The Promised Land


Map of Ottoman Palestine, 1878 MAP/

Palestine really was the Promised Land. So much so that it was promised to three different groups within a couple of years.[1] The promises were made by British imperialism, a real world power, not by an imaginary deity in a book of very dubious provenance. What made the promises remarkable was that they were about a land which, at the time, the British neither possessed nor controlled. But imperial arrogance was a commodity in ample supply when the promises were made, and it has not become scarce in the years since.

Balfour Declaration

The most famous promise, the one most widely known, almost to the exclusion of the others, was to ‘the Jewish people’. Issued by the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, it read: “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.” While something short of an outright promise, if a major imperialist power was willing to use its ‘best endeavours’ that was good enough for the Zionist lobbyists, after they had failed to make much ground with the Ottoman Empire or with Germany. In particular, they could ignore the annoying bit about not prejudicing the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ and be hopeful that their ethno-religious racism would eventually win the day. Neither were Zionist leaders very concerned about Jewish people being denied rights or status elsewhere as a result, since surely that would only add to the supply of the right kind of immigrant into Palestine. Furthermore, it looked to them like a step up from British East Africa! After meeting with British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain in 1903, Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, had been offered an area of land in what was later Kenya as a refuge for those fleeing from pogroms in Eastern Europe. Herzl raised this option at the 1903 Zionist Congress in Basel, but, following protests from Russian Zionists and Herzl’s death in 1904, nothing further came of this so-called ‘Uganda’ Scheme. Balfour’s brief letter should also be put in context. He already had form as having an ambiguous view on Jewish people. For example, while being opposed to Russian persecution of Jews, he was strongly in favour of the 1905 Aliens Act, Britain’s first immigration controls. The 1905 Act was focused on stopping Jewish refugees coming to Britain, and many British politicians, encouraged by Zionists, also came to see Palestine as a useful place to send the unwanted Jewish immigrants. There were several other strands in the British political class that led up to the 1917 Declaration.

Economics of Imperialism for more

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