Culture

Balfour and Britain’s broken promise

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If the British Conservative Government of Teresa May represented the views of the people of Britain rather than the preferences of the state of Israel on the disastrous outcome for the Palestinian Arabs of the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, she would not be planning to celebrate this 100th anniversary with Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister. This will happen at a cosy London dinner party at the home of Lord Rothschild, heir to the recipient of that infamous letter from Arthur J. Balfour, Britain’s then Foreign Secretary.

As it is, her November 2 tete a tete with Mr. Netanyahu, Lord Rothschild and Lord Balfour, a descendant of Arthur J. Balfour who had no direct descendants, and a subsequent November 9, rally organized by Christian Zionists at the cavernous Albert Hall, in London’s Hyde Park, which Britain’s leader and Zionist and Israeli notables will also attend, are being pre-empted and countered by a host of events throughout the British Isles. These are not only highly critical of Britain’s disastrous legacy in its former Mandated Territory, but urge it to recognize Palestine as a state and work practically to grant the Palestinian Arabs their freedom and self-determination.

This was the duty, a “sacred trust”, the League of Nations imposed on Britain when it obtained the mandate to rule Palestine after the First World War—to prepare the people of Palestine for self-government. Where the Arabs were concerned, then 90 per cent of the population, it signally failed to do so, instead encouraging the Zionist movement to create a parallel government alongside the colonial one.

Many British and Irish organizations large, small and tiny have been rallying against this injustice during the past year, reaching a climax of protest as November 2 nears. Although Israel and its many powerful friends and agents in the United Kingdom have worked hard to have these events cancelled or disrupted, and have largely failed, the main point about these cross-Britain and Ireland protests and reconsiderations is that their target is Britain, not Israel. (Not directly.)

The Balfour Project‘s “Britain’s Broken Promise: Time for a New Approach” is one resonant event, on October 31 at Westminster Central Hall, across from the Houses of Parliament. The aim is to seat 1,000 people to hear an array of what might loosely be described as the Great and the Good, Lords and Ladies, legislators from all the major parties (including the Israel-bedazzled Tories), bishops and other clerics from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist Churches, a liberal rabbi, a historian, a former senior British diplomat who recently served in Palestine, and a Palestinian film-maker. This eminent throng will review critically and from different angles Britain’s policies, past and present, on Palestine and Israel and urge positive and redemptive action.

Elsewhere, activists in such organizations as the English, Scottish and Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaigns and Middle East Monitor are organizing rallies and marches and have already held packed seminars and conferences across the three UK and Irish nations. Smaller gatherings are taking place in towns and villages. They reflect a steady surge in interest in the Palestinian tragedy during the past fifteen years or so, most of it sympathetic to the disposessed Arabs, fuelled by the second intifada of 2001-2005, the three Israeli military onslaughts on Gaza during the past nine years, the continuing siege of Gaza and the steady litany of Israel’s oppression and land theft in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  

The Balfour Project signals concerns from a slightly different and perhaps more lofty sector of the British people: what used to be called the Establishment. The Project hopes that it can bend different and more influential ears among Britain’s ruling class. 

The Balfour Project is a combination of revelation, religious inspiration and practicality and experience. Nine years ago Monica and Roger Spooner, a middle-aged couple, he a respected immunologist, she a health practitioner, living in Edinburgh, crossed on a whim , while in Jordan, to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. What they saw in just ten days, the occupation in full, the miseries of East Jerusalem, the lockdown and checkpoint humiliations in the West Bank (they couldn’t get to Gaza) informed, startled and depressed them. Their interlocutors there were as varied as a former colonel in the Israel army, an official of the Church of Scotland, a Palestinian Anglican rector, the Christian activist group Sabeel, and other interested Jews, Arabs and Europeans. 

Monica, a devout Christian, describes the experience as like “a whisper” from God, a calling; Roger was equally convinced…they sped in less than a year from ignorance of Palestine-Israel to a determination to learn and to act, the looming 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration a spur to a series of meetings, conferences and a highly educational website www.balfourproject.org.

