On 5th July 2017 the House of Lords held a short debate on a question from Lord Turnberg, “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in November.” The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke in the debate.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I want to make two points in my two-penn’orth of time.
First, the Balfour Declaration did not arise in a vacuum and in part reflected the very considerable contribution made by Jewish people, mainly recent immigrants of course, to Britain and the then war effort. To take an obvious example, it was a Jewish chemist at the University of Manchester who devised a clever new way to manufacture acetone from sugar and carbohydrate. It was a vital chemical in short supply for the manufacture of cordite. That chemist, Chaim Weizmann, went on to become the first President of the State of Israel.
Winston Churchill saw this and was among the strongest supporters of the Balfour Declaration both at the time and, significantly, during the inter-war years when the British Government actually tried to row back from the declaration. Churchill was not a particularly religious man, but he had a great admiration for the Jewish contribution to British life and the extraordinarily creative results, especially in agriculture, of Jewish resettlement in Palestine. All of this is set out in Martin Gilbert’s splendid book, Churchill and the Jews, which is available in our Library.
In marking the Balfour Declaration, we are marking more than just the success—and it is a great success—of the modern State of Israel, but we also need to acknowledge the difficult history of Palestine since 1948. In part, it is because the United Nations did not properly oversee and own the consequences of its resolutions. The British, too, essentially walked away and watched the conflict between Jewish settlers and their neighbours develop. The necessary peacekeeping force and, indeed, money to ease the issues of displacement and resettlement were not put in place—and, frankly, the rest is history.