John Howell is MP for Henley and Vice-Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel.
Today marks the start of the year-long celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, when the UK and Israel will unite to commemorate one of the most defining moments in our shared history.
Over the past century the world has witnessed a country rise out of the desert and flourish, against all odds, to become the ‘Start-Up Nation’ – a world leader in technological innovation, cyber security, academia, and medicine.
The Balfour Declaration was instrumental in the creation of the State of Israel, adding the official British voice to the chorus that wanted to give “a land without a people to a people without a land”.
The document served, in effect, as a legal birth certificate, in the form of a letter from Conservative Foreign Secretary Arthur J Balfour to Lord Rothschild dated 2nd November 1917. It conveyed Lord Balfour’s support of His Majesty’s Government for Zionist aspirations for Jewish self-determination in Israel, the land of the Hebrew Old Testament, following centuries of persecution.
Lord Balfour wrote, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
The Declaration also emphasised that it should be “clearly understood” that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country” – a privilege not historically given to Jews in Europe or the Middle East.
The Balfour Declaration was ratified by all 51 countries of the League of Nations when the Mandate for Palestine was approved in July 1922. The Mandate recognised “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and “the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”.
By 1917, the infrastructure of a Jewish state was already being established, with the widespread foundation of kibbutzim (communal settlements), later followed by moshavim (smallholder cooperatives). The affirmation of the British Government served to validate this process, rather than initiate it.
After the Holocaust and the expulsion of hundreds and thousands of Jews from the Middle East, many of the persecuted sought and found refuge in the Jewish and democratic state.
Israel has lived up to the highest ambitions of the Balfour Declaration, as a democratic, prosperous and self-reliant state. The UK must encourage the Palestinians to respond to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for the immediate resumption of peace talks which is the only way to achieve a lasting two-state solution.
Sadly, despite Israel’s success and its positive contribution to the world, all too many continue to deny the Jewish State’s right to exist, and a vocal minority attempt to delegitimise it.
Last week, a ‘Balfour apology campaign’ was now infamously launched in the House of Lords by the Palestinian Return Centre. As we all now know, during the event, a number of offensive and anti-Semitic remarks were made. It confirmed long-held concerns by many that some of these individuals harbour unacceptable views.
Sadly, they were accepted by the panel and many were met with applause, including the notion that the Jews provoked the Holocaust. Shockingly, at no point did Baroness Tonge, who chaired the meeting, challenge the remarks as inappropriate.
I, for one, along with colleagues across the Conservative Party, will continue to stand up in the House of Commons to support Israel against the attacks it faces – whether from Hamas, Iran, or the far left, and look forward to celebrating this hugely important milestone.