The Balfour Declaration: a source of pride?
A hundred years ago last week, Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur Balfour “signed a short statement that changed the world”, said Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Mail. The Balfour Declaration was just 67 words long, but it committed Britain for the first time to backing “the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people”. Last week, Israel and its supporters duly celebrated “the anniversary of a foundational moment” in their nation’s history. Palestinian representatives, meanwhile, called on Britain to apologise for the declaration – because, of course, it set in train the process that saw much of the Palestinian population “uprooted from their homes and condemned to life in squalid refugee camps”.
At a gala dinner in London attended by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Theresa May said the British are “proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel”. And so we should be, said The Times. At the time of its creation, in 1948, Israel served as “a natural haven for a people who had so recently faced mass extermination at the hands of the Nazis”. Today, in a Middle East “dominated by autocrats”, it shines out as an exception: “a vibrant liberal democracy, an innovative economy and an ally of the West”. Like many Britons, I feel that shame or silence is a more appropriate response when contemplating the Balfour Declaration, said Robert Fisk in The Independent. It was a callous piece of imperial hubris, in which, as Arthur Koestler put it, “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third”. It was also a “lie”, expressing the vain hope that a Jewish homeland could be established without prejudicing “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. The document could not even bring itself to name the 700,000 Arabs who lived alongside 60,000 Jews in the territory at the time, merely describing them as “communities” which “exist”.
The anniversary received a lot of attention in London, said Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz (Tel Aviv). There were many articles and broadcasts, along with protests and dozens of public events – at which speakers expressed “a burning need to apologise and atone” for the actions of a British government a century ago. Ironically, the UK today – a diminished power with a dysfunctional leadership – has little or no influence on Israel’s future. All this breast-beating, I suspect, wasn’t really about the Middle East. It was “about Britain”: its “unique combination of tortured conscience for the sins of empire and delusions of still being a world power, capable of influencing events around the world”.