TV review, The Balfour Declaration: Britain's Promise to the Holy Land (BBC2): A thoughtful, balanced essay on an interminable conflict

Plus: Strike Back (Sky1)

Sean O'Grady
Monday 30 October 2017 13:28
Jane Corbin offers her view, based on long experience, that the spirit of the Balfour declaration, with its acknowledgement of both Jewish and Arab aspirations and rights, was far-sighted
Jane Corbin offers her view, based on long experience, that the spirit of the Balfour declaration, with its acknowledgement of both Jewish and Arab aspirations and rights, was far-sighted

“Did the Balfour Declaration bestow a blessing or a curse on the two peoples?” It is hardly Jane Corbin’s fault that the questions she posed at the start of her thoughtful and well-balanced essay on the Arab-Israeli conflict failed to answer the question.

One hundred years after the British Foreign Secretary of the time, Lord (Arthur) Balfour posited the idea of a “homeland” for the Jewish people, his name and what his pledge came to stand for are still the subject of argument. Appropriately, or ironically, for the Holy Land, a place where religion drives politics so grievously, his 67-word letter to a prominent British Zionist, Lord Rothschild, has come to carry theological significance, a modern day Old Testament or a Dead Sea Scroll.

Corbin’s take on it centred on an amendment to the declaration insisted in the draft text by one of her own ancestors, a junior member of that British government of a century ago, Leo Amery. Later to become a distinguished minister, orator and friend and ally to Winston Churchill, Amery was himself part-Jewish; so contribution to history was to add to promise of a “national home” for the Jewish people the phrase “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Corbin, like the serious, conscientious reporter she has always been, talked to those involved, especially those involved in the Oslo peace process, which sought an end to the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. She also offered a reporter’s view, based on long experience, that the spirit of the Balfour declaration, with its acknowledgement of both Jewish and Arab aspirations and rights, was far-sighted. Given all the intervening wars, uprisings and pitiless terror, it pointed to the idea of a two-state solution, the settlement briefly and heroically achieved in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995. That glimpse of a permanently peaceful future sadly died with the assassination of its principal architect, Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995.

It is futile, though strangely compelling, to wonder what Balfour might make of make of everything that happened after his death in 1930 – not least the Holocaust. Because of that event there was a historical inevitablity to the creation of Israel that went far beyond and carried vastly more momentum than anything a figure such as Balfour could say or do in 1917.

It was an old contact of Corbin’s who gave us the best clue: Lenny Goldberg, an American who came to settle (illegally, most would argue) in the occupied territories, and an unashamed zealot of a Zionist. For him, the State of Israel exists “not because of the Balfour