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We should celebrate Balfour with pride

    Israelis celebrate in Tel Aviv as the new state of Israel is proclaimed in May 1948
    Israelis celebrate in Tel Aviv as the new state of Israel is proclaimed in May 1948

    Ninety-nine years ago this month, Britain became the first major power to recognise Jewish national aspirations when Lord Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild pledging sympathy for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." It was an important step in the process to establish the state of Israel.

    Twenty-three Jewish communal organisations have announced plans to mark the centenary anniversary next November. But not everyone will be celebrating. Palestinian officials have announced a year of events to condemn the Declaration as a "big crime" for which Britain should "atone." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is planning a lawsuit against Britain.

    In Parliament Baroness Jenny Tongehosted the launch of the "Balfour Apology Campaign". The meeting included what have become alarmingly commonplace references to "Zionist" conspiracies and justifications for Nazism. But contrary to the aims of this antisemitic anti-Zionist campaign, when it comes to the Balfour Declaration, Britain has nothing to apologise for.

    Britain should be proud that in 1917 it recognised the historic right of Jewish self- determination. If we have regrets, they should be that Israel was only established after the Holocaust and not sooner, when it could have provided a refuge for Europe's Jews.

    As this newspaper has pointed out, the next 12 months will be challenging as the usual suspects use the Balfour centenary to distort history and rail against Israel. As a community, we need to remain clear about their aims and see through any veneer of respectability they adopt.

    The demand that Britain apologise for Balfour is by extension a demand that Israel apologise for existing. If Israel has no right to exist it follows it must be destroyed. That's an inherently violent proposition, but one that has become common on British university campuses, social media and now even in Parliament.

    Generations of British students are being educated in environments where the world's only Jewish state is portrayed as a uniquely evil force in the world. That portrayal is patently absurd, but needs to be acknowledged if we are to understand how supposed hostility to Israel so often morphs into expressions of antisemitism.

    Despite a pervasive obsession with "safe spaces" on campus there are no safe spaces for Jews or Israelis unless they renounce Israel. For 90 per cent of British Jews for whom Israel forms part of their identity, that's impossible.

    And so at University College London recently, Jewish students attending a talk by an Israeli speaker were harassed, and barricaded into a room by an angry anti-Israel mob. This atmosphere of intimidation and incitement has been allowed to fester by university authorities. Those who fail to acknowledge that it is fuelled by the demonisation and delegitimisation of Israel will be unable to tackle it.

    Next year also marks 50 years since Israel's victory in the June 1967 Six Day War. Many will reflect on that date as the start of an ongoing occupation. We must never forget, however, that had it not fought and won in 1967, Israel might not have survived.

    Nevertheless, 50 years on Israel faces a quandary it is yet to solve - how to extricate itself from occupation and facilitate sovereignty for the Palestinians without threatening its own existence.

    There are legitimate criticisms that can and should be made of Israel's government, that it is not doing enough in this respect. But the convergence of next year's anniversaries also asks a serious question of the Palestinians and their supporters. Just what is it they object to? Israel's occupation since 1967? Or Israel's existence, full stop?

    A third landmark anniversary is also approaching - the 70th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947. As the British Mandate ended, the United Nations voted to divide the land between a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jews accepted the plan and declared statehood. The Arab nations rejected it, invaded and the rest, as they say, is history. It is ludicrous that seven decades later Israel is still asked to justify its existence.

    Two states for two peoples remains our greatest hope for a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians. The question for those supporters of Palestinian self-determination, who disrupt Jewish events on campus or pollute our Parliament with antisemitism, is whether they seek that solution and a Palestinian state alongside Israel, or instead of it.

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