The October 31 event in Westminster is one climactic moment in this process ( the Project will go on). One key moment will be a recent British Consul General in East Jerusalem, Sir Vincent Fean, urging that Her Majesty’s Government recognize the Palestinian state as a first step in correcting by action rather than offering empty words the reverberating mistake and broken pledge of the Balfour Declaration…the establishment of a National Home for the Jewish people in Palestine “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities…”.  

Perhaps the Durham University historian and Balfour specialist Peter Shambrook best sums up the animus behind this and most of the British protests against Balfour’s legacy, all of which will aim to drown the expected Zionist triumphalism of November 2 : “Our record [in Palestine] demonstrates that we [British] can be, and have been, as devious as any other people. A nation which only has room for national pride, and no room for honest reflection about its past has little claim to describe itself as either moral or civilized.” Or, as Bishop Michael Doe, said, in a sermon to senior judges at Westminster Abbey, on October 2: “…the administration of the law in the militarily occupied territories is selective and discriminatory, and the growth of illegal settlements continues without challenge. There are moral and legal obligations which…we should not shun.” 

The Project’s Centenary Declaration, its ultimate aim of making “our elected representatives take effective action to promote justice, security and peace” will, earlier on October 31, be launched in a committee room in the precincts of the Houses of Parliament in the presence of Members of Parliament from all four major British political parties.

It is a reflection on Israel’s concept of democracy that the Israel’s many helpers and supporters across Britain havel tried to close down debate on Balfour.

With big events such as that of the Project, Friends of al Aqsa’s Palestine Expo in July this year, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign meetings and rallies, Middle East Monitor’s day-long seminar at the British Library (standing room only) in early October, their attempts failed. In smaller more vulnerable venues they sometimes succeed, inculcating fears of charges of antisemitism or even threats to security. Zionist activists put pressure on universities, meeting venues, church halls. Ominous phone calls are made to the homes of event organizers, people not used to the roughhouse tactics of some of Israel’s dedicated supporters. 

The Balfour Project’s polite but determined exposure of the broken British promises does not take place in a vacuum, as it might have two years ago. Israel and its supporters are well aware that a possible Labour Government, led by a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause, Jeremy Corbyn, awaits power. The recent party conference in Brighton echoed to shouts and cheers of support for the Palestinians, and Jewish organizations that support the Palestinians began seriously to edge aside those that are associated with Israel and have traditionally held sway in the party. For the first time in modern history there is a discernible split on the issue between Government and Opposition.

It is a nightmare for Israel.

It is not perhaps a surprise that the greatest number of visits to the Balfour Project’s website comes from Tel Aviv. 

The 100th anniversary of Mr. Balfour’s great deception is not, after all, turning out to be the unalloyed celebration the Zionists and their stooges in Westminster and Whitehall had planned. Rather the reverse: a continuing parade of British self-examination, throughout society, and the intention to put matters right at last for the Palestinian people.

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a “whisper from God”. How many of us have experienced what Monica and Roger Spooner experienced in Palestine… Good on them for organizing that project. Consciousness is rising everywhere

FOLKS- Off Topic but worth it. I recently saw the film “Loving Vincent” which I highly recommend. It is an “animated” film about part of the life and controversial suicide of Vincent Van Gogh. I put animated in quotes because the animation is by 100 artists in the Van Gogh… Read more »

Excellent to see this article by Tim Llewellyn here – so glad he’s shed the shackles of the Beeb! Weird I can ‘hear’ his voice while reading. I recall listening to his program on the restoration of Gaza’s only grand piano – his sympathy was clear despite the restraints of… Read more »

The Arabs of mandate Palestine received over 70% of the land when the Jordan was spilt off from the West Bank. That the brits handed this majority’palestinian’ land over to the little hashemite monarchy should be a bigger issue for mandate arabs were the arabs not hell bent and tenaciously… Read more »

Tim, thanks for sharing such an encouraging article. Racist, militant settler-colonialism can only last for so long.