It is 99 years since Arthur Balfour, then Britain’s Foreign Secretary, wrote a letter to Lord Rothschild. Regarded as the foundational document for the modern state of Israel it has become known as ‘the Balfour Declaration’.
Imperialism has changed shape throughout the ages yet there are two constants, power and wealth. In 1917 Britain still had something of both and remained the greatest imperial power, although not for much longer. American Independence following France’s revolution suggested the death of imperialism.But imperialism is a tough weed, good at finding new ways to impose its will. If Balfour’s letter was a late act in Britain’s imperialism, the fundamentals haven’t changed, power and wealth still rule, and the weak and powerless suffer. Balfour generously offered one people land belonging to another people over 1000 miles distant from Britain’s borders. Such was the impact of socialist-secularist Zionism.
Many Jews and Jewish groups will celebrate next years 100th anniversary of ‘Balfour’. Given their history we should understand, even sympathise, but should we join them? I think not. To celebrate Balfour is to celebrate imperialism, the exercise of power and wealth to the advantage of some at the expense of others. To celebrate the ‘safe homeland for Jews’ is to celebrate the loss of homeland of Palestinians. We should rather celebrate when there is real, sustainable peace based on justice.
Some suggest we British should apologise, I don’t agree. But we can repent if by that we mean that we try to put right the wrong.
How do we do that? Certainly not by celebrating Britain’s imperialist folly. One think we can do is to contribute to it being fully remembered. British support in 1917 for a ‘Jewish homeland’ must be seen in the context of conflicting imperialist promises made to Arabs, the French and the Americans in the broader context of a Europe-based imperial war. From the subsequent peace conferences and British and Zionist actions it is evident that neither was particularly interested in democracy unless it furthered their own agenda. When the British, belatedly, proposed some form of limited democratic representation in Palestine they hoped to limit inter-community conflict. The Zionist’s refused, despite an undeserved parity of representation, because it was a step too soon. They were, at the time, less than 25% of the populace. The Arab’s were unsupportive because it was less than they’d been promised and less than their superior numbers deserved.
Fully remembering must include that history and the stories people have shared and believed and the challenges those stories face when confronted by other, conflicting stories. No one story will ever be adequate but through sharing their stories the peoples of the land may come to better mutual understanding and that may lead to better solutions than are available at present. This is not a job for career politicians; their agenda is power and, if possible, wealth. It is a task for the polity, you and I. Primarily, it is a task for the peoples of the land, but in our global village we must lend a hand. We can start by demanding of our governments that they cease funding and arming war.
A second step would be to recognise both Israel and Palestine as nation states with the borders of ‘Mandate Palestine’. Many will respond that this is impractical, how can two states occupy the same land? Others will point out the impracticality of the ‘two-state solution’ given the expansion of illegal settlements. Two nations already occupy the same land, the question is how they do so in peace and justice.