-on-one with their neighbours, and then as they got organized they expanded that to mass texts, email lists, phone trees…. There’s strength in numbers, and so (they could) take actions which were rather bold because they had that organization.”


Photo: A Parkdale rent strike that began in May has come to an end with after tenants say the property owner backpedalled on rent increases and vowed to pay closer attention to pest problems and disrepair. (Martin Trainor)

Hunger Impels Migration from Central America

Lack of food, not the incidence of crime and gang violence, is the biggest reason people are fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala for the southern border of the United States, and parts farther north.

According to a joint report by the World Food Program, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Organization of American States and the International Organization for Immigration, “food insecurity” in the area known as the Northern Triangle, in Central America, is the cause of mass emigration.

“The impact of climate change is very drastic in the Dry Corridor and particularly in El Salvador,” that country’s foreign minister, Hugo Martinez, said on August 23.  “In 2015 alone, we lost 470,000 tons of maize and about 6,000 tons of beans.”

The corporate media is full of stories alleging widespread malnutrition in Venezuela, where the right wing opponents of left-populist President Nicolas Maduro are guilty of hoarding, and even destruction of food and other basic supplies.  Yet there is little coverage of more desperate conditions in countries where Washington and Ottawa are not promoting regime change.


Photo: One of the areas most affected by extreme hazards, in particular natural hazards, is the Dry Corridor of Central America, with recurrent droughts, excessive rains and severe flooding affecting agricultural production. Photo: FAO

Will Indigenous Languages Survive?

Cultural genocide is an explosive term – but not too strong when applied to the fate of many languages of Indigenous people across North America, Turtle Island.

According to 2016 Canadian census data, the mother tongue of over 213,000 people was an Indigenous language.  In Ontario, it was over 25,000.

In September, parents of Indigenous children enrolled at the Toronto District School Board petitioned trustees to expand the Indigenous language programme.  Board officials acknowledged the need for more.  Seven schools have provided Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) classes for over a decade.  But of the 53 languages taught to 30,000 students during the International Language Elementary Programme last year, none were Indigenous.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s call to action highlights the need to preserve and strengthen Indigenous language and culture.  Clearly, there is far to go.

Gisele Gordon, one of the TDSB-petitioning parents, told the Toronto Star “My mother-in-law is a fluent Cree speaker.  My husband, like most of his generation, is not.  This is a direct result of residential schools.”

On October 5, the Canadian federal government agreed to pay $800 million to survivors of the “60s Scoop” for the harm suffered by an estimated 20,000 Indigenous children who were robbed of their cultural identities when seized by the state and placed with non-native families between 1965 and 1984.  There is no “settlement” on the table for the victims of the infamous Residential Schools programme, which placed more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children in church-run schools from the 1870s to 1996. Many of those children were beaten, sexually abused, and starved for speaking their mother tongues.

Meanwhile, in the secret talks to re-write the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Canadian government’s promise to “modernize” the NAFTA by demanding it include a new chapter on Indigenous peoples, seems to be empty. It is reminiscent of the Jay Treaty of 1794, signed by Britain and the USA, which pledged free cross-border movement of Indigenous people and the goods traded by them, along with protection for Indigenous cultural properties and traditional knowledge.

Can there be “reconciliation” before there is real, substantial restitution, to the tune of trillions of dollars, from the treasury of the corporations and business elites who have profited from Indigenous genocide and the plunder of natural resources?

— BW


Photo: Amnesty International

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