Last week there was an outpouring of celebration for the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Britain’s decision to ‘view with favour’ the recreation of the Jewish homeland should be remembered as a seminal moment when one of the world’s great powers gave recognition and legitimacy to political Zionism. While Balfour did not create modern Israel (Jewish endeavour and skill achieved that), he ensured that Britain in 1917 stood on the right side of history and civilisation.
But another theme also echoed last week, namely that Balfour’s work was only half done. Boris Johnson, while lauding Britain’s role in helping to create Israel, wrote: “The vital caveat in the Balfour Declaration, intended to safeguard other communities, has not been fully realised.”
His words were echoed by Jonathan Allen, the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN when he told the Security Council there was “unfinished business” with the Declaration.
In an otherwise sensitive and balanced speech, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said the clause on protecting the rights of non-Jews in Palestine was a “work in progress”.
But the failure to create a two-state solution isn’t a contradiction of the Declaration. For the document did not speak of protecting the ‘national’ rights of the ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ in Palestine, only their ‘civil and religious rights.’ Those rights have been upheld in Israel’s basic laws and its Supreme Court.
Non-Jewish communities in Israel can vote and participate in elections, exercise their religious freedoms, move and travel without impediment, join trade unions and find legal redress. The de facto discrimination and inequality affecting the Arab population, a common problem for minorities in many countries, is something Israel must continue to address.
The lack of a West Bank Palestinian state must be seen in the context of the inflexible, unceasing and visceral rejection of Jewish sovereignty, and the failure to accept the many offers of statehood made since 1937.
When the Arab world twice rejected partition before 1948, when Yasser Arafat turned down a Palestinian state in 2000-1 and when Mahmoud Abbas rejected Ehud Olmert’s offers in 2008, this was not a ‘failure of Balfour’. It was a failure of Palestinian maximalist thinking. When this rejection ends, the opportunities for peace and Palestinian statehood will surely emerge.
The existence of a Jewish state has failed to dull the long-standing anti-Semitic prejudice throughout the Arab world. In response, we should deplore those societies in which such toxic prejudice holds sway. If there is reason for lamentation it lies elsewhere and, in his visit to London, Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to it.
He said it was tragic that the British mandate, which gave life to the Balfour Declaration, was not implemented earlier. Had a sovereign Jewish state existed in 1939, it would have been the only country in the world to prioritise the rescue of beleaguered Jews from Europe.
We should lament the behaviour of the British authorities in Palestine after 1917. They appeased the forces of rejection, responding to Arab unrest and anti-Jewish violence with measures to crack down on immigration. This culminated in the 1939 White Paper, which sought to snuff out a Jewish state altogether.
A century on from 1917, modern Israel is a pulsating, creative, technologically-advanced democracy which, despite its flaws, is a glowing testament to Jewish ingenuity and energy.
It is a success story in a thousand ways, a light unto the nations. One can only hope that, a century from now, it will live in a more enlightened neighbourhood. If not, that’ll be no reason to lament the 200th anniversary of Balfour.