The Balfour Project brought 1,200 to Central Hall Westminster on 31 October 2017
‘The art of friendship’ is a precious concept that I learnt from Moral Re-Armament/Initiatives of Change.
Mohammed Fadhel Jamali represented his country, Iraq, at the 1945 conference in San Francisco which created the United Nations. There he met Frank Buchman, Initiator of MRA, and their friendship continued until Buchman died. Three generations on, my husband and I have benefitted from this friendship.
In 2008 the Jamali family invited us for a holiday in Jordan, and while preparing, we both experienced what seemed like a whisper – ‘Is now the time to visit Israel and Palestine?’ We had never wanted to go, nor did we believe all that we were hearing about the problems there. Just before setting off, a Palestinian from Edinburgh, whose friendship I had squandered for years, looked me straight in the eye and gave me a list of her family and close friends. We met almost all, made friends in Israel too, and learnt so much in ten days. We have never been the same since!
While in Jordan, we came across an exhibition on the ‘McMahon–Hussein correspondence’ – an exchange of letters in 1915, when Britain was at war, between the British High Commissioner in Egypt and the Sharif of Mecca. In these letters Britain offered the Arabs an independent state, including the region known as Palestine, if they would rise up against our enemy, the Turks, and expel them from the region. To my shame, I had never heard of this, nor the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 that split the region into French and British influence and control. Nor had I heard of other British pledges that we could not and, in some cases, had no intention of, fulfilling.
By now we were feeling very uneasy – surely Britain has something to acknowledge.
As I reflected on what we had learned, I was unexpectedly struck by the question, ‘How will Britain mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration?’ In ignorance and disbelief, I read the 67-word Balfour Declaration of November 1917, and the League of Nations Mandate that Britain secured after the war, and discovered that we had accepted a ‘sacred trust’ to bring both the Jews and the Arabs to independence in Palestine. Not surprisingly, there was misunderstanding from the beginning, for both Arabs and Jews believed we had promised the land to them.
What do you do with a question that has apparently come out of the blue? I talked with many people about my discoveries, until two said, ‘We’ll work with you!’ And so the ‘Balfour Project’ was born, eight years ago.
The way it has developed convinces me that the Project has a purpose. I would go so far as to say that it was God-inspired. People of immense expertise and insight contribute to our conferences and exhibitions. We have developed a website which receives up to 40,000 page views a month, and a short film – ‘Britain in Palestine 1917–1948’ with a study guide.
Recently I received a message from an Israeli who had just heard of the Balfour Project. ‘The ability of the international arena to resolve the conflict in our country is enormous,’ she wrote. ‘Each state (gives) the impression that it comes only from a place of mediation or conflict management. An organization that says we too have responsibility for the conflict presents an entirely new approach.’
As 2017 approached, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that she would ‘mark with pride’ the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Was that Britain’s message to the world about the 67 words which changed the Middle East for ever? With trepidation we booked Central Hall Westminster, close to Parliament, for a reflective meeting on ‘Britain’s Broken Promise: Time for a New Approach’. The aim was to acknowledge Britain’s duplicitous history in the region, and commit ourselves to support Palestinians and Israelis in building a peaceful future based on equal rights for all.
It meant raising £25,000 through donations and ticket sales in three months, and some people working very hard. During those months many people joined us, contributing their expertise and funds to the venture. On the night, 31 October, more than 1,200 people filled Central Hall to hear from British leaders - senior politicians from all four main parties, Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, academics and a former UK Consul-General in Jerusalem.
Former Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen said, ‘I have no doubt that we did break our promise to the Palestinians. We can recover from that broken promise, but only if there is a fresh approach.’ And he outlined ideas for that approach. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry committed the next Labour Government to recognise Palestine as a sovereign state.
Arabic and Jewish music added to the atmosphere. A letter from 23 prominent Israelis called upon the UK Government to issue ‘a statement expressing recognition of the State of Palestine without further delay.’ From around the world people sent messages. TV crews filmed the event and broadcast it across the Middle East. A press conference in Parliament also drew media from many countries.
The centenary has been marked in Britain by anger and hope, by demands for an apology, by marches, demonstrations, debates, academic seminars, new films, and wide media coverage. Amidst it all, I believe the Balfour Project has offered an approach which can help resolve a conflict for which we bear much responsibility.
Now we need to see how to continue. Prof Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma, who has advised the Balfour Project since its outset, spoke in Parliament a few months ago and compared the trauma of British partition in India to the damage we did in Palestine. He challenged the British people saying, ‘The world needs people who will come together, speak unitedly, and do what needs to be done. Who else will do this for the world?’
Will we learn what was done in our name in Palestine after the First World War, acknowledge the massive suffering that followed, and start a new chapter in our history – that of serving others rather seeking our own interests?
This is a huge, long-term challenge. Government will only take it on if citizens do so first. If Britain gives a lead, others will follow.
Photos of Lord Owen (above left) and Rt Hon Emily Thornberry (above right)
Monica Spooner, a mother of three and grandmother of four, has lived in Edinburgh since 1965. She went to school in Sheffield and studied medicine at Kings College and Westminster Hospital London, graduated MB BS, AKC 1964. Later DRCOG, DCCH, Community Paediatrics 1975 – 95. She served on the Council of Management of the Oxford Group from 1980 to 1998. Monica is a founder member and Chair of Trustees of the Balfour Project.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.