November 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. With this brief document, the British government – in the shape of the then foreign secretary Lord Balfour – committed itself to the Zionist project of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. You may read the full text of this document, along with an analysis of the fallout from that commitment here. Indeed, there are reams of evaluations and analyses of that fateful document, and they make for informative and eye-opening reading. The impact of the British empire’s drive to conquer Palestine from their former Ottoman Turkish overlords has been scrutinised in great detail.
However, there is one aspect of the Balfour declaration that has not received much examination. Lord Balfour, along with his peers in the English ruling establishment, were very anti-Semitic. The white supremacist view of the world championed by the leading lights of the British aristocracy – Winston Churchill among them – was well-known. Balfour was no exception, and he maintained a racist perspective of the world right to his last days.
Balfour denounced attempts by the British government – in the early 1900s – to raise the issue of the mistreatment of Black Africans in South Africa. Balfour defended the construction of a racially stratified society in South Africa, maintaining that Europeans were superior to the native black population. He opposed the admission into Britain of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who were fleeing pogroms and anti-Semitic massacres in their home countries.
Anti-Semitism was part and parcel of his philosophy, and yet he is feted as a hero in Israel, and in pro-Zionist circles, for his role in committing his government to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In other words, it is possible to be pro-Israel, and anti-Semitic, at the same time. Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, made this observation in an article published in Forward magazine.
Munayyer elaborates that Balfour, basing himself on a white supremacist ideology, saw no contradiction between his anti-Semitic outlook and his support for Zionism’s goals in Palestine. For Balfour, and white supremacists like him, the Jews are a constant alien presence in the societies in which they reside. Providing them a place to leave, and a land in which to settle, Zionism seems to solve this problem for them. As Munayyer states in his article:
What the Zionists provided Balfour with was a solution to the challenges Jewish citizens posed to his ethno-nationalist vision, a solution that didn’t force him to reckon with them. Instead of insisting that societies accept all citizens as equals, regardless of racial or religious background, the Zionist movement offered a different answer: separation.
For the British empire builders and policy-makers such as Balfour, supporting Zionism had an added objective – the creation of a loyal Jewish Ulster in Palestine. Those are not my words, but the words of Sir Ronald Storss, the first British governor of Jerusalem. The British conquest of Palestine was motivated by strategic and economic interests – maintaining a hold on Palestine would require the establishment of a similar ethno-supremacist fortress to the Northern Irish Protestant statelet.
Israel’s anti-Semitic friends
Balfour’s position as an anti-Semitic friend of Zionism is not unusual, nor as strange as it may at first appear. Zionism as an organised political current has had a decades-long affinity with anti-Semitic and white supremacist groups. Zionist advocates, starting with Theodore Herzl himself, have long placed themselves at the service of one imperialist power or another. Arising in the late nineteenth century, political Zionism was pragmatic and secular, seeking to achieve its goal of statehood with the sponsorship of an imperialist state.
Herzl and the founding advocates of Zionism actively sought the assistance of the major powers, no matter their record in the mistreatment of ethnic minorities, including Jews. Palestine, emerging from the First World War, was a target of the British empire’s expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Turkish forces. Britain had indeed made promises of independence to the Arabs once the defeat of the Ottoman Empire had been accomplished. However, promises are usually broken in the service of realpolitik. The pledges of post-war independence were never realised.
Balfour made his commitment to the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine while British forces were still battling away in that country. In 1919, Balfour wrote that fulfilling Zionist aspirations in Palestine were far more important than keeping the pledges of independence to the several hundred thousands Palestinians living in that land.
The creation of a Zionist home in Palestine has been conceived from its inception as a colonial project. Not only has the patronage of imperial powers been sought to help fulfill this objective, but alliances with anti-Semitic political forces have been accomplished. Ideology and political expediency drives these alliances between Zionists and anti-Semites. With the coming to power of Donald Trump in the United States, filled as it is with anti-Semitic figures, the alliance with Israel has never been stronger.
Make no mistake – the ultra-right, which composes the Trump administration’s base of support – is ferociously anti-Semitic. The white nationalist marchers, who gathered at Charlottesville in August 2017, chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’. Lethal anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in that town, in the shape of neo-Confederate and white supremacist protesters. They made no secret of their vicious anti-Semitism. These are the people who US President Donald Trump defended with his statement that there are ‘some very fine people‘ among white supremacist organisations.
Donald Trump, along with other far-right politicians and parties across the Atlantic in Europe, have used anti-immigrant xenophobia and hatred to achieve electoral success. Trump’s statements throughout his campaign – and his term in office – have given encouragement to the most racist, white supremacist and anti-Semitic elements in American society. The one country that was exceptionally pleased with the elevation of Trump to the White House was Israel, and specifically the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
In an article for the Socialist Worker magazine, Sarah Levy documents the rise in anti-Semitic attacks and hate crimes against Jewish people in the United States since the election of Trump. These anti-Semitic crimes are of no consequence to the Israeli government, which has continued to build upon its alliance with the Trump administration. Zionist organisations in the United States have largely glossed over the wave of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks – and Trump himself issued a lukewarm condemnation only after facing outrage from concerned groups and citizens.
Sarah Levy explains that it is not entirely surprising that Zionist groups are cooperating with anti-Semitic figures. Israel has long had anti-Semitic friends in high places. There is an element of political expediency in all of this – after all, having powerful allies in high places is one way of getting things done in an imperialist-dominated world. However, as Levy argues, the affinity of Zionists with anti-Semites has a deeper philosophical and ideological underpinning.
Both Zionism and white supremacy are forms of ultra-nationalism, or ethno-supremacism. White supremacists in the United States – and in Europe for that matter – view themselves as an embattled minority, seeking to preserve their racial and cultural purity against the tide of immigration. Building a fortress against the outsiders has resonance among the Zionist movement as well – surrounded by anti-Semites and racism, the Zionist solution is to build a wall around an exclusively Jewish state.
Veteran peace activist Uri Avnery explains this correspondence of interests and ideology succinctly:
The avowed aim of Zionism is to ingather all the Jews in the world in the Jewish State. The avowed aim of the anti-Semites is to expel the Jews from all their countries. Both sides want the same. No conflict.
Richard Spencer, one of the leaders and main spokespersons of the Alternative Right (white supremacist movement) is anti-Semitic and supportive of the state of Israel. He has described himself as a white Zionist. He was deliberately drawing a direct parallel between the white supremacist project of building an ethnically pure white state, and the Zionist state of Israel which defines itself as a state exclusively for Jewish people.
His point of view is reprehensible and perverse – but contains its own logic, if one can call it that. In his own, demented and obscene world view, ethno-supremacist exclusion is the end goal of the state he wants to construct. Spencer has frequently highlighted the similarities underpinning the ethno-supremacist ideologies of white nationalism and the Zionist state of Israel. He has stated that he looks to Israel for guidance and inspiration.
In Spencer’s world – and the world of the white supremacist – Israel is a model that should be emulated by white nationalists like himself. Once again, we have to see things from his point of view to understand the underlying logic. To the extent that Israel excludes and discriminates against the native Palestinian population, Spencer and his fellow white supremacists view the Zionist goal of building an ethnic-supremacist state with positive regard.
Rather than being strange bedfellows, Zionism and white supremacy reinforce and sustain each other ideologically and politically. Nada Elia, a Palestinian political commentator living in the diaspora, comments that white supremacy and Zionism are very much birds of a feather. Anti-Semitism, the outright and vicious hatred of everything and everyone Jewish, is a prominent characteristic of the far-right and white supremacist groups. These are the very organisations that are vociferous in their support for Zionism.
The white supremacist is homophobic, misogynist and racist – and also advocates the expulsion of Jewish people from her/his midst. White supremacy and Zionism take as their starting point ethnic exclusion. In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, one New York apartment displayed the Confederate flag, alongside the Israeli flag – a telling correspondence.
The Orange Protestant groups in the north of Ireland are very anti-Semitic; make no mistake. The Northern Ireland Protestant parties, such as the DUP, are strongly pro-Zionist in their outlook, while maintaining their blanket anti-Semitism. The intentional equation of white supremacy and Zionism is not too difficult to see, if you are willing to dig deep enough.