The 100th Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration – let’s celebrate!

2017 is a year embracing a number of dates of historic significance to the State of Israel. June 2017 will mark 50 years since the Six Day War that enabled the Jewish people to, once again, pray at its most holy site the Kotel (Western Wall) that once surrounded our Temple in the Old City of Jerusalem.

This year marks 120 years since the First Zionist Congress held on August 29th 1897. Theodor Herzl warned the Jewish people of the need to leave Europe because of anti-Semitism (sounds familiar?). He saw the answer to anti-Semitism being a State specifically for the Jews.

On November 29th – 70 years ago – the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine which proved to be the prerequisite to the re-birth of Israel some six months later. Whilst the Jewish population, residing in British mandated Palestine, immediately accepted their allotted part, the Arabs rejected outright the offer of statehood choosing instead to initiate a war against the Jews.

However the most significant date is November 2nd – the day 100 years ago – when the then British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter, on behalf of the British Cabinet, to the prominent leader of Anglo-Jewry – Baron Lionel Rothschild – stating that “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…..”. This letter became known as the “Balfour Declaration” and was the catalyst for the re-birth of the State of Israel.

The wave of pogroms of 1881 in the Russian empire resulted in Jews fleeing Russia. Whilst many sought the “Goldena Medina” of America, others escaped to Britain, and smaller numbers returned to the ancient homeland of the Jewish People – Israel.

For the Jews who fled from Europe to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s and their descendants – they owe their lives to the commitment of the Balfour Declaration. Their family members who remained were murdered in the Holocaust.

The poignant tragedy of the annihilation of 6 million Jews is that there was a 30 year gap between the November 1917 Balfour Declaration and its coming to fruition in November 1947. We can but wonder how many of the 6 million might have found refuge in a Jewish state had the commitment of the British Government materialized in the 1930’s.

What remains unquestionable is that the Jewish people have every reason to be appreciative of Britain’s gift of the Balfour Declaration.

Who will celebrate this milestone anniversary?

In December 2016, at a meeting of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Prime Minister Theresa May declared that “Next year’s centenary of the Balfour Declaration will be marked by Britain with pride”. Conversely the Foreign Office’s Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood, recently declared in a Parliamentary debate, that Britain will mark the centenary but will neither celebrate nor apologize. The same minister, when asked how the UK came to vote for the United Nations Security Council’s resolution 2334 said that the Foreign Office had made a considered decision to vote in favor. Clearly there is a division of thought between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office – certainly not a new phenomenon when looking at past attitudes of the British Government.

It is somewhat disappointing that these past months have witnessed a concerted effort to negate both the Declaration and the State of Israel. Last October, at the British Parliament’s House of Lords, Baroness Tonge hosted and chaired a gathering where attendees compared Israel to ISIS and claimed Jews “provoked” their own genocide without one word of reproach coming from the chair. The Palestine Return Centre, which live streamed the event on its Facebook page, said that this event was part of its Balfour apology campaign calling for the UK Government to officially apologize for its past colonial crimes in Palestine.

Back In July 2016 Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyal al-Maliki, speaking on behalf of President Mahmoud Abbas at the 27th Arab League Summit in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, said the Palestinian Authority intends to file a lawsuit against Britain in the International courts for issuing the Balfour Declaration.

During his address to the United Nations in New York last October, President Abbas said that it was time the UK accepted its “moral responsibility for the consequences of this Declaration” He asked for an apology to the Palestinian people for the “catastrophes, misery and injustice this Declaration -created….. The least Great Britain can do is to recognize the state of Palestine.”

On a positive note, however, despite Palestinian threats to sue the British Government over the Balfour Declaration, at a Downing Street meeting between the British and Israeli Prime Ministers Theresa May issued an invitation to Netanyahu to participate in a London based event marking the 100th anniversary of the Declaration. In a recent letter to the Jewish National Fund UK the British PM stated “I am proud to be a friend of Israel and proud of Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people”.

The past year has seen a marked increase in trade and scientific development between Britain and Israel resulting in, close to, a £6 billion bilateral trade agreement. Strong ties exist especially in the fields of science and technology. With cyber-attacks gaining ground worldwide and with Israel holding 20% of the world market in cyber technology Britain plans to work more closely with Israel in this area.

In addition, currently, the Brexit policy is underway presenting positive opportunities for additional trade and scientific agreements between our two countries.

Here in Israel the Balfour Centenary Committee, under the chairmanship of Dr. Alan Webber and embracing 10 Israeli based organizations, has planned a dynamic program of activities – not to be missed.

100 years on – since Lord Balfour’s famous letter to Baron Rothschild – Israel and the Jewish communities worldwide take pride in Israel’s amazing achievements. There can be no doubt that we have every reason to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and, for sure, we will.

Brenda Katten

The writer is a past chair of the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association; is active in public affairs and is the current Public Relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. She has also served as the chairperson of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland

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