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We Need To Talk About The Balfour Declaration

13/12/2016 16:41 | Updated 14 December 2016
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Prime Minister Theresa May declared this week, at a speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel, that next year's centenary of the Balfour Declaration would be marked by Britain "with pride".

This is the latest government statement about an anniversary which, let's face it, must look to many in Whitehall like one big headache. No word can be spoken about the document - which left indelible British fingerprints on the Jewish-Arab struggle - without angering someone, or several million someones. Ministers could be forgiven for wanting to hide until it's over.

But Britain's historical legacy is unavoidable. For Jews the Declaration is to be celebrated, whilst for Palestinians and their supporters it is a mark of shame against Britain. The Palestinian Authority has threatened to sue Britain for its 'crime', and anti-Zionist campaigners in the West will seek to tar Zionism, once again, with the brush of imperialism.

What then is a reasonable way for British politicians to relate to the Balfour Declaration today?

Millions of words have been written about its origins from a British perspective, through the lenses of Britain's ambivalent relationship with its imperial past. What British leaders need to keep in mind is what it means for the nations whose destinies it touched.

Understanding the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires looking simultaneously at the two overlapping, but very different, perspectives of Jews and Palestinian-Arabs. Like a stereogram, if you can avoid going cross eyed and getting a headache, a picture with depth emerges.

For Jews, Britain's 1917 expression of support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people", later given legal force by the League of Nations, is part of their narrative of salvation. Hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled from Europe to Palestine between the wars, and their descendants, owe their lives to it. Those left behind perished in the Holocaust (Shoah). For Jews, the 1939 White Paper, in which Britain restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine, closing one of the last escape routes from Europe, is the mark of British shame.

And for many Jews, Israel's establishment - restoring Jewish sovereignty in what Jews consider their historic homeland - was the anti-Shoah, giving Jewish identity a positive future. In 1917 Zionism divided Jews, after the Holocaust, it united them. In a 2015 survey, 90% of British Jews supported Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and 93% said it formed some part of their Jewish identity.
Appreciate therefore, how clankingly offensive demands for Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration are for Jews. Though perhaps understandable from Palestinians, from others it reflects a conspicuous disdain for Jewish sensitivities. It is no surprise that a recent Parliamentary event launching a 'Balfour Apology Campaign' became a shameful forum for anti-Semitic bluster.

That said, everyone who cares about Israel must also recognise that the process that created the State of Israel - the Jewish narrative of salvation - is for Palestinians their narrative of catastrophe, or 'Nakba'. Around six hundred thousand Palestinians fled their homes in the 1948 war in which Israel was established. Setting aside the vexed question of who is to blame for their plight, their loss is undeniable, as is the suffering of their descendants.

What's then a British politician to do? Ministers have rightly rejected calls for an apology. But they should also avoid suggesting retrospective amendments to the Balfour Declaration, as Middle East Minister Tobias Elwood awkwardly did in a recent parliamentary debate - stating that the Balfour Declaration should have asserted the political (rather than only civil and religious) rights of the non-Jews in Palestine.

Redrafting a one century old letter to assuage today's political sensitivities can only going distort the historical picture. Rather than rewrite the past, Britain should use the spotlight to increase understanding of it, and promote a positive vision for the future, using a vocabulary that acknowledges the conflicting emotions.

The Balfour Declaration was an aspirational statement of what Britain "viewed with favour", and what it would use its "best endeavours to facilitate". What should Britain view with favour today?

Firstly, that with Israel's establishment, centuries of Jewish homelessness and persecution have ended; that Israel is democratic, affirms the rights of non-Jewish citizens, and is an extraordinary engine for creativity; and that it has a fruitful relationship with Britain based on shared interests and values.
But Britain should also view with favour - indeed reaffirm with vigour - the urgency of establishing a Palestinian state that would afford long overdue self-determination, due dignity, and economic and political opportunity to the Palestinian people.

Perhaps most importantly, it should affirm that these goals are mutually reinforcing. The surest way to secure Israel's future as a Jewish national home - in terms of demography, security, and legitimacy - is through the creation of a separate Palestinian state. Many Israeli politicians, including at times Prime Minister Netanyahu, have acknowledged this. At the same time, a conflict ending agreement will require the Palestinians to agree to a refugee solution that is consistent with two states - two 'national homes' - for two peoples, and does not undermine Israel's Jewish character.

Yet Britain must also recognise that unlike in 1917, it does not have the power to enforce its will. The future will be shaped by Israelis and Palestinians. Britain should use 'it's best endeavours' to improve the chances of the pragmatists among them who recognise that two national homes is the only way to reconcile the demands of two nations, and end a century of conflict.

Dr. Toby Greene is senior research associate for BICOM and an Israel Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University.

Read his full piece in the current issue of Fathom

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