To ‘celebrate’ or ‘mark’ the Balfour centenary?

November 05, 2017
Historic complicity. A carving in stone reading “ER, Sorry” playing on the common initials for Queen Elizabeth Regina on the controversial Israeli separation barrier separating the West Bank town of Bethlehem from Jerusalem. (AFP)

London - The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the way it was cel­ebrated by some but only marked by others in the United Kingdom laid bare the con­troversy over the 67-word letter that proved pivotal to the forma­tion of the country of Israel.
The declaration, issued on No­vember 2, 1917, by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild reads: “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.”
This short letter changed the fu­ture of Palestine, Israel and the en­tire Middle East.
In the run-up to its 100th an­niversary, British Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain would “mark the centenary with pride.” She attended a special dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and senior British poli­ticians, including the current Lords Roderick Balfour and Jacob Roth­schild, to “mark” the occasion.
“We are proud of the role that we played in the creation of the state of Israel and we will certainly mark the centenary with pride,” May said in comments to parliament.
However, she acknowledged that Britain must “be conscious of the sensitivities that some people do have” towards the declaration, adding that “there is more work to be done” and reiterating Britain’s support for the two-state solution.
Her statement was echoed by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who also spoke of “pride” in Britain’s role in the establish­ment of the state of Israel. He also pointed out, however, that one of the key caveats of the declaration — safeguarding the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish com­munities — had not been fulfilled.
Across the political divide, Brit­ain’s main opposition Labour Party, which has a history of pro- Palestine activism and recently faced accusations of being soft on anti-Semitism, called on the gov­ernment to recognise Palestine.
“I don’t think we celebrate the Balfour Declaration but I think we have to mark it because it was a turning point in the history of the area and the most important way of marking it is to recognise Pal­estine,” Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said.
Main opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn pointedly did not attend the Balfour dinner and has been an outspoken critic of Israel dur­ing his time as a member of parlia­ment.
“Let’s give real support to end the oppression of the Palestin­ian people, the 50-year occupation and illegal settlement expansion and move to a genuine two-state solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict,” he said at the Labour Par­ty conference in September.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, via Twitter, said: “Brit­ain should apologise for the his­toric injustice it committed against Palestinians and correct it instead of celebrating it.”
The controversy surrounding the Balfour Declaration even reached London public transportation. Transport for London (TfL) came under criticism for banning an ad campaign from a pro-Palestinian group that sought to spotlight Pal­estinian suffering before the Bal­four anniversary.
The poster campaign, titled “Palestine… Make it Right” by the official Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom, featured images of Palestinians in markets prior to 1948 contrasted with images of Palestinians living as refugees in camps after the establishment of Israel.
“Palestinian history is a cen­sored history. There has been a 100-year-long cover-up of the Brit­ish government’s broken promise in the Balfour Declaration to safe­guard the rights of the Palestinians when it gave away their country to another people,” Manuel Hassas­sian, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom, said in a statement.
“TfL’s decision is not surprising as it is, at best, susceptible to or, at worst, complicit with all the in­stitutional forces and active lobby groups which continuously work to silence the Palestinian narra­tive. There may be free speech in Britain on every issue under the sun but not on Palestine.”
Pro-Palestinian groups, includ­ing the Palestine Solidarity Cam­paign (PSC) and the Stop the War coalition, protested the declara­tion in central London.
“The centenary of the Balfour Declaration reminds us of Britain’s historic complicity in establishing a process that has led to the dis­possession of the Palestinian peo­ple,” PSC Director Ben Jamal said.
He said Britain should recognise its “complicity” and “responsibili­ties” to pressure Israel to “end the occupation, abide by international law and cease its violations of the human rights of Palestinians.”