Balfour Declaration centenary celebration plans unveiled

Balfour Declaration centenary celebration plans unveiled

The 100-year anniversary will see a host of events held by synagogues and community organisations to mark the occasion

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

Arthur Balfour and the declaration which issued official sympathy for the Jewish national movement
Arthur Balfour and the declaration which issued official sympathy for the Jewish national movement

Plans to commemorate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration have been unveiled a year before the historic anniversary – as a new poll revealed twice as many Britons back the 1917 move as oppose it.

Politicians, diplomats, university students and schoolchildren will have an opportunity to mark the issuing of a letter by then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour pledging support for the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine – described as “67 words that led to the creation of Israel”.

Simon Schama will deliver the annual Balfour Lecture on the eve of the centenary on 2 November while synagogue movements across the religious spectrum will take part in a national Balfour Shabbat the following weekend. A Balfour 100 steering committee – which comprises 23 communal  and Israel organisations including the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council, Zionist Federation and all the shul movements – are also planning a series of events for the day itself.

“As a community we are proud of the fact it was the British government that took the first step to recognise Zionist aspirations of any kind,” said JLC chief executive Simon Johnson. “The current government supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and supports its right to defend itself. This is an opportunity to express pride and commemorate what was a really important step on the way to the creation of Israel. We hope when there are diplomatic and political events people will accept this is important part not just of Jewish history but of this country’s history.”

The Declaration – passed by Lord Balfour to Zionist Federation chief Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917 – said the government would do all its power to pursue a home for the Jewish people while “it being understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights enjoyed by Jews in other countries”.  The Balfour committee is chaired by Lord Jonathan Kestenbaum on behalf of the Rothschild Foundation Europe, with the current Lord Rothschild, a driving force behind the commemorations, hosting its first meeting in the same room as his ancestor received the historic document.

As well as organising the headline events, the committee will coordinate a diary of events and encourage participation across the community. The Union of Jewish Students, which has a seat around the table, will coordinate activities on campus.

A new website has also been launched to offer detailed information about the Declaration and what led to it, providing an insight into the key players involved and a timeline with more than 550 key moments. Johnson said the “authoritative” resource was not meant “to be triumphalist or shrill” and doesn’t “shy away from difficult questions”.

He added: “We’re not looking to ram it down anyone’s throat. It’s part of history and there are different interpretations of facts that happened. I would hope that people who go to the site will understand why the declaration was issued, the impact, what was going on at the time and what happened after it was issued.” A by-product of the anniversary, he hoped, would be that people “start to understand what Zionism was then and how it hasn’t really changed”.

It comes as the Palestinian Authority are threatening to sue Britain over the Declaration and a week after the launch of a campaign urging an apology from the government – a campaign Johnson described as “futile. You’re effectively asking for an apology for a step to the creation of the state of Israel. If you’re saying that you don’t believe there should be a state of Israel then you might as well not be coy and come out with it.”

Meanwhile, a new Populus poll for BICOM has meanwhile revealed 43 percent of Britons believe the position the government 99 years ago was right to issue the declaration compared to 17 who did not. Christians United for Israel UK have also launched #IAmBalfour campaign which calls of supporters to put their name to an online declaration of support for Israel to be presented to the government and Israeli Embassy.

David Cameron spoke at the start of the year of his intention to mark the centenary “together” with the Jewish community, while his successor Theresa May referenced the anniversary in a message to Conservative Friends of Israel weeks after entering Number 10.

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