“A century since the British government letter which endorsed a Jewish homeland. The current Lord Balfour reflects on what drove his ancestor and we hear from a Palestinian and an Israeli.”
Menendez: “Well our main story today is events marking a hundred years since the Balfour Declaration. This short statement contained in a letter from Britain’s then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, was a pledge of support for a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people. In London tonight there’ll be a big dinner hosted by the Prime Minister Theresa May welcoming her Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. A moment of pride, says the British government. But for Palestinians it’s a moment of anger, a reminder of what they see as a betrayal – the failure to stick to a promise also contained in the statement: not to – quote – prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jews. In a moment we’ll hear from Arthur Balfour’s descendent the current Lord Balfour but first this report from our Middle East correspondent Tom Bateman.”
Listeners then heard a slightly edited version of the report by Bateman aired earlier in the day on Radio 4, including its inaccurate references to ‘dispossession’, its odd portrayal of the Mandate for Palestine and its misrepresentation of the Balfour Declaration as referring to “rights” in general rather than specifically “civil and religious rights”. Interestingly, the part of that report in which Israeli historian and MK Dr Michael Oren pointed out that “the national aspirations of Arabs were widely realised in places like Syria and Iraq” was edited out of this version.
Following that, Menendez spoke to Lord Roderick Balfour, asking him first about his childhood memories of the Balfour Declaration before posing the question:
Menendez: “And what are your reflections now a hundred years on? I mean was it a grave mistake do you think with the benefit of…the wonderful benefit of hindsight?”
After Lord Balfour had described his ancestor’s letter as an “incredibly humanitarian gesture” citing the Holocaust, Russian pogroms and the persecution of Jews “all over the place” – including in Arab lands – Menendez remarked:
Menendez: “It wasn’t even Britain’s gift to give then because it was still under Ottoman control more or less, wasn’t it?”
He later went on to falsely imply that there is a consensus on the topic of one part of the Balfour Declaration while – as was the case across the board in BBC coverage of the Balfour Declaration centenary – ignoring the same text’s statement that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice […] the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
Menendez: “And yet there is this second half of it that, you know, sometimes forgotten. This line about it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. And clearly the thinking now is that hasn’t been honoured, that part.”
With Lord Balfour having made his views amply clear in the past, there can be no doubt that neither Menendez nor the programme producers who invited him would have been surprised by his response.
Balfour: “Yes, I think my views on that are very well-known and I’m not popular with certain sections of the Jewish community precisely because I adhere to the fact that a lot of the actions really do go against that tenet of the declaration. And I would also say in that, you know, you have soft language like sympathy, best endeavours. I mean these are not promises; these are pretty woolly terms. But that sentence – it being clearly understood – that is a very strong…the tone changes when it goes into that.”
Menendez closed the interview with promotion of the bizarre notion that the British people should have some sort of collective ‘feeling’ about a letter written a century ago.
Menendez: “Just one final thought about how Britain and British people should feel about it. I think the Prime Minister Theresa May has spoken of – rather than celebration – I think she spoke of pride. I mean is that how Britain should feel about the declaration now? Should we feel proud of what was written down then, what was declared?”
The second part of this programme’s Balfour Declaration centenary special will be discussed in part two of this post.