The Balfour declaration was the moment that it became British state policy to support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. A hundred years ago this week, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote what was to some the Magna Carta of Zionism. To the Arabs who ended up being violently dispossessed it was a "calamitous promise". As the British author Arthur Koestler famously put it, "One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third." It was an early and foundational contribution from Britain to the world's most intractable conflict.
According to Priti Patel, international development secretary, those historic, controversial words were apparently something to do with Israel eventually becoming "a world leader in technology and innovation" and "a country that is at the forefront of the skills revolution" that would one day create a tech-hub with Britain.
Her speech at a Westminster conference on Thursday was so laden with crow-barred techno-utopian buzzwords that you could almost forget what the event was about, but she brought it clunking back to the point: "The desire and the responsibility to help others coupled with that can-do attitude is precisely the sort of Jewish homeland that was dreamt by [Theodor] Herzl and supported by that historic letter, the Balfour declaration." The subtext was perhaps Israel's potential economic ties with post-Brexit Britain.
Whether or not Lord Balfour would have approved of the high concentration of start-ups in today's Israel (more per capita than Silicon Valley!) is a weird thing to bring up when considering the last 100 years in the Middle East, but thinly veiled British self-interest is true to the spirit of the Balfour Declaration.
In 1905, Balfour – who was spoken about as a sort of hero to Jews everywhere – was introducing an Aliens Act to combat, in his words, "the undoubted evils that had fallen upon the country from an immigration which was largely Jewish", following pogroms in Russia. He was accused of "open anti-Semitism" by the world Jewish congress. By 1918, the open anti-Semite was a fan of the movement for a Jewish national home. This is because the British wanted to gain Jewish support to win the war. According to historian Jonathan Schneer, "British leaders drew primarily on two anti-Semitic canards: that Jews simultaneously commanded the US financial system and held the strings controlling Russian pacifism." They somewhat admiringly believed "international Jewry" to an almost mystical "subterranean force". In other words, British state interest was funnelled through a lot of racist ideas in a mix of philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism, which led to Zionism's first major diplomatic coup.
At the time, Jews themselves were divided about the idea of Zionism. One Jewish socialist organisation noted in 1918 that "the organised Jewish Socialist and Labour movement is everywhere opposed to Zionism", which they warned would lead to "petty and narrow nationalism and chauvinism".
These days the terms of debate have shifted, if Thursday's conference was anything to go by. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry gave a speech which included some criticism of the situation in Israel and Palestine, and reiterated the Labour Party's "longstanding, unstinting, unequivocal support for the state of Israel". She then had to endure some awkward questions about whether Jeremy Corbyn is a Zionist. "Of course, it's self evident," she said, as the Labour Party supports Israel. The audience didn't seem fully convinced, perhaps because Corbyn declined to attend a dinner with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to celebrate Balfour. Alex Marshall, a doctor of early Herzlian Zionism, told me he's noticed a pattern with these things. "Neutrality and lukewarm support for Our Boys are treated support for the enemy… With Israel I see a similar dynamic, where a position like 'it's wrong for Israel to kill civilians' is framed as anti-Israel, even measured criticism or lukewarm support."
This kind of plural but limited discourse is what is promoted by organisers of the conference, BICOM – a pro-Israel lobby group that you could see as a liberal face of Israeli chauvinism, mostly headed up by Zionist centrist-dads. One of their methods is to take certain journalists who they see as elite opinion makers on introductory tours of the country, with a Zionist tilt – kind of like birth-right but for WASP-y journalists. Last year, they invited me, and I went out of curiosity.
Every day we'd wake up in our boutique hotel in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and bundle bleary-eyed into a van to be ferried to a series of lectures. We had briefings with IDF officers on the borders with Lebanon and the Gaza strip; meetings with Palestinian youth activists in Ramallah who told us all about the recent congress of Fatah. We had a trip to the Knesset to meet Amir Ohana, the first openly gay right-wing MK who wants more Israeli citizens to carry guns. That sort of thing. During a visit to patients at Ziv hospital in northern Israel, where they treat people injured in the Syrian war, our BICOM minder asked an amputee, spun-out from crawling over a land-mine, "What did he think of Israel before he came here, and what does he think of it now?"
The trip was made up by a commissioning editor from an intellectual journal and a senior news reporter from a tabloid newspaper with a particular interest in crime, who looked bored in every lecture and kept on asking people, "Has ISIS got anything to do with this?"
