The grey weather did not deter the hundreds of attendees who arrived early on Saturday morning at the British Library in London to attend MEMO’s conference to commemorate 100 years since the Balfour Declaration. A heavily subscribed event, the conference took a detailed look at Britain’s role in the creation of Israel, past and present, showcasing an alternative narrative to the celebrations promised by British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Attendees were able to purchase books on the Palestinian issue, including those shortlisted for the Palestine Book Awards 2017 and indulge in refreshments before being ushered into the auditorium. They were welcomed by Dr Daud Abdullah, the Director of MEMO, who expressed the importance of recognising the Balfour Declaration for what is was.
There is no doubt that the Balfour Declaration was the most defining and far reaching document in the history of the Middle East. We cannot refer to the current turmoil in the region, or understand the turmoil in the region without some reference to the Balfour Declaration.
He emphasised that the context surrounding the development of this document was necessary to understand the modern Israeli state.
Professor Avi Shlaim, an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, echoed these sentiments in his keynote address, noting that despite the Balfour Declaration being only 67 words long, it had extensive and long-term consequences for the region as a whole.
Zionism was a settler colonial movement and the state of Israel its progeny, is a settler colonial state
Professor Shlaim gave the audience a broader picture of British foreign policy at the time of the Balfour Declaration, citing the three promises Britain made at the end of the First World War. The first was to pledge to Sharif Hussein of Mecca to establish an independent Arab kingdom, which in the eyes of the Arabs would include Palestine. Britain later denied that this was the case.
The second was the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the Ottoman Empire, ensuring that Western influence could progress in the region.
The third was the Balfour Declaration; a promise Britain had no legal authority to make this promise. The concept of a national home does not exist in international law, he stressed.
Shlaim even suggested that there was an anti-Semitic motive behind the Declaration, such that by creating a Jewish homeland, Jews would not have a full right of citizenship in other countries where they lived. His speech continually highlighted how the Zionist project was an exercise in colonial occupation, one that benefited British imperial interests at the time above all else.
Understanding the Balfour Declaration 100 years on
The first panel discussion of the day, mediated by Professor Penny Green of Queen Mary’s University of London, attempted to shed some light on context in which the Declaration.
Dr Basheer Nafi of the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies started the discussion by looking at the events that led up to release of the declaration and the letters that were exchanged between Lord Arthur Balfour and Chaim Weizmann, a prominent British Zionist and who later became the first President of Israel.
Professor Jonathon Schneer of the Georgia Institute of Technology spoke of how prior to the Declaration, Jews were not unified in any particular way, but observed their religion wherever they lived; in the UK it was seen as British first, Jewish second.
However, Zionists such as Weizmann advocated that for the contrary, calling for Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. Schneer deliberated on how the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Ottoman Empire according to British, French and international control had betrayed Arabs and the Jews, who were counting on the British to grant them a protectorate in Palestine for Jews only.
So much deceit, so much deception, could not but lead to terrible repercussions
Balfour researcher, Dr Peter Shambrook assessed the reasons why the declaration was created, ranging from wartime objectives, anti-Semitism and even the influence of key Zionist advocate. He emphasised that the British policy of “double speak” had led to the deliberate withholding of democracy from Palestine as long as there was an Arab majority.
Questions from the audience mainly pertained to Britain’s on-going support of Israel, from its support and celebration of Israel to its tacit support of Israeli bombing in Gaza.
Some members of the audience tried to argue that Balfour was a conditional promise that was not intended to infringe on the rights of Palestinians. Dr Shambrook however clarified that the sentences in the statement that alluded to the conditionality of Israeli behaviour were added as an afterthought and lip service to exonerate Britain from seeming to promote the persecution of the indigenous people. Britain had held no moral obligation to fulfil the rights of the Palestinians.
The whole point was deliberate ambiguity
Before breaking for lunch, attendees were granted an early viewing of a short film,“Balfour” by Independent Jewish Voices. The film showed numerous Jews, some of who grew up in Israel, looking back on the reality of the Declaration, unravelling the myths about what the state allegedly stands for.
Palestine & international law – from Balfour to settlements
Journalist Peter Oborne hosted the second session that examined the Israel-Palestinian conflict in light of international law.
Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, Dr Victor Kattan, gave a history of how in the late 1930s Britain attempted to push a mandate that would see the rights of Palestinians catered to. In considering what prompted Britain to suddenly attempt this, he pointed to the fact that Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the Indian Muslim League had wanted to bring a court case against the British in the League of Nations in protest of the situation of the Palestinian people. Whilst such attempts were unsuccessful, it was indicative of British fear for being held accountable. Kattan even suggested that it would be possible for Palestine or even an NGO to draft an international claim for the record to the Hague now that they are part of ICC.
Prof John Duggard a judge ad hoc at the International Court of Justice, also emphasised that speaking about Israel’s conduct was paramount and lamented the fact that Israel is only protected by Western states from the ICC by the UK.
South African apartheid was no worse than what occurs in occupied Palestine
Human rights legal consultant Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, progressed to enumerate the violations of international law by Israel, from ethnic cleansing of the Arab population, to the on-going and widespread appropriation and destruction of Palestinian property.
She argued that Israel’s establishment as a Jewish state meant that it necessarily violates international law as it actively privileged Jews and most importantly had enforced such a system on a non-Jewish population. Karmi-Ayyoub posited that Israel would have to undergo a radical, constitutional change in order to stop those violations.
Britain’s role – from Balfour to BDS
The third and final session of the day assessed Britain’s current role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Chairwoman Clare Short, former British Minister of International Development emphasised the importance of focusing on the future whilst learning from the past, before handing over to Dr Mohsen Salah, General Manager of Al-Zaytouna Centre.
Salah detailed Britain’s involvement in securing Israeli territory, which included crushing the various Arab uprisings that emerged during the British mandate of Palestine. He also pointed to the fact that British army personnel fought side by side, on the ground with the Israeli occupation forces.
Journalist David Cronin, looked at strategies used to oppose the Israeli occupation, namely the use of boycotts. He pointed out that Balfour had an aversion to boycotts, namely because of the powerful symbolic nature that withholding payment presented. He advocated that the international community and Palestinians should harness the power of boycotts to bring about a change in Israel.
Dr Jacob Cohen, who joined the Zionist movement at the age of 16 before leaving it four years later, also praised how the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement had expanded its international influence and hoped that the global community would continue such long-term campaigns. He was heckled during his speech when he accused of Israel of perpetuating conflict in order to receive foreign aid and weapons investment, an argument the majority of the audience applauded.
When the discussion opened to the floor, a pro-Israeli commentator spoke in defence of Israel, alleging that it had made peace with Arab countries, retreated from Gaza and was prepared to sacrifice it’s land for peace. Other questioners spoke positively of the support for the Palestine movement and encouraged all listeners to transform their attendance into activism.
As the attendees filed out of the auditorium, many expressed their gratitude to MEMO for hosting such a comprehensive event that had invited speakers from all over the world, to discuss the origins of an enduring conflict that has affected millions of people.