26th October 2017

Another look at the Balfour Declaration

Lawrence Rosenberg, Associate Director of the Pinsker Centre and the former President of Manchester University JSoc, argues that people shouldn’t protest the celebration of an attempt to end Jewish persecution

Our university has come under criticism over the decision to host a ceremony, organised by Manchester’s Jewish community, commemorating the controversial Balfour Declaration. Some students have called this private event ‘totally disrespectful’ to Palestinian students — while others have gone so far as to describe it as a ‘celebration’ of human suffering.

In November 1917, one century ago, Lord Arthur Balfour penned a letter to a leader of Britain’s Jewish community, pledging that the British government would support a ‘National Home’ for the Jewish people in the former Ottoman province of Palestine.

At the time, Europe’s Jewish community was persecuted: socially isolated and living in dire material and political circumstances.

Support for a so-called ‘Jewish National Home’ was applauded by European Jewry as an unprecedented humanitarian gesture — it promised a safe refuge in the historic homeland of the Jews, where Jewish people could be free to express their culture and practice their religious beliefs, without fear or repercussion.

Yet to opponents of next month’s event, Balfour’s declaration was the beginning of a process that should never have begun. To them, the Balfour declaration was a product of imperialism which directly caused decades of Palestinian suffering. In essence, without the creation of a Jewish National Home — the State of Israel — there would be no Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Commemorating the Balfour Declaration is not about celebrating the imperialism of the previous century. The original Balfour Declaration, and the ultimate creation of a refuge the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust, never aimed to inflict suffering. It was created to stop suffering. It was created to put an end to nearly two millennia of Jewish persecution.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy. Palestinians have undoubtedly suffered. Israelis have also suffered. But to end this conflict, both sides must learn to live with one another — and understand each other’s narratives. It is futile to look back at the past — or even try to reverse history.

The Balfour Declaration — for all that it was — happened. Israelis now have a state – and it’s now time for Palestinians to have theirs too.

But this isn’t going to happen by protesting a private ceremony. The only way to peace is for both sides to recognise the other side’s existence; for both sides to sit down together, and to see how we can finally end suffering for all.

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