LONDON - At no point over the last hundred years, since Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour wrote what would become known as the Balfour Declaration, has the United Kingdom’s international standing been so diminished. As Britain’s divided and dysfunctional leadership struggles to extricate itself from the European Union, still without a clear idea of its new position in the world, the idea of Britain promising another nation somewhere in the world a “national home” of their own is too distant to even be ridiculous.
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And yet, in recent days, the attention that the Balfour centenary has been receiving in London, in dozens of public events, discussions, forums and protests, as well as articles and broadcasts in the media, has surprised even many of those who were involved in organizing these events. It wasn’t just among those who feel they are on either side of the historical debate – British Jews, Israel’s supporters and those who show solidarity with the Palestinian cause – but there seems to have been a much wider interest also among non-partisans. You could see it in the space given to the centenary in newspapers, on radio and television, but also in the surprisingly strong turnout on Tuesday night at an event organized by a group called “The Balfour Project” at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster.
Around 500 people arrived at the event, and while some of them, by the badges and T-shirts they were wearing, identified themselves as partisans of one side, the majority seemed like regular concerned citizens, interested in reflection and action as speaker after speaker quoted the terms of the British Mandate in Palestine, Britain’s “sacred trust” – a trust they obviously felt still obligates Britain nearly 70 years after the Mandate ended.
The atmosphere was of a very tepid, very polite, very middle-of-the-road peace rally. While all those who spoke – assorted academics, parliamentarians from across the political spectrum and clergy – were broadly sympathetic of the Palestinians, highlighting their suffering over the last century and calling for Britain to officially recognize a Palestinian state, there were no radical statements or suggestions. With the exception of one speaker, all called for a two-state solution and no one on the stage called for a boycott of Israel. On the contrary, there was no lack of affirmations for Israel’s right to exist a Jewish state, some quite enthusiastic. Obviously there were those expecting something a bit more visceral and felt Israel was getting off much too easily, but they had misjudged the event. It wasn’t about Israel. Not even about the Palestinians. It was about Britain and its unique combination of tortured conscience for the sins of the empire and its delusions of grandeur and of still being a world power capable of influencing events around the world.
“2017 is not 1917. Britain is no longer the world's leading maritime power,” admitted Crispin Blunt, a Conservative member of parliament who spoke at the Balfour Project event. But like the other speakers, he still insisted that Britain had a duty to try and live up to its “sacred trust,” and help the Palestinians gain their state and Israel to return to the "high moral purpose of its beginning."
Other speakers acknowledged Britain today has little power to effect change in the region, but still spoke of a burning need to apologize and atone for what they all felt were the actions of a British government who had let the Palestinians, and the Jews as well, down a century ago. There was talk of other processes of national reconciliation and reckoning, such as the peace process in Northern Ireland and the “National Sorry Day,” when Australians apologize for past policies impacting indigenous Aboriginal communities. But there was still a feeling of powerlessness in the hall, at how far the Israelis and Palestinians are from such a stage, and how little Britain can do in reality. Yet no one advocated that it may just be better to acknowledge failure and admit Britain can do nothing.
The Balfour dilemma still felt in Britain is not detached from other historical issues still being worked out. For the last three years, Britain has been commemorating in many different ways the centenaries of the battles of World War I, amid controversy over how to mark a war which to many today seems a senseless relic of clashing and disappeared empires, and to others still symbolizes a more noble war for peace and freedom. And of course, it all plays into a much wider and unresolved sense of imperial guilt with Britons still not sure over how to teach their children about centuries of the nation’s history – is the story of the British empire one of relentless shame, or is it okay to say anything at all positive of that period?
In reality, the Balfour Declaration remained a largely unfulfilled promise – the State of Israel becoming a reality only three decades later, no thanks to the rapidly disintegrating British Empire. But with the Israel-Palestine conflict still so far from resolution, perhaps the British need to cling on to the delusions that Balfour did really matter and that they can still do something to fix it in order to preserve the illusion of their standing in the world.