The Modern Language Association held a panel discussion of professors who were critical of Zionism and Israel and sympathetic of the Palestinian effort to create a Palestinian state. The four professors focused on the origins of the Balfour Declaration and the creation of the Jewish state of Israel.
Nabil Matar, a professor of English, History and Religious Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, criticized British Christians’ link between Zionism and Christian “restoration.” Restoration, in his words, describes how Jews will be restored to the Holy Land of Israel in accordance with Christian biblical prophecies. British Christians “identified ‘restoration’ as Zionism” and the British could not contradict this Christian doctrine, said Matar. He continued, “Numerous English writers became addicted to” the end-of-the-world biblical prophecies, such as when “Christ will destroy their enemies, the papists, the Catholics [etc].”
“Thus,” Matar said, “was born the call of ‘restoration’ of Jews to Palestine” and he said it was “disingenuous” because “Christian doctrine never spoke of ‘restoration.’” Matar claimed that “restoration” was found only three times in the Christian Bible and the “militaristic disciples” asked Jesus Christ about restoring the kingdom by force. His second “disingenuous” reason was that the Christians “appeal to ‘restorationism’ by British Christian writers…was intended to rid England of whatever Jewish population there was.”
The defeat of naturalization in the United Kingdom is an example of “the most telling anti-Jewish ‘restorationism.’” James Balfour, the British foreign secretary who wrote the Balfour Declaration to help create the Jewish state of Israel, believed religion was equal to philosophy. Matar called it silly to conflate the two, and said Balfour was “a Zionist” and an “imperialist.” This “ruse” was the “conflation of Zionism and ‘restorationism.’” Then, the “British government began to confront the benign” non-Jewish populations and it began the “gullible restorationism” of the United Kingdom.
Mounira Soliman, an English professor at American University in Cairo, said that the Balfour Declaration pointed “to the Jewish Zionist efforts” and “the Palestinians were mostly unaware of it and therefore had to deal with its outcomes.” She said, “A modified version drafted by the Zionist committee…it is not surprising that the Arabs distrust[ed]” the British and Jews. The drafting process did not include Arabs, Soliman said. She continued, “This foreign group make, quite literally” a land of their own and “various actors [U.S. and the U.K….prefer to deal with others than dealing with the Palestinians.”
The Balfour Declaration “do not feature the perspectives of the Palestinians” and she lamented, “not much is written about the Balfour Declaration as such, giving a sense that there is not much out there.” She noted, “The topic is certainly a part of Palestinian [popular] culture.” However, most references are literary and not popular culture.
Hani Bawardi, associate professor of history at University of Michigan-Dearborn, outlined the Palestinian side of the Balfour Declaration. Bawardi claimed that Zionism “traveled like lightning” and some of the top motivations for Zionism were “religious feelings” and “economic greed.” He noted that the Balfour Declaration was designed to protect economic interests because it was to “protect France’s and the British’s largest investment in the Suez Canal.” He continued that the West and its rich financiers wanted to “drag the U.S. into World War One” and a congressional investigation “was shut down.” The West’s control of the League of Nations ended up “dividing Syria under the mandate” from the organization, Bawardi said. He claimed, “The cause of the trouble was mass immigration and loss of land by Palestinian peasants” in Syria during their civil war in 1925 and that “Syrian nationalist identity was soon absorbed by Arab nationalism.”
Mark Bayer, a Texas-San Antonio assistant English professor, compared William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” to the Balfour Declaration. Specifically, he said, “The infamous ‘pound of flesh’ in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’” is the comparable example. He said that the issue is both “communities already convinced of the veracity of their claim” and “both the British and the Zionists appear to deploy the same language.” He said that Zionism was “politically and militarily intertwined” for the British. But, the “pound of flesh” is a “rhetorically powerful Shakespearean metaphor” that led to the “iron law or use of irresistible force to reach Zionist demands.” Bayer warned, “These are words not to be forgotten by Arabs.”
“Zionists,” Bayer said, “were able to appropriate Arab land” through this Shakespearean “pound of flesh” metaphor. He claimed a Zionist leader “took the Balfour Accord from Great Britain.” He pointed out the differences between Zionists and the Palestinians, “we only disagree on the interpretation and the fairness of the declaration.” He added, “Israel wants to strip the remaining flesh from the occupied territories.” The “Merchant of Venice” character Shylock, in Bayer’s opinion, “represents cruel authority,” now, post-Holocaust, “demanding what is rightfully his.”
Photo by Zachi Evenor