Arthur Balfour’s forgotten role in creating a racialised imperial academia

A Palestinian demonstrator carries a placard bearing the portrait of British politician Arthur Balfour (AFP)

Nicola Perugini

Middle East Eye  /  November 2, 2021 

It is time to publicly acknowledge that the man whose declaration devastated Palestine was also a key actor in an imperial academic order.

In July 1903, the first Allied Colonial Universities Conference took place in London, as the culmination of knowledge production and university networks aimed to bolster British imperial rule. One of the main architects of this imperial turn towards academia was then-Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who also served as chancellor of the University of Edinburgh.

At the Hotel Cecil, Balfour presided over the conference dinner, attended by university delegates, heads of colleges, and “men prominent in educational and scientific work”, according to an official account of the event. After the customary toasts, Balfour delivered a speech in which he celebrated the foundation of the new British-colonial academic alliance: “It is not merely, or simply, or chiefly that there are in this room representatives of scholarship, of science, of all the great spheres of activity in which modern thought is indulging itself,” he said. 

“It is that we are here representing what will turn out to be, I believe, a great alliance of the greatest educational instruments in the Empire – an alliance of all the universities that, in an increasing measure, are feeling their responsibilities, not merely for training the youth which is destined to carry on the traditions of the British Empire, but also to further those great interests of knowledge, scientific research, and culture without which no Empire, however materially magnificent, can really say that it is doing its share in the progress of the world.”

In Balfour’s mind, the new academic alliance was a crucial tool for cementing Britain’s global dominance. But it was also a key instrument for affirming a sense of a racialized Anglo-Saxon unity: “We boast a community of blood, of language, of laws, of literature,” he said at the conference dinner.  

After ending his tenure as prime minister in 1905, Balfour withdrew for a decade from the centre-stage of imperial foreign policy, before making his return in 1916 as foreign secretary. But during those 10 years, Balfour continued to construct British academic space as an imperial project.

East versus West

In 1912, perhaps due to his growing interest in “the Orient”, Balfour was asked to chair a session of the First Congress of the Universities of the Empire on the “Problem of Universities in the East in Regard to their Influence on Character and Moral Ideals”. In his opening speech, he underscored how in Western universities, there has been “mutual adjustment” between scientific knowledge and sociocultural traditions, while in Eastern universities, science and social customs were on course for “collision”.

This idea of an inherent incompatibility between Eastern traditions and science was grounded in a concept of natural racial inequalities that Balfour had articulated quite clearly several years earlier, in his book Decadence. In this book, Balfour theorized that Oriental history was dominated by a monotony of despotism and an incapacity of self-government, and said he could not believe that “any attempt to provide widely different races with an identical … [educational environment] can ever make them alike. They have been different and unequal since history began; different and unequal they are destined to remain.”

This kind of racial thinking shaped Balfour’s imperial world-making, both as a statesman and a man of science and academia. This racialized understanding of global order constituted the backbone of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which created a new imperial legal framework in the Middle East. The declaration, issued on 2 November, endorsed the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, while denying Palestinians their national rights and offering them only civil and religious rights. Ultimately, in line with Balfour’s writings, Palestinians were treated as “Orientals” incapable of governing themselves or achieving self-determination.

Balfour wrote and signed the declaration before visiting Palestine. In fact, his first visit took place in 1925, when he inaugurated the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dressed in the robes of Edinburgh and Cambridge (where he had become chancellor in 1919). As a guest of the Zionist movement, he toured the first Jewish colonies established in Palestine, including Balfouria, a settlement dedicated to him by the Zionist leadership. 

In his inauguration speech on Mount Scopus, Balfour celebrated the Hebrew University as an experiment of adapting “Western methods” (Jewish science and theories) to an Asiatic site, and as an institution capable of regenerating a stagnant Palestine. As Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who played a decisive role in convincing Balfour to issue the 1917 declaration, made clear in his autobiography Trial and Error, the Hebrew University was a crucial tool for Zionist affirmation in Palestine.

Fundamental questions

The link between Balfour’s contribution to imperial governance and his contribution to the development of British imperial academia has for some reason been erased from collective memory, failing to appear in a vast amount of literature and contemporary debates on his involvement in global imperial affairs and his infamous declaration on Palestine.

That is why this year, we might use the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration to rediscover this link and raise some fundamental questions.

As British universities that formally and publicly embrace the de-colonial agenda and try to decolonize curricula and academic spaces, how can we decolonize our historical narrative when it comes to the injustices to which Palestinians have been subjected as a result of the imperial declaration issued by one of our chancellors?

Why don’t we publicly acknowledge that the man who was appointed to enhance British global academic reputation for four decades was also a key political-intellectual actor in the production of a racialized imperial order that has dispossessed so many peoples? What would be the implications of such a recognition?

And since the question of Palestine is still alive as a colonial question, which continues to generate violence and dispossession, how can we contribute – with concrete and tangible institutional actions – to decolonizing Palestine and repairing Edinburgh University’s entanglement with a settler-colonial project that continues to deny Palestinians the right to self-determination and to uproot them from their land

After all, the Balfour Declaration was also our university chancellor’s declaration. 

Nicola Perugini is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Italian Studies and Middle East Studies at Brown University and co-author of The Human Right to Dominate; he is a senior lecturer at the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University