Being both a confirmed Anglophile and a committed Zionist, I followed with great interest the recent official visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the United Kingdom. The visit was timed to coincide with the centenary of the Balfour Declaration — the 67-word letter sent to Lord Walter Rothschild by Lord Arthur Balfour (then the British Foreign Secretary) endorsing the Jewish aspiration to build a national home in what was then Palestine. The centerpiece of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit — and of the centennial celebration — was a formal banquet hosted by Lord Jacob Rothschild, whose great uncle was the Declaration’s recipient. The banquet was attended by both Netanyahu and British Prime Minister Theresa May, as well as an array of distinguished guests.
From a diplomatic perspective, the visit appeared to go well. The two Prime Ministers exchanged the usual diplomatic niceties and downplayed areas of disagreement. Prime Minister May is without doubt a good and sincere friend of Israel, and it showed in the warmth of her tribute. Boris Johnson, the current foreign secretary, is something of an unknown quantity, his most important prior experience being his service as mayor of London. He and Netanyahu appeared to get along well, however, and when he welcomed the Israeli leader to his office, he showed him what he claimed to be the desk at which Lord Balfour wrote the Declaration. (I would have thought that somewhere in the course of the past century, the foreign secretary would have gotten a new desk — but who am I to argue with British history?)
The timing of the centenary was fortuitous for another reason, as May’s remarks — both at the banquet and speaking in parliament before Netanyahu’s visit — made clear. With Britain’s impending departure from the European Union, Israel takes on a greater importance to Britain as a trading partner. Though its economy is relatively small compared to Britain’s, Israel is one of the most technologically advanced countries outside of Europe, and thus an attractive partner for increased economic cooperation.
While the relationship between Israel and the current government of the United Kingdom seems to be solid, there were certainly reminders that the government’s friendship does not represent the unanimous opinion of the British people. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, declined to attend the banquet, and there were anti-Israel demonstrations throughout Netanyahu’s visit. The Muslim population of Britain, though smaller than many believe, is substantially larger than its Jewish population. To be sure, there are many pro-Israel Labour supporters, including members of parliament, but there is a significant faction within the ranks of the Labour Party that is anti-Zionist –in some cases morphing into outright anti-Semitism — and Corbyn comes from that faction.
Israel’s enemies despise the Balfour Declaration. They claim it to be fundamentally illegitimate, insisting, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently wrote, that Lord Balfour “promised a land that was not his to promise, disregarding the political rights of those who already lived there. For the Palestinian people – my people – the events this letter triggered have been as devastating as they have been far-reaching.” Abbas demanded that Britain “apologize” for the Balfour Declaration, a demand that May firmly and forcefully rejected.
The insistence of Israel’s enemies that the Balfour Declaration was legally meaningless because Britain had no right to give away “Palestinian” land, amounts to knocking down a straw man of their own creation. No one has ever claimed that the Balfour Declaration changed the legal status of Palestine. It was merely a statement of British government policy. What Israel’s enemies studiously ignore, however, is that the Balfour Declaration’s language endorsing the objective of creating a “national home for the Jewish people” was subsequently incorporated into the Palestine mandate that Britain received from the League of Nations — and that did change the legal status of Palestine, which had previously been a province of the Ottoman Empire.
Speaking in the House of Commons before Netanyahu’s visit, May expressed pride in the role Britain played in creating Israel. Those familiar with the history of that period realize that Britain’s role in that history was not as uniformly beneficent as the warmth of May’s tribute might suggest. The ambivalence that committed Zionists feel about Britain’s role in Israel’s history is underscored by another upcoming milestone — the seventieth anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of Resolution 181, which endorsed the partition of mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab. The Arab refusal to accept the legitimacy of Jewish aspirations — as set forth in both the Balfour Declaration and the Partition Resolution — is at the heart of the continuing conflict between Israel and most of the Arab world.
Between the Balfour Declaration, which marked the beginning of British rule over Palestine, and the Partition Resolution, which heralded its end, the British record on Palestine was decidedly mixed. Most egregious, of course, was Britain’s 1939 White Paper, which slammed the gates of Palestine shut to Jews attempting to flee Nazi-occupied Europe. There is no way to know how many thousands of Jewish lives could have been saved but for the British decision to sacrifice Jews to buy Arab neutrality in the war.
Of course, Britain wasn’t the only country that abandoned Jews to their fate during the Holocaust. No country welcomed Jewish refugees with open arms, including the United States, which refused to relax the racist immigration quotas created by the 1924 Johnson Act. Britain at least had an understandable motive for its overly solicitous approach to Arab rejectionism. Until the US entered the war after Pearl Harbor, Britain was standing virtually alone against the Nazi war machine. We now know that Britain survived the blitz, that the US entered the war against Germany as well as Japan and that the Nazis and their allies were ultimately defeated. No one could be sure of that outcome, however, while German bombs were raining down on London and D-day was not yet a twinkle in Franklin Roosevelt’s eye.
Understanding British fears, unfortunately, does not revive any of the six million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. It does remind us, however, of why Israel’s survival is essential. Robert Frost famously defined home as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” By that measure, even the United States, which has been the friendliest of Diaspora countries, has not been home for the Jews. When the chips are down, the only home we can count on is the “national home for the Jewish people” envisioned by the Balfour Declaration and given international recognition by the General Assembly in 1947 — which we now call the State of Israel.