According to Andy Burnham, speaking at a hustings event organised by Labour Friends of Israel, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 represented “an example of British values in action.” He wants to see the declaration’s centenary anniversary celebrated with events in “every school” to demonstrate how the UK “played a role in the establishment of a democracy in the region”. All other leadership candidates with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn echoed these sentiments.
But this is a bizarre and entirely ahistorical statement. Balfour’s letter certainly was an example of British values in action, but not in the way Burnham meant it. This was British imperialism at its most duplicitous. The British promised Palestine (which Britain did not even control at the time) first to the Arabs in 1915 by way of the McMahon Correspondence and then to the Zionists in the Balfour Declaration, in order to secure war-time support from both groups.
So the unfortunate reality is that the Balfour Declaration was motivated far more by a combination of anti-Semitism and imperial ambition than any kind of altruism. The anti-Semitic belief in ‘Jewish power’ was widespread and thus, many in the British government thought that supporting the Zionist project would secure the apparently ‘powerful’ backing of Jews for the war effort. (Arthur Balfour himself was an anti-Semite who had championed the Aliens Act of 1905, which aimed to keep Jewish immigrants out of Britain). Furthermore, British statesmen calculated that promising to facilitate the Zionist project in Palestine would enhance Britain’s claim on Palestine in the post-war carve up of the Ottoman Empire.
It should also be remembered that throughout the British Mandate years, there was no kind of democracy in Palestine. No legislative assembly was created and on numerous occasions the British army was sent in to crush Palestinian Arab revolts against British rule.
A better lesson would be to understand Britain’s historic role in creating conflicts all over the world and recognise our responsibility to lead the way in securing peaceful solutions today.