From Balfour to Netanyahu and Hamas: 100 years of mutual dehumanisation

30.10.2017 - London, UK - Silvia Swinden

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From Balfour to Netanyahu and Hamas: 100 years of mutual dehumanisation
Merneptah Stele known as the Israel stela (JE 31408) from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. C.1209 BCE (Image by Webscribe for Wikimedia Commons)

In spite of the British Government’s plans for an enthusiastic celebration of the Balfour Declaration’s 100th anniversary due on the 2nd of November, the date also commemorates the beginning of what is known as the most intractable conflict in today’s world.

The Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government during World War I announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with a minority Jewish population. 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.

The declaration was contained in a letter dated the 2nd of November 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. The text of the declaration was published in the press on the 9th of November 1917. Wikipedia


Although Balfour marks an important point in the history of the conflict, it is not the beginning by any stretch of the imagination.

The drive to seek a safe haven for the Jewish people had a history of millennia of persecution and massacres (1) and the mounting antisemitism of the 19th century in Europe was seen as another wave coming, as finally happened with the Holocaust. In this context a movement to find a way back to what was considered to be the Jewish homeland (the hills of Zion, ergo, Zionism) developed, initially as a secular group.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, are the heirs of a parallel history of invasions, wars and religious intolerance and strife (2). Under the Ottoman Empire, however, the area had achieved some stability and self determination. It had contributed to the modernisation of the Empire by the time WWI broke out (the Ottomans joined Germany, the Central Powers against Britain and France and the latter won the war). The British Empire had made some kind of promise of independence to those participating in the Arab revolt led by “Lawrence of Arabia” but by the end of the war the winners carved the Middle East up according to their own interests.

The State of Israel was created after WWII and the Holocaust, leading to the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) and near permanent conflict in the Occupied Territories


When “the others” become dehumanised there is a process through which all empathy or sense of solidarity disappears, because the others become objectified, devoid of feeling and only the target for hatred and fear. The longer this process goes on for the more entrenched dehumanisation becomes. Whether we begin to count the time of the conflict 100 or 2000 years ago one thing becomes obvious: there is absolutely no chance it may be resolved by another war or any other act of violence. All “solutions” that imagine one side succeeding over the other are simply suicidal. The mounting propaganda of fear on both sides has ended up putting in power the strangest bedfellows, Netanyahu and Hamas, the most hatred-filled governments depending on one another to remain in power. Orwell couldn’t have anticipated it any better.

Surprise! The human spirit thrives in the most unlikely places

The capacity of people submerged in conflict, brainwashed by education and media and surviving negative experiences to humanise “the others” against all odds is everywhere. It may not be widely acknowledged, it does not make headlines, it may well be so dismissed by the powerful that most people have no idea it’s happening. And yet…

The number of organisations trying to find Reconciliation and Peace in Israel/Palestine grows every day. I counted 51 today in Wikipedia

What they have in common is an intention for a future of peace and the conscious awareness that other people are also human beings. This is the core principle of nonviolence, without humanisation there cannot be long lasting solutions. Humanisation has to do partly with finding the common things that make us human, “I hope the Russians love their children too” sang Sting during the Cold War, and when we discover intentionality we understand that the freedom to have a point of view must be a universal human right. More interestingly intentionality also makes us unique, different. “We should not hide behind our similarities,” is the slogan of Neve Shalom Wahat al Salaam, a village and schools where Israeli Arabs and Jews live in peaceful coexistence. Diversity is not just to be “tolerated” but also celebrated, as it offers a wealth of options necessary for the evolution of our species.

Balfour at 100 could be the perfect opportunity to stop relishing a past of violence and dehumanisation and begin constructing a path of coherence and solidarity. Vengeance is soul destroying, love and compassion, when allowed to express themselves even in the harshest of conflicts, create an unexpected and unimaginable sense of meaning and fulfilment. Support for any of the organisations working in this direction would be the first step. Another would be to make them better known by the public, if the media controlled by the interests of those who benefit from the conflict is silent about them, there are enough outlets to speak their name loud and clear.

Nonviolence is not just a way to resolve conflicts “outside” but it is also a purpose for transformation in one’s own life, building a centre that keeps us on track even if the surrounding environment is descending into chaos, as many feel it is happening now. Historical milestones are great to ask ourselves who we are and where are we going. Even the worst moments may be opportunities to bring light into the world.


1. After three rebellions of the Judea population against the Romans, Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century decided to kill and/or evict most Jewish people. Those who escaped settled around the empire and beyond. The Second Temple where the Ark of Covenant in the Holy of Hollies (Tabernacle) was supposed to be housed had already been largely destroyed a century before by the Romans. Jewish massacres and banishments took place in Alexandria in 39CE, throughout the Roman Empire after its conversion to Christianity, during the Crusades, in Spain under the Inquisition, after being blamed for epidemics of the Plague in several countries, killed and expelled from France and England and later from Poland and Russia. Important and influential figures of religion like Martin Luther (whose 95 Thesis kickstarted the Reformation almost to the day of the Balfour Declaration but 400 years earlier and whose rabid antisemitism was later used by the Nazis in Germany), philosophy like Voltaire and the arts like Wagner contributed to the spread of antisemitism. Wikipedia
2. The Palestine region or parts of it have been controlled by numerous different peoples and regional powers, including the Canaanites, Amorites, Ancient Egyptians, Israelites, Moabites, Ammonites, Tjeker, Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, different dynasties of the Early Muslim period (Umayads, Abbasids, Seljuqs, Fatimids), Crusaders, Late Muslim dynasties (Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottoman Turks), the British, Jordanians (1948–1967, on the “West Bank”) and Egyptians (in Gaza), and modern Israelis and Palestinians. Wikipedia

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