W&Y reader Rowan Pilley responds to Wednesday’s article about UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shunning Prime Minister May’s dinner marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration>

“The allegation that Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to attend a dinner marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration this week is demonstrative of his vain commitment to ideology and indulgent engagement in gesture politics is a simplification of the role which commemoration plays in propagating historical narratives.

Whilst criticisms of Corbyn’s fallible approach to the rife anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and his problematic relations with Hamas and Hezbollah are entirely justified, it is crucial not to conflate his complicity with anti-Semitic perspectives and his anti-Zionist stance. The argument that anti-Zionism ultimately stems from a place of anti-Semitism is reductionist, as his failure to adequately tackle issues of discrimination does not alone undermine his position on Israel.

It is also problematic to suggest that partiality is untenable in this context, particularly given that the Conservative Party demonstrates both bias and inconsistency when addressing the problem of Palestine.

Whilst Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has, this week, lauded the ‘Miracle of Israel’, his 2014 biography of Winston Churchill dismisses the Balfour Declaration as an ‘exquisite masterpiece of Foreign Office fudgerama’. The inconsistency of Johnson’s position cannot be argued to be demonstrative of a reasonable and considered pragmatism, but a perfect example of gesture politics. Essentially the mouthpiece for the popular sentiment of the day, Johnson’s lip service to the miraculous success of the Zionist project can hardly be seen to indicate any deep-seated commitment to building a relationship for the future.

In a similar vein, last year, at a dinner for the Conservative Friends of Israel the Prime Minister Theresa May described the centenary of the Balfour Declaration as ‘an anniversary we will be marking with pride’. This is more than commemoration of an event of historical significance, but a celebration of the success of the Zionist project and complicity in the marginalisation of the native Palestinian population.

Jerusalem/Al Quds

It is narrow-sighted, to an extreme, to celebrate the creation of Israel on the basis of the ‘beacon of tolerance’ that it is today, as May did in December 2016. This is because the caveat of Lord Balfour that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ was never enacted. Even the Palestinian citizens of Israel have been consistently denied equality, epitomised by the fact that their right to citizenship is placed in the hands of the state, rather than being a birth right, as in the case of the global Jewish population. Furthermore, the Palestinian population is consistently denied the right to express a historical narrative, as demonstrated by the fact that the state of Israel withdraws funding from any institution that conceptualises the events of 1948 as al-Nakba or catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to attend the dinner, therefore, does not mark a failure to engage with an important event in history but a refusal to engage with history that is narrated by the victors. It is not a refusal to engage in vital global diplomacy, but a dissent from a colonial historical narrative, which is not only prevalent in Israel, but both glorifies Britain’s imperial past and condones contemporary Western intervention in the Middle East. A celebration of the Balfour Declaration is the celebration of an event that ultimately enabled the settler colonialism of the Zionist project. Its commemoration propagates the Israeli historical narrative which continually justifies the creation of the state and the subsequent marginalisation of the Palestinian people. Surely that is something worthy of a political gesture.”

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3 Comments on "Corbyn’s No Show: A Repsonse."

  1. As I said at the end of Tim’s piece, the dinner marked the start of a hundred years of the UK and other western powers meddling in the Middle East. Given the amount of blood that has been shed since then (on all sides) I see nothing to celebrate.

  2. Whenever I see the phrase ” the Zionist Project” in articles or comments about Israel, I know that the general tone will be wholly negative. But then, what else could one expect from someone educated at SOAS in London?

  3. The writer makes a statement that “A celebration of the Balfour Declaration is the celebration of an event that ultimately enabled the settler colonialism of the Zionist project.” We have heard those on the far-left claim that Israel is a Colonial, Imperialist, settler state comparable to South Africa. The reality is that Historians believe the Jews arrived in present day Israel in the second millennium BCE. Martin Gilbert the Historian says “For more than one thousand six hundred years the Jews formed the main settled population of what the Romans later called Palestine. It was called Judea until they conquered it and wanted to remove the traces of Jewish links to the area. The area was taken over by Babylonians, Persians and Greeks and whilst an independent Jewish Kingdom was revived in 168 BCE The Romans invaded and suppressed Jewish revolts in 70 CE and 135 CE and renamed Judea as Palestine in order to remove any Jewish connection. Despite this many thousands of Jews remained in places like Jerusalem, Safadi, Tiberias, Hebron, Ashkelon, Jaffa, Jericho and even Gaza.

    In the late nineteenth century Jewish people moved to what was then called Palestine and were mainly refugees escaping pogroms and anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East. They were not going to serve any Colonial ambitions of the imperial nations at the time but were fleeing persecution. These refugees were desperate to get away from their host countries and wanted nothing to do with them. They stole no land but purchased it often from absentee landlords. This was mostly a barren land with swamplands full of malaria that had to be cultivated and worked on.

    So far from being a colonial expedition these were refugees fleeing the most oppressive regimes who wanted to build new lives to escape persecution and where their ancestors had once settled and in fact the colonial powers did their best to stop this happening.

    Palestine was never a Political entity as we know it and under Turkish or Ottoman rule from 1516 until 1918 was divided into enclaves. Land purchase records show many of the Landlords at the time were absentee and lived in Beirut or Damascus. Land was not stolen but bought. Before the arrival of European Jews in the 1880’s the number of Arabs in the area of Palestine that became Israel was small and shrinking. At the time of the partition in 1947 there were 538,000 Jews and 397,000 Arabs. The term Palestinian itself was not used by the Arabs until 1964.

    The number of Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians who lived in what became Israel grew as many were attracted to the newly cultivated land and they saw the benefits of improved health care and sanitation and better prospects for work. A British official reported in 1937 that “the growth in the numbers of Arab fellahin had been largely due to the improvements that led to modern hospitals and water and sanitary systems introduced by the Jewish refugees from Europe.”
    These refugees were not instruments of any colonial power they were fleeing persecution and returning to their ancestral homeland. Corbyn does neither side any favours by taking the position he does.

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