In one of the most pro-Israel debates heard in Parliament for years, peer after peer highlighted the Jewish state’s achievements in a House of Lords commemoration of the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
One hundred years ago, the then Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, wrote to Lord Rothschild that Britain favoured the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Declaration has remained a deeply divisive document ever since, with Palestinians rejecting it while most Jews have embraced it.
But a sour note was struck in the debate, introduced by the Labour peer Lord Turnberg, by the former Liberal Democrat peeress Baroness Jenny Tonge, who complained that the two minutes allotted to speakers — a curtailment introduced because of the high number of those who wished to contribute — was not long enough and was “an insult to Palestinian people all over the world”. It was, she claimed, a “disgrace that the government puts trade [with Israel] above everything else” Action needed to be taken against Israel, she said, urging the British government to support a boycott of Israeli goods.
However, next on his feet was the former BBC chairman Lord Grade, now a Conservative peer. And he used the opportunity to attack the BBC about the way in which it had reported a terrorist event in Israel.
He said: “On 16 June two Palestinians, unprovoked, attacked Israeli police officers in Jerusalem with guns and knives, while a third stabbed to death Border Police Staff Sergeant Hadas Malka, aged 23. The BBC’s headline on its news website was: ‘Three Palestinians killed after deadly stabbing in Jerusalem”. The BBC eventually changed its headline to: “Israeli policewoman stabbed to death in Jerusalem’. The BBC accepted its mistake and subsequently changed it. Of course, I am not accusing BBC journalists of antisemitism but this example demonstrates the drip-drip effect of unqualified, uncontextualised, singling out of Israel for criticism. If the BBC can get this wrong, it is little wonder that Israel finds it so hard to put aside the idea that some critics are motivated by something more sinister than political commentary”.
Besides overt attacks on Israel by Baroness Tonge and Baroness Hussein-Ece, who called for “an apology” for Balfour, and said there was “no cause to celebrate” the Declaration, almost every other speaker spoke warmly about Israel and praised its contributions as a democratic state in the Middle East — a legacy, many peers said, from Britain.
Opening the debate, Lord Turnberg said Israel owed “an enormous debt” to Britain for the Balfour Declaration, which he called “a hopelessly optimistic idea”, which had no legal enforcement until the San Remo conference of post World War One allies in 1920.
He added: “Britain too has a lot to be grateful for. We should celebrate the fact that we in Britain provided the foundations of a democratic state in a part of the world where democracy is in very short supply.
The Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev Peter Forster, said the “difficult history” in Palestine following the creation of Israel in 1948 had to be acknowledged.
He told peers: “In part it’s because the United Nations didn’t properly oversee and own the consequences of their resolutions.
“Britain, too, essentially walked away and watched as the conflict between Jewish settlers and their neighbours developed.
“The necessary peacekeeping force and indeed money to ease the issues of displacement and resettlement were not put in place. And frankly the rest is history.”
But the former chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, had a different take. Lord Sacks, who sits as a cross-bencher in the House of Lords, said: “The Balfour Declaration was a significant moment in history.
“No people should lack a home, not Palestinians and not Jews — which is why it’s tragic that a century after the Balfour Declaration significant groups still seek to deny the Jewish people a home, among them Iran and Hizbollah and Hamas — two groups that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition has in the past called friends. Friends of violence and terror, yes. Friends of humanity, no.
“It is shameful that the Jewish people still has to fight for the right to exist in the land that for 33 centuries it has called home.
“Yet constantly threatened though it is by missiles, terror and delegitimisation, it has achieved so much in science, medicine, technology and humanitarian aid”.
Rabbi Sacks speaks in the House of Lords on the Centenary of t…Here is my speech from yesterday’s debate in the House of Lords on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. In it, I explain three reasons why the Balfour Declaration was a significant moment in history, and why I urge Her Majesty’s Government to acknowledge the State of Israel as a living testimony to the power of hope to triumph over hate. Please share this video and help spread this message across the Facebook community and beyond. Thank you!
Posted by Rabbi Sacks on Thursday, 6 July 2017
Among those contributing to the debate were former Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel leader Lord Beith, Lord Bew, who chairs the Anglo-Israel Association; Lord Kestenbaum, once director of the UJIA, Lord Polak, former director of the Conservative Friends of Israel; and Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn, who chairs the Commonwealth Jewish Council. One of the most poignant contributions came from Lord Shinkwin, a profoundly disabled Conservative peer who said he was “personally indebted” to a Jewish doctor who had “rebuilt my broken bones in childhood”, enabling him to be in parliament today.
Responding for the government, Baroness Goldie acknowledged the brevity of the contributions and said that whips were considering that seriously.
She declared: “The government does intend to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration with pride.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been invited for as yet unspecified ceremonies in November”
But Lady Goldie added: “While the United Kingdom is proud of our role in the creation of Israel, we do recognise that the Balfour Declaration should have called for the protection of the political rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine, and particularly their right to self-determination.
“The United Kingdom government is conscious of the sensitivities surrounding the declaration and the events that have taken place in the region since 1917. We remain committed to encouraging both sides to revitalise the peace process. International action has an important role to play”.
Ultimately, Lady Goldie summed up: “An agreement can only be achieved by direct negotiations between the parties. Only the Israelis and the Palestinians can bring about a lasting peace that their people seek and that is long overdue”.