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A policy of 1917 whose legacy needs addressing

27 October 2017

British responsibility for the contradictions in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute gives the UK a duty to right a wrong, says Nicholas Frayling

BETWEEN 1917 and 1948, Britain controlled the area of the Middle East then known as Palestine. These three decades were to have a pro­found effect on Arabs and Jews, and have left an incomplete legacy: Israelis have their State, but Palestinians still wait desperately for their due. For justice to be done, they, too, should enjoy the freedom of un­fet­tered statehood.

The November 1917 “Balfour Declaration”, in the form of a letter from the Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, was a statement of government policy. Balfour promised “the es­­ta­b­lish­ment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. This promise was fulfilled; but the De­c­lara­­tion continued: “. . . it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Those communities formed 90 per cent of the popu­lation, who were implicitly denied the same national rights as the re­­maining ten per cent.

The second clause of the Declara­tion has never been honoured, in terms of equal rights and equal statehood for the indigenous Pales­tinian inhabitants of the land. Many commentators have drawn attention to this contradiction. Few have been willing to address the moral re­­spons­i­bility of the UK for what has occurred, and Britain’s duty to work for an equitable solution to the im­­passe that Balfour bequeathed.


THE Balfour Project was founded by a small group of interested pe­­ople, to try to enlarge under­standing in Britain of the Balfour Declaration and its consequences, as its centenary on 2 Novem­ber ap­­proaches. We are concerned that the anniversary should be marked with great sensitivity: it will natur­ally be a cause for celebration in Israel and the Jewish community, and for anguished reflection on the part of Palestinians and across the Arab world. Here, in Britain, we must resist the temptation to believe that helping to provide a home for a persecuted people reduces our responsibility for the tragic consequences for those who were displaced.

Bishop John Austin Baker said: “Politics and peace processes, even when carried out with in­­­tegr­ity and the best of intentions, can take us so far and no further. True and lasting recon­ciliation de­­pends on something far more de­­manding. It requires that we tread the costly road of sorrow and re­­pent­ance.”

This is, of course, a complex matter. Acknowledgement of suffer­ing and injustice, past and present, is necessary, but not sufficient. The centenary is an occasion for pro­found reflection on both the past and the future, embracing “a firm purpose of amendment” — put­­ting matters right.

The Balfour Project believes that the Declaration was born in con­troversy; it contains a contradiction; and its consequence has been con­flict, which we, in Britain, have a particular duty to address.

What can be done? First, we need to challenge ourselves, hard as it may be, without endorsing or criti­cising either of the competing nar­­ratives in the Holy Land: the Israeli and the Palestinian. What matters is equity, the equal treat­ment of both peoples, by us and by each other, now and in the future.

We in the Balfour Project believe, with the contemporary Palestinian theologian Canon Naim Ateek, that “the only way to peace is through the door of justice.” If this is so, both peoples need to live alongside one another, and respect the rights of the other. We advocate non-violence from either people, and mutual recognition.

Justice surely requires that Israel give back the Palestinian land that she occupied in 1967, ending the 50-year occupation in return for mutual security and the assurance of peaceful co-existence, guaranteed by the international community in ac­­cord­ance with the rule of law. A “two-state solution” would then be­­come a viable option.


THE centenary of the Balfour De­­claration provides an opport­unity for the British people and our Gov­ern­ment to right a historic wrong by pressing before the in­terested parties, preferably with our Euro­pean part­ners, the moral issues to which British policy has given rise. Justice requires changing the status quo in the Holy Land, which is far from static. It is heading swiftly in the wrong direction. Bri­tain has a moral duty to give a lead in urging positive change.

As a starting-point, the time is surely ripe for Britain equitably to recognise, alongside the State of Israel, the State of Palestine, on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, as more than 130 United Nations member states have done. More­over, our Govern­ment should up­­­hold the international law that Britain co-wrote after the Second World War.

Progress towards reconciliation in such diverse areas of conflict as South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Australia has been made possible when people have moved into dialogue with those they had grown up to think of as unspeakable, to discuss the unthinkable. As Dr Maya Angelou wrote: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with cour­age, need not be lived again.”


OUR Prime Minister has said that the centenary will be marked “with pride”. No doubt the Jewish com­­munity will wish to do so; but the Balfour Declaration has left a legacy of inequality, and we in this country have a particular respon­sibility to urge our political leaders to do all in their power to make it right.

This matters, if we are to discover a way to right a historic wrong, for our own benefit and for the good of both peoples — indeed, all the people — who inhabit the land in which the God of many names has chosen to be revealed.


The Very Revd Nicholas Frayling is Dean Emeritus of Chichester and a trustee of the Balfour Project. A version of this article was first pub­lished in the Pax Christi news­letter.

The Balfour Project is hosting an evening of words, film, and music, “Britain’s Broken Promise”, in the Methodist Central Hall, West­minster, on 31 October at 6.30 p.m. Admission is by ticket. For full details, visit www.balfourproject.org.

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