The Balfour Anniversary and British Politics

The Balfour Anniversary and British Politics

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Friday, November 2nd will mark the 100th anniversary of a letter written by Alfred Balfour, the British Foreign Minister, to Lord Walter Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in England, within which was contained a declaration approved by the Cabinet that it “…view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people….”  

Since its publication on November 11, 1917, much has been made throughout history of the importance of this so-called Balfour Declaration. Scholars, diplomats, and politicians of all stripes have parsed the words in the one sentence Cabinet statement. Jews have clearly regarded it as British and by extension world recognition of the right of the Jewish people to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. On the other hand, certainly since 1920, it has been used by many Arabs in Palestine and throughout the Arab world as justification for a militant response against the then colonial governments and subsequently by the Jews to usurp their land. Regardless of how it has been spun, the significance of the declaration for Jews, Arabs, the British Government, and countries throughout the world cannot be minimized.

Since last fall and culminating this coming week, Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora have programmed numerous ways to commemorate this event. The premiere event will take place on Thursday evening in London where an anniversary dinner will be held sponsored by the Jewish community which Prime Minister Theresa May will attend as well as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The leader of the Labour Party opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, however, will not be attending.  While he will be sending in his stead Labour’s shadow Foreign Minister, Emily Thornberry, the stubborn pushback from Corbyn on all matters suggesting support for Israel as well as the continuing anti-Semitic behavior evident within the Labour Party continues to be problematic.  

The political problem with Corbyn’s persistent perceived anti-Israel positions is that the Conservative Party—at least under Theresa May—is seen to be losing public support, making Corbyn a distinct possibility to become the next British Prime Minister. Clearly Britain-Israel relations do not rank as high in the publics’ eyes as the consequences of Brexit, the economic dislocation which is occurring, the growing immigration crisis, as well as Britain’s overall future position and unsettled relationship with the EU. 

The concern for many Jews, however, centers not only on Labour’s persistent disenchantment with Israel.  There is continued increased support for BDS as well as many ugly anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic signals which were sent out by Labour Party loyalists at the September party Congress in Brighton.

Refusing to come to the Balfour anniversary dinner is only symptomatic of Corbyn’s lack of interest to reach out in a seriously constructive manner to the Anglo-Jewish community. There continue to be Jewish leaders who are active in the Labour Party but it appears that they remain unable to shift the party’s leadership to be more positively responsive to Jewish and Israeli sensitivities and geopolitical considerations.  

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