Next year is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. If you’ve not heard of it, you will do. This 67 word statement by Sir Arthur Balfour, then British Foreign Secretary, is claimed by many to be the first public iteration of the British government’s support for a Jewish state in the Middle East. Despite its brevity it also declared support for existing Arab people in the region. Some, especially those who feel affinity with the State of Israel, see the centenary as a cause for celebration, and have begun the process.
I cannot agree. I find little to celebrate in that part of the Middle East today. Israel, which has become one of the most heavily militarised countries in the world, continues its illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its blockade of Gaza, territory designated by the international community to become the fledgling State of Palestine. The resentment fuelled by the daily oppression of the occupation feeds a seething resentment of Israel, creating permanent tension and insecurity. Rather than seek a solution the right wing government of Israel is step by step annexing land by building illegal settlements across the occupied territories. This whole area is a powder keg that could blow at any time. Reasons to be cheerful? I think not.
Palestinians argue that the UK government should apologise for Balfour. They have a case. You might even argue that the exercise was so duplicitous that they should apologise to Israelis too. At the very same time that Balfour was discussing support for a Jewish homeland with leaders of the Zionist Congress, the British governor of Egypt was busily doing a deal with Sharif Husein, leader of the Arab militias in the region. Governor McMahon promised Husein Arab control in return for launching an offensive against the Turks. Husein, aided by TE Lawrence (of Arabia) delivered. The Great Arab Revolt was a turning point for the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
And in another parallel exercise, a Tory MP and a French diplomat were engaged in the most monstrous carve-up on behalf of their respective governments. Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot agreed to draw a line in the sand from Acre on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk in Eastern Iraq which would divide the Middle East into respective French and British Territory assuming they defeated the Ottomans in the ongoing war. The deal was done in secret and there was no place on this map for a Jewish homeland.
It is difficult in hindsight to see the Balfour Declaration as anything other than a cynical attempt to manipulate Jewish opinion in favour of the British war effort. Indeed, Balfour seems an unlikely friend of Israel given that a decade earlier, when Prime Minister, he had no qualms in playing the anti-Semitic card and railing against Jewish immigration to Britain as people fled persecution in Eastern Europe. And it’s clear that some in the war government saw support for a Jewish homeland as a rationale for preventing Jewish people resettling in Britain.
But the main aim was winning the war. Balfour - and Lloyd George in publicising the declaration - hoped for three things. One, to rally Jewish support behind the allies, particularly in Russia and the East. Two, to weaken German Jewish support for the Kaiser. Three, to persuade Woodrow Wilson to lead America into the war by appealing to a number of his closest advisors who were well known Zionists. Undoubtedly, British strategists had an eye to the post war situation too: a supportive Jewish bloc in that part of the world could shore up British interests and influence particularly in keeping the trade route to India open through Suez.
So, for all these reasons, I cannot see Balfour as anything other than the British Empire at its most manipulative. Centenaries are, however, milestones and whilst this is not a cause for celebration there is merit in using this one to reflect on how the current situation in this part of the world came to pass and what we can do to move towards a sustainable and lasting peace.
But first a note on Zionism and anti-Semitism. Zionism is a political movement which originated in the late 19th century. It argues that one way to end the persecution of Jewish people is to create a Jewish state for a Jewish people. At the time, and still today, not all Jews agreed with this notion. And it’s also worth noting that many non-Jews supported Zionism, not always for the best of reasons. To be crystal clear, Judaism and Zionism are not the same thing.
I’m an atheist. I believe that government should be secular and not act in the service of any particular religion. So I do not support Zionism. However, it’s not difficult to see how the idea became popular. Zionism is a political reaction to anti-Semitism. And it’s difficult to understate just how extensive and pernicious anti-Semitism was, and to a great extent, remains. I can think of no religious group who have been persecuted for so long and in so many countries throughout history. And as an aside it is worth noting that there is little record of anti-Semitism in the Islamic empire where religious observance seems to have been tolerated, and that the most vicious assaults on Jews across the world have been in ostensibly Christian societies.
There is a lot of sloppiness of language in debates about Israel and Palestine. To argue against Zionism is not to argue against the existence of Israel, and it is certainly not to argue against Judaism. On the other hand everyone, particularly supporters of the Palestinian cause, need to be careful that any criticism they make of Zionism does not – even unwittingly – give succour to anti-Semitism.
My view is that whilst Zionism brought Israel into existence, its future will only be secured by moving beyond its limitations. I believe in what is termed the two state solution: a viable state of Israel living side by side with a viable state of Palestine. But I do not want to see these states as a bastions of Judaism and Islam each living in permanent tension and mistrust of the other, forever on alert and with a ten metre concrete wall between them. That might please religious fundamentalists but it is no lasting solution.
Israel should become a Jewish country in the same sense that Ireland or France is a Catholic country. It will be Jewish in character from its demography and reflective of a majority Jewish culture. But it must also be tolerant of others , ensure equal civil and political rights to all its citizens and have structures of governance that do not discriminate against any religious or ethnic group. There are Jewish politicians arguing exactly this today. We should be supporting them now rather than celebrating a cynical promise made by our government a century ago.
If Balfour is anything it is a statement of unfinished business. Whilst supporting a Jewish state in Palestine it also declared that this should be brought about so as not to prejudice the existing Arab people in the region. And yet the way Israel was created, 30 years after Balfour, was extremely prejudicial to the millions of Palestinians who had called the land home for centuries. They were displaced to form the state of Israel. Even today there are many Palestinians living in wretched refugee camps who will show you the keys to houses they were chased from in 1948. They have been treated with extreme prejudice and in the decades ahead this is a wrong that must be righted if there is to be lasting peace in the region.