The violence of colonization was not limited to bombs and armies.
As the assault on Gaza nears its fifth week, I’ve been watching the warfare over language, rhetoric and memory. Understandably, I have gotten a lot of responses to last week’s piece on race, colonialism and the Palestinian plight — including this from Michael Gross of Burke, Va.:
“When discussing colonialism we rightly think of a people who ventured to a place that they had no history of living e.g. Europeans arriving in North America and colonizing the region. The Jewish people have lived in the Middle East region and in Israel/Palestine specifically for millennia … the power dynamic of occupiers and the occupied in Israel is like that colonialism, but the history and of how it came about and the power dynamics in the region are very different … Most people I’m sure agree that colonialism is bad, but the Israeli/Palestinian conflict does not fit neatly into that box.”
I see why people think colonial projects are limited to foreign invaders coming in with guns and bombs to take land they have no ties to. But the violence of colonization was not limited to bombs and armies. It has happened with pens, maps and “legal” transfers of land and authority by the colonial powers.
In Africa especially, Britain perfected the art of indirect rule and influence, using preferred tribal leaders drawn from people who had historically been in the land to assert, as proxies, control — and even subjugation — of other groups. All to serve Britain’s interests.
The full spectrum of colonization in the modern era cannot be understood without knowing this history, especially as practiced by imperial Britain. Territories, peoples and cultures were carved up according to British administrative needs, not out of the goodness of British hearts, from colonial offices thousands of miles away.
A dominant British motive in 1917 was to draw American military power into World War I on the side of the Allies. Galvanizing Jewish support was part of the strategy. So Britain embraced the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The fact that Jewish people, Palestinians and other groups existed in the region for hundreds, even thousands, of years does not mean that the Israel-Palestine issue is not a fundamentally British colonial project.
As a Ghanaian-Nigerian, I know that Ghana and Nigeria are British colonial projects, even though the British did not mount an invasion, displace the tribes living there and settle the country for themselves.
This week so happens to be the 106th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour declared the empire’s intention to establish a Jewish nation. So I have been reading a lot about what the British themselves said and did.
On Nov. 2, 1917, Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, wrote to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild detailing the government’s support for a Jewish nation in Palestine.
“Dear Lord Rothschild,
“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
“ ‘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.’
“I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
“Arthur James Balfour”
After the war, Allied powers divided control of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Syria and Lebanon were given to France under a mandate, and the British were mandated Palestine and Iraq.
Britain then moved to make the Balfour Declaration a reality, reiterating the language of the original letter to Rothschild. What was the prevailing British attitude concerning this project? Enter Winston Churchill.
Churchill, who was the colonial administrator of Britain in 1922, later explained Britain’s colonial aims. This is from Rick Richman’s book, “And None Shall Make Them Afraid: Eight Stories of the Modern State of Israel.”
“I insist upon loyalty and the good faith of England to the Jews, to which I attach the most enormous importance, because we gained great advantages in the war. We did not adopt Zionism entirely out of altruistic love for starting a Zionist colony: it was a matter of great importance to this country. It was a potent factor on public opinion in America, and we are bound by honor, and I think upon the merits, to push this thing as far as we can.”
Churchill didn’t stop there in his 1937 testimony to the Peel Commission, studying the Arab revolt against British rule.
“I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, or, at any rate, a more worldly wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”
On that note, I’m reading this from British historian James Renton in 2017: “The Balfour Declaration’s Deep Anti-Semitism and Racism — and Why It Still Matters.”
“The British policy elite’s views reflected deeply embedded notions of the ‘Jewish race’ and ‘Jewish power’, the ‘impurity’ of the Palestinian Arabs – and the incapability of both to ever rule themselves. Those tropes still reverberate today.”
In a way, America — and today’s British government — continue to follow Churchill’s lead, pushing the colonial project as far as they can, even if it means Israeli bombs and U.S.-made weapons are destroying refugee camps, killing children and obliterating entire Gazan family trees.
Source: The Washington Post
Karen Attiah is a columnist for The Washington Post and writes a weekly newsletter. She writes on international affairs, culture and social issues. Previously, she reported from Curacao, Ghana and Nigeria.
Featured image: The sky lights up as a building is hit during an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City late on Nov. 2. (Dawood Nemer/AFP/Getty Images)