A century after Balfour, the UK should face uncomfortable home truths

The UK government is unlikely to issue the apology that Palestinians want, but this year will be a good opportunity to reflect on painful legacy

This month marks the 99th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the beginning in earnest of preparations for next year’s centenary.

Israel and its supporters are gearing up for a celebration of what they see as an historic document that underpins the state’s legitimacy. Palestinians and their allies, meanwhile, are seeking an apology from Britain for an injustice whose impact is still felt today.

Is the Balfour Declaration honestly something that Israel and its advocates should want to draw attention to? I would suggest not

The Balfour Declaration was a letter dated 2 November 1917, sent by British foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour on behalf of the government to Walter Rothschild, for it to be shared with the Zionist Federation. The letter included the following, 67-word statement:

“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 past week, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, marked the 99th anniversary by releasing balloons into the London sky. Organisations including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, meanwhile, are part of an initiative that thanks the British government for having recognised “the longing of the Jewish people to re-establish its national homeland in the land of Israel”.

However, is the Balfour Declaration honestly something that Israel and its advocates should want to draw attention to? I would suggest not.

What self-determination?

It is a reminder, firstly, that the Zionist movement was only able to advance its goal of establishing a “Jewish state” in Palestine with the support of a colonial power. Though tensions increased between the British Mandate authorities and the Zionist movement, the project was only viable in the first instance thanks to the agreement, support and protection of the British Empire.

Today, the State of Israel is able to persist in systematic violations of international law, including a five-decade old military occupation, because of the backing, again, of powerful Western allies – especially, of course, the US. Israel’s diplomatic, economic, and military “shield” remains vital to the Israeli government’s ability to persist in its denial of Palestinian rights.

The Balfour Declaration is also a reminder that, in contrast to Israel’s insistence today that Zionism merely equates to “Jewish self-determination,” the creation of a “Jewish state” in Palestine directly contradicted the principle of self-determination.

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