The Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion: a source of pride?

The Week - - News -

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”.

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