One day we headed to Mount Bental to look out over the border to Syria. From the top we could see the Syrian town of Old Qunietra. It's been a ghost town since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A 1974 UN report notes Qunietra's "deliberate and total devastation" was in violation of the Geneva Convention, but that didn't get a mention. At the top of the mountain there were preserved trenches from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with cut-out silhouettes of soldiers. Chinese tourists balanced precariously on top of the concrete slabs of the trenches taking selfies, as explosions from the war in Syria could be heard intermittently in the distance.
As it turns out – also not mentioned – we were actually in Syria under international law. This is consistent with Spinwatch's observation that BICOM "simply dispenses with international legal principles as an explanatory framework", instead using things like "the broad consensus in Israel" to justify its positions. When we'd come down from the mountain we went to a fancy winery and tasted delicious Israeli wine from sovereign Syrian territory while listening to lounge music.
What they didn't really show us was the grim reality of Israel's ongoing occupation of Palestine itself. I got a brief glimpse of it in a visit to the village of Um al Khair in the West Bank. This wasn't on BICOM's tour, but I stayed on a few days and ended up there with some Jewish activists visiting for Human Rights Day.
The village was a wretched sight. There were a few standing structures, some made from concrete, others from corrugated iron or wooden stacks turned on their side with tarpaulin placed over the top and tied down with string. They were surrounded by debris: twisted corrugated metal sheets and concrete rubble. That's because the Israeli army has a habit of demolishing any solid structures built in the village every so often. It had undergone three rounds of demolition in the four months before I got there.
Just beyond a fence, up the hill, were some concrete houses – cream triangles standing neatly in a row, punctuated by art deco street lamps. This was the illegal Israeli settlement of Carmel, described by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof as "a lovely green oasis that looks like an American suburb. It has lush gardens, kids riding bikes and air-conditioned homes."
Drinking tea in the village, we were pointed to a large shiny warehouse over to our right – a chicken battery owned by settlers. It had mains electricity, but the Palestinian villagers did not.
The activists were organised by the Centre for Jewish Nonviolence and All That's Left: Anti-Occupation Collective. Some were proud to be photographed in "Occupation is not my Judaism" t-shirts. Others asked me not to identify them for fear of being ostracised for showing solidarity with Palestinians. "I'm a Zionist, but not at any cost," said one woman, who came up to tell me not to photograph her. "I'm a real Zionist because nothing good will come of this [occupation]. It's leading to the destruction of the country in the long run."
The activists helped the villagers by digging little moats around their olive trees down in the valley so that the poor soil would catch more rain. The point seemed to be as much about displaying solidarity as it was about practical assistance. Tariq, a young man from the village, said he was worried that the settlers would build a new sewage pipe, coming out on the land that activists were preparing for an olive grove. It felt a bit miserable that the little moats could be pooling with sewage at some point.
This is the flip-side to what the Israeli Deputy Ambassador Sharon Bar-li told the conference was "the world's innovation nation". The UN recently slammed Israel for the "de-development" and "deteriorating humanitarian conditions" in Palestine brought about by the 50-year occupation, but Priti Patel couldn't find space to mention occupation at all among her inane repetition of "hi-tech".
Israel is "creating the most practical solutions to advance the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised in the world", she said. We're living in "a world where physical borders have less and less meaning", she said. Just today it was revealed that Patel visited Israel with an influential pro-Israel lobbyist without declaring it to the government. She's been accused of conducting a "freelance foreign policy", a zeitgeisty phrase with more meaning than her drivel.
Theresa May at least brought the issue of illegal settlements up when she met Benjamin Netanyahu. "I also want to talk about what we see as some of the barriers and some of the difficulties, like the illegal settlements, in relation to that peace process," she said. A "difficulty" in a peace process that barely exists, rather than a real and pressing humanitarian crisis.
When I got back from Westminster I checked out the Facebook page for Um al Khair, which posts updates about the situation there. "The occupation forces confiscated Um Al Khair car, for the second time, and less than a week," [sic] said a post. "The community now with no ride. I wonder what we will do if one of our kids get sick, how we will take him to the hospital. The people in Um Al Khair were facing this systematic aggression by the occupation machine since 1980, and it continues." There was also a post with pictures of a new olive harvest, which was heartening.
Former British foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind used the conference to call for fewer mere politicians and more "statesmen". But focusing on ostensibly great men of history like Lord Balfour seems like a perfect way to keep the visceral daily indignities of the occupation out of focus. It reminds me of the only time we saw a refugee camp on the BICOM tour. One-and-a-half million Palestinian refugees live in camps, but we saw them as a speck on the horizon as we looked from Israel into Gaza – abstracted to the point of near-invisibility.
Correction, 6th November: This article previously stated that "Prime Minister Balfour" signed the declaration. Balfour was in fact foreign secretary at the time of the declaration, having been Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905.