Opinion

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Cozy at an Iranian Revolution Rally, but Not a Balfour Dinner

The Labour Party leader could have challenged the occupation. Instead, with his Balfour centenary snub, he's challenged Israel’s legitimacy - while strengthening extremists on both sides

British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in Liverpool on September 26, 2016.
Stefan Rousseau / AP

What was the real reason for Jeremy Corbyn to turn down an invitation to a dinner commemorating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration?

It would certainly be understandable in the language of the progressive left if he had explicitly linked the snub to the post-1967 Israeli occupation, and to the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's committed to maintaining and strengthening it.

>> Read Haaretz' full coverage of the Balfour Declaration centennialLord Balfour's modern-day descendants have a dramatic declaration of their own ■ Analysis // Britain downgrades the Balfour Declaration centennial ■ U.K.'s Boris Johnson defends Balfour Declaration: 'Proud of Britain's part in creating Israel' ■ Opinion // Balfour’s original sin >>

Lord Balfour and his famous declaration of November 2, 1917.
Daniel Zvi / Wikimedia Commons

Absent a clear statement of the reasons behind his decision, we're left to rely his own writing on the subject. In 2008, he asserted that the Balfour Declaration "led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians...Britain’s history of colonial interference leaves it with much to answer for."

Corbyn’s view of the declaration likely closely follows Arthur Koestler’s pithy remark that, "here was one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation.” According to this line, pronounced in a recent editorial in the U.K. Communist newspaper Morning Star, to which Corbyn was a regular contributor, the Balfour Declaration was a "secretive betrayal of the Palestinian people," which bargained away land which was not Britain’s to give behind the backs of its rightful inhabitants.

According to this reading, the Balfour Declaration is Israel’s original sin, which forever marks it as an illegitimate, colonialist transplant in the region.

This erroneous view rehashes what the former Labor MK Einat Wilf calls 'Zionism denial', or the belief that Israel came into being because (mostly European) Jews were dumped in Palestine at the behest of Western world powers, with Britain as the mandatory power, bearing particular responsibility. That ignores the efforts that the Jews themselves made building a proto-state before fighting for a real one.

Jeremy Corbyn at a pro-Palestinian rally in London, 2014.
Keith Wells/Demotix/Corbis

In fact, Israel exists mostly despite, not because of, Britain. Arthur Balfour’s language limited itself to support not for a state but a mere "national home". This later allowed the British to claim that the 1939 White Paper, which drastically limited Jewish immigration to Palestine just before the Holocaust and declared "unequivocally that it is not part of [British] policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State," was in keeping with the Declaration.

That Israel’s origins are wrongly perceived as imperialist and colonialist would not especially matter if its contemporary behavior were not able to be so easily, in turn, labeled as such.

A drowning person is entitled to cling to any plank he can, wrote Amos Oz in "In the Land of Israel," even if he must shove others around by force in order to make space for himself. But there is no justification, out of the same natural justice, to push others into the sea. The grab for the plank loses all legitimacy when it becomes a zero-sum game.

Writing back in 1982, Oz fretted that the settlement project and its drive to create irreversible facts on the ground had "brought about a collapse in Zionism’s legitimacy". Writing in 1982, he presciently warned that this collapse would have a price, which Israel at the time had yet to pay.

Accordingly, it was after the Six-Day War, and the emergence of the settlement movement, that the Labour movement began to turn against Israel. The seemingly unending occupation and the stealth annexation of the Occupied Territories – typified by the Knesset's just-delayed vote to effectively annex several settlements to Jerusalem – helped recast Zionism not as a movement of national liberation, but as one of national oppression.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara look at the original Balfour Declaration at the British Library in London, September 10, 2015.
Avi Ohayon/GPO

Corby's snub seems to exemplify how accurate Oz’s prediction was. But Corbyn is still making a critical mistake. By refusing to commemorate one of the first legitimizations of the idea of Israel, a potential future leader of one of Israel's closest allies is effectively repudiating the legitimacy of a Jewish state in any form. 

When Corbyn refuses to appear alongside Benjamin Netanyahu to commemorate a milestone in Zionist history, when he could have acted as a corrective to Netanyahu's occupation triumphalism, he allows the brand of dangerous maximalis the Israeli Prime Minister represents to take full ownership of the Balfour Declaration and its legacy.

That Corbyn is only ever uncomfortable appearing alongside harliners on one side - his contrasting proximity to Teheran, Hamas and Hezbollah is well known - gives succour to the maximalists on both sides.

What is especially dangerous for the Palestinian cause - rightly cherished by the Labour leader - is if the mantle of Zionism is ceded to these extremists. Refusing to engage with what remains an important part of British history allows both Israeli and Palestinian maximalists to claim that any Jewish state entails pushing others off the plank and into the sea.

Instead, Corbyn could choose to constructively deal with the legacy of the Balfour Declaration.

He could commemorate its issuing and note that nothing in the (in)famous 67 words had to result in the Nakba or the settlements. He could remind Netanyahu that the declaration was not just an expression of support for a form of Jewish self-determination, but also a reminder that that self-determination should not trample on the rights of non-Jews.

That Corbyn will do no such thing is not only a mark of shame, but counter-productive in the most fundamental way for the values he claims to profess.

Ido Vock is a freelance writer, covering current affairs, history, and politics. He studies European Social and Political Studies at University College London. Twitter: @idvck