How will we mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration

Jonathan Coulter writes, Nov 5th 2016:

I just attended this magnificent event in Southwark Cathedral, which was organised with the support of the Dean and Chapter – despite pressures to cancel it.


The Project showed its film “Britain in Palestine, 1917-1948”, after which there were some excellent talks of which I shall provide titbits, but not attempt a thorough precis. I would particularly highlight the contribution of the historian, Dr. Peter Shambrook, who exposed the falsities in the British narrative about the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate. He asserted that successive British governments set out to deceive the Palestinians as to their true objective, agreed at the outset with Chaim Weizmann, which was to establish a Jewish state, not just a “homeland” as set out in the Declaration. Britain had failed to own up to this deception, something Shambrook vividly contrasted with the German Chancellor (Willy Brandt) falling to his knees during his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970, and the Queen’s reconciliation visit to Ireland in 2011.


Another speaker, Robert Cohen, (His blog is taken from his talk in Southwark) showed how Weizmann believed his project was a “constructive moral and social endeavour”, but that in reality it followed European colonial thinking that looked down on dark-skinned natives. Unlike Weizmann, most British Jews at that time were uninterested in Zionism, but were more aspirational, seeking to get on in British society. A number of key Jewish figures, including Sir Edwin Montagu and Claude Montefiore, were utterly opposed. Cohen used this to question recent statements that Zionism is “axiomatic to Jewish belief” and that criticism of Israel was anti-Semitic – made by contemporary Jewish leaders before the Home Affairs Select Committee on anti-Semitism. Cohen was highly critical of the Balfour Declaration, but believed something useful could be salvaged from it, by thoroughly redrafting its 67 words to provide justice for all, including Palestinians. He felt that any settlement would involve a one-state solution.


Sir Vincent Fean gave another interesting talk saying that Britain “has more power than it chooses to recognise”, and that it should use this to help bring about a two-state solution (which he prefers), and start changing the Arab perception that the west has double standards. However, it should be prepared to act without waiting for the Americans, and be prepared to work with the French on state-building in Palestine.


Apart from this, Judah Passow, made a ‘promised lands’ photographic presentation about Israeli-Palestinians, and there was extensive discussion about future Balfour Project activities. There was one rather predictable Zionist critique from the floor, and a couple of participants who felt the meeting should have given more space to Palestinian participants. However, most participants seemed very happy with the event which shined an unusually strong light on Britain’s own problem.


I think the Balfour Project is a most worthwhile endeavour, because it focuses hard on British responsibility (as opposed to that of Israelis and Palestinians), and will keep up the pressure over a whole year. I hope to see more Palestine Live people at future events. I also recommend reading the Project’s very well written “companion guide” which can be ordered through the website, along with the film. See also the Companion Guide pages on the Balfour Declaration