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