November 2 marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Whilst in the midst of the most cataclysmic war then known, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild declaring that the British government supported and ‘would use its best endeavours’ for the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’. This was to be in the ancestral Jewish homeland then known as the Ottoman region of Palestine.
Lord Rothschild described the Balfour Declaration as ‘the most important moment in Jewish history in the last 1,800 years’. Chaim Weizmann, first president of Israel, described the Declaration as ‘the Magna Carta of Jewish liberation’. Great Britain was the first nation to recognise the right of Jews to return to, settle in and develop the land of their ancestors.
Unfortunately we can look forward to antagonism towards Israel increasing in the days running up to the centenary celebration. There is a very real thread of anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism and anti-colonialism running through the Left in the UK.
Despite objections, the British government intends to commemorate the Declaration. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said last week: ‘Someone said we should apologise for the Declaration, to say it was an error of judgement. Of course that’s not going to happen. To apologise for the Balfour Declaration would be to apologise for the existence of Israel and to question its right to exist.’
But that is what many, especially on the Left, do question. Last year the terrorist-backed Palestinian Authority said it intended to sue the UK over the Declaration, claiming it had led to a ‘catastrophe’ for the Palestinian people. And last September, PA President Mahmoud Abbas — during a UN General Assembly address – called on the UK to apologise for the Declaration.
It is not only Palestinians who want Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration. Their demand for an apology was followed by a British petition with more than 13,000 signatures. The government dismissed it out of hand. ‘The Balfour Declaration,’ it said, ‘is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s Government does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel.’
Great Britain should indeed be proud. Israel is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, and an example to surrounding countries. Israel has Arab Muslims in the Knesset. It has Arabs in its police force and its Right-wing public security minister is attempting to recruit more. There is an Arab Muslim serving as deputy commissioner, the second-highest rank in Israel’s police force. During the ongoing civil war in Syria, injured Syrian refugees have been treated in Israeli hospitals. Arab Muslims may enter Israeli universities.
With all the claims of the Left that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’ we must ask: Which would you prefer to be, an Arab Muslim living in Israel, or a Jew living in the Gaza Strip?
Ian Black in the Guardian refuses to recognise the reality on the ground and sees in the Declaration the source of all conflict in the Middle East, describing the Balfour Declaration as ‘Britain’s calamitous promise’. Black describes it as ‘an act of betrayal and perfidy, the “original sin” that led to injustice, war and disaster for the Palestinians in the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) of 1948’.
The catastrophe of 1948 was caused by the unrelenting hostility of the surrounding Arab nations. Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, and on May 15 an Arab coalition launched a war of extermination.
Arabs living in Israel were urged to leave their homes and take shelter in neighbouring countries for a few days whilst the Arab armies mopped up the Jews. Nearly 70 years later the Palestinian Arabs are still waiting, having endured dreadful conditions in refugee camps in Arab countries and never being truly accepted by their fellow Arab ‘hosts’.
It was not the Balfour Declaration which brought about the tension in the Middle East, or the hate-filled mindset of some Palestinian and Arab extremists which leads to occasional wars and constant acts of terrorism. Palestinian and Arab rejectionism has blocked all attempts to reach an agreement which could have led to a Palestinian state existing in in amity with the Jewish state.
Black, like other Leftists, conflates the situation in the Middle East with what he sees as other crimes associated with Britain during the colonial era. The Balfour Declaration, however, did not attempt to impose colonial rule on an indigenous people. There was no attempt by an imperial power to rule over a land and exploit its natural riches for the benefit of the mother country.
The Balfour Declaration was an attempt to permit national self-determination for a people who had connections to the land covering more than three millennia. In doing so it took a small step to righting a grievous wrong.
The Declaration allowed a people who had been rejected by Europe, who had seen the doors of the USA slam shut in their hour of greatest need, who had suffered in ways which surpass our imaginings; it allowed the remnant of this people to go home and build a life for themselves.
If Great Britain has any apology to make it is to Israel, for we hindered the implementation of the Declaration. The Declaration was embodied in the 1922 Mandate from the League of Nations under which Britain accepted the administration of Palestine along with the obligation to settle the Jews there. During the 1930s, we reneged on the Mandate and betrayed the Jewish people. Instead of allowing them entry and settling them in Palestine as they tried to flee Nazi persecution, we kept them out. We must ask how many perished in the Holocaust due to Britain’s reluctance to live up to its own mandated obligations.
Nevertheless, however badly Britain implemented the Balfour Declaration, we can be proud that it was made and that we had a hand in creating a beacon of democratic hope in the midst of a region given to violence, dictatorship and theocracy.