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Lord Balfour Was an Imperialist Warmonger 

We should give our full solidarity to the Palestine Action comrade who defaced a portrait of Arthur Balfour at Cambridge University. But the problem for everyone who opposes the genocide against Gaza is how to massify and politically equip the movement.

Daniel Nath

March 21, 2024
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On March 8, a member of the organization Palestine Action in Britain publicly denounced the current genocidal Israeli war on Gaza and the colonial history of the state of Israel by spray painting and slashing an oil painting depicting Lord Arthur Balfour in suit, tie, and regal red robe on display at Cambridge University.

In a press release, Palestine Action demanded the British government shut down Israeli arms company Elbit Systems’ manufacturing in Britain and stop supporting occupation in Palestine.

When it covered this act of political vandalism, the New York Times introduced Lord Balfour as “the British official whose pledge of support in 1917 for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ helped pave the way to Israel’s founding three decades later.” This whitewashed description of Balfour as simply an “official,” who seemingly concerned himself with the rights and safety of oppressed people and refugees, is consistent with the publication’s defense of Israel’s brutal violence in this war. Palestine Action more accurately called Balfour a “colonial administrator.”

Greatest Hits of Lord Balfour on Three Continents

A leader of the British Conservative Party, Arthur Balfour succeeded his own uncle, Lord Salisbury, as prime minister in 1902, without new elections, when his uncle resigned due to old age.

As minister for Ireland (appointed by his uncle in 1887), Balfour moved the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act, which allowed for the suspension of trial by jury for people involved in a rent strike of tenant farmers against landowners and the banning of Irish nationalist political parties. Immediately thereafter, the Royal Irish Constabulary shot into a crowd of protesters listening to speakers on the town square of Mitchelstown, County Cork, killing three people with impunity.

Balfour became prime minister a month after Britain won full control of the territory that became modern South Africa in the Second Boer War. South Africa became one of the most racist states in the world and produced roughly half of global gold in the 20th century. It was formed out of the Cape Colony and Natal, colonized by Britain in the 19th century, and the Transvaal and Orange colonies, colonized by the Dutch descended Boers. The Boer colonies completely denied the vote to Africans; the Cape Colony formally assigned the right to vote based on individual property and thus “only” denied it to Black people in practice. When the British parliament debated in 1906 what to do about the vote in South Africa, and many MPs argued for the Cape Colony system, Balfour insisted: “the white and black races … are born with different capacities.” He was a founding father of apartheid.

Until 1905, Britain had more or less open borders. As prime minister, Balfour pushed the Aliens Act, which introduced the first formal immigration restrictions, allowing the state to classify poor, disabled, or allegedly criminal migrants as “undesirable,” and establishing deportations. The law passed after substantial Jewish immigration from the Russian Empire to England — and near the height of the pogroms in Ukraine during the revolution and counterrevolution of 1905. It was anti-Semitic in motive and effect.

During World War One, Balfour was first head of the navy, then foreign minister. He issued his Declaration to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain the week that the British army based out of Egypt broke through Ottoman forces and occupied Gaza. A month later, Britain occupied Jerusalem; a year later, Nablus. 

The invasion force included tens of thousands of Indian soldiers under white commanders. In 2017, a Jerusalem Post article, penned by Israeli diplomat Lenny Ben-David, celebrated this fact as a way of welcoming visiting Indian prime minister Narendra Modi at the centenary, by claiming General Edmund Allenby’s (a veteran of the South African war and, from 1919, governor of Egypt!) invasion of Palestine as a liberation. Balfour wrote in 1919 to prime minister David Lloyd George, “[I]n the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination … We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … the 700,000 Arabs.”

Individual Actions Are Not Enough

The actions of the solidarity activist who destroyed the Balfour portrait were entirely justified. At the same time, individual symbolic actions cannot stop imperialist support for genocide. Public statements have value if they help to shape mass political support for Palestinian freedom in Britain, the United States, and other countries.

We need working-class mobilization and independence from all wings of our rulers, and all those who send heavy weaponry to Israel. The goal of our movement for the liberation of Palestine must shape its methods in the present. That goal should be hundreds of thousands of workers standing actively with Palestinians and against our own capitalists’ imperialism.

The case of Britain is striking. On November 11 and other days of protest since, around one million people have marched in solidarity with Palestinians. But their demands are ignored with impunity by the British government. On normal days, when there is not a march organized, these million people, including many of the most motivated, return to the separateness and powerlessness of individual daily life. The non-existence of effective sustained political campaigns and organizations prevents this large section of the population from taking a practical shape to change the world.

The British capitalist class has demonstrated its resolve to deny the reality of this war — the carpet bombing and starving of a ghetto — through all its tools in media, culture, and institutions. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has fully supported the Israeli state, insulated from the opinions of millions of workers, youth, and immigrants in Britain. Existing social, political, and union organizations are content not to organize those masses who are against British imperialism and aid to Israel for more assertive political action.

Palestine Action made a contribution by ripping down Balfour’s image. If members are arrested for this action, the Left and the working class should directly support them against criminal prosecution.

However, mobilization and class and political independence are needed to oppose the genocide and fight for a single socialist Palestinian state — with the IDF and the Zionist borders abolished, with full right of return, where Arabs and Jews can live as equals.

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Daniel Nath

Daniel is a political writer, lives in the Midwest, and is forklift certified. He has covered topics including police crimes, borders, and why unions can't be apolitical

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