2017 Foundation Lecture


Sunday 12th November 2017 7:30 p.m.

‘Israel: Balfour and Beyond’



It was a great privilege for NWSS to have as our Foundation Lecturer Colin Shindler, Senior Research Fellow and Emeritus Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS and the first person in Britain to hold a Chair in this subject.  There was a large audience of members, guests and friends from other communities, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Professor Shindler provided us with an exceptionally clear and dispassionate walk through the background to the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.  This is a notoriously controversial and emotive topic in 20th century history, the consequences of which are still very much with us.

Colin emphasised that Zionism arose at a time of growing nationalism in Europe, which lead eventually to the break up of the multi-ethnic Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires.  As it developed,  Zionism took on all the hues of the political spectrum, from socialism to religious nationalism and even, briefly, to Italian-style Fascism.  Meanwhile many ultra-Orthodox and Reform/Liberal Jews opposed Zionism.

A key theme in Colin’s account of the political reasoning that lead to the Balfour Declaration was the primacy of British national interests.  As early as January 1915, only weeks after the Ottoman Empire had entered the War on Germany’s side, Sir Herbert Samuel (Britain’s first Jewish Cabinet Minister) submitted a memo to the Cabinet on the potential for Jewish settlement in Palestine after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious allies.  An intriguing feature of this period was the willingness of many politicians from both Left and Right to combine supporting  Zionist leaders and Jewish politicians with sharing the ‘social anti-Semitism’ common in the British upper classes at the time.  Politicians’ views did not always line up neatly on party or ideological lines:  for example, while the Tory Right tended to be anti-Zionist, Lord Curzon supported the issue of the Balfour Declaration as he was persuaded by Balfour that there was a risk that the Germans might ‘get in first’.

Colin outlined how the waters were seriously muddied in 1915-16 by the secret Sykes-Picot negotiations between Britain and France running on lines conflicting with commitments being made in Cairo to Sharif Hussain of Mecca and his sons, the ancestors of the present King of Jordan.

Colin’s dispassionate treatment stimulated some thoughtful questions from the audience on topics such as Weizmann’s contribution as a chemist to the war effort in 1914-18, the development of Palestinian national consciousness and, most intriguing in the light of recent events, changing attitudes to Zionism in the Labour Party.  Colin explained that the Labour Party was solidly pro-Zionist at least until 1929.  Subsequently Beatrice and Sidney Webb developed a critique of Zionism as a form of colonialism.  By 1945 the Labour Cabinet was split over Zionism, with the Left Tribune Group being pro-Zionist, while the Labour Right opposed it.  As we all know, the position has since reversed itself, as Israel become more powerful, especially after 1967, and the Left adopted a radical anti-colonialist line.

Ed. Note: Kudos to Berna Cemiloglu and Jean Cohen for all their hard work to make the lecture a brilliant success.  A special ‘thank you’ to David Levy and the Security Team who dealt with vetting  sixteen visitors to the event and to Ann Antrich for greeting and welcoming everyone.