Britain and Palestine: past history & future role

Held at St Chad’s College Durham 31st October 2015

Summary Report

Seventy people from places as far apart as Omagh, Norwich, Somerset, Inverness, Salisbury and Edinburgh, spent Saturday 31st October in Durham reflecting on Britain’s responsibilities, past and present, for today’s situation in Israel/Palestine.

The occasion was the Balfour Project’s annual conference which takes place each year around the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, this year in St Chad’s College, Durham University.

Mary Grey, Emeritus Professor of Theology, author, and member of the Balfour Project Steering Group, welcomed everyone and gave a few words of introduction, emphasising the educational dimension of the Project.

The first item on the programme was the recently-produced documentary film ‘Britain in Palestine 1917-1948’ which covers the period of Britain’s responsibility for what was then Palestine. Historian Dr Mary Embleton answered questions, and introduced the new ‘Companion Guide’ to the film for the use of anyone wanting to go deeper.

She was followed by two other historians of the period.

  • Dr Peter Shambrook offered his interpretation of the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, a series of letters in 1915-16 between the British High Commissioner in Cairo, and Sharif Hussein of Mecca, an important spiritual and temporal Arab leader.
  • Dr William Mathew, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia focused on the implementation of the Balfour Declaration just five years after its issue.

In the afternoon, attention turned to the implications of Britain’s history in today’s world with the question, ‘What constructive role can Britain play in creating a just peace in Israel/Palestine?’

  • Sir Vincent Fean, who retired last year as the UK’s Consul General in Jerusalem, said he believed there is a constructive role for the UK in bringing about a just peace. The Balfour Declaration helped bring about Israel, and Israel was here to stay, and its right to exist in peace and security should not be questioned. However, the second clause of the Balfour Declaration, ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’, indicates that there is ‘unfinished business’.
  • Senior Rabbi Danny Rich, Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism in the UK,said that his starting point was his belief that Britain could and should have a role in contributing to a peaceful relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.

Breakout groups then met to discuss the questions, ‘How do you respond to what you have heard?’ and ‘What constructive steps might be taken to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in 2017?’ A plethora of comments and suggestions were fed back to the plenary, and will inform the Balfour Project’s strategy in the count-down to the centenary in just two years’ time.

  • The Very Revd Nicholas Frayling, recently retired Dean of Chichester Cathedral, drew the conference to a close with the thought that ‘We in Britain have a particular responsibility to take this very seriously – to inform ourselves about the history, pre- and post-Balfour, however painful we discover that to be, in order to determine whether Britain really does have a role to play in creating a just peace in Palestine and Israel, for the benefit of all whose homes are there, and as a fresh beacon of hope for humanity. We believe that Britain could – and should – have such a role.’

 Extended summaries of the talks.

NB: The Balfour Project wishes to make clear that the views expressed in papers published on this website do not necessarily represent the views of the Balfour Project Steering Group.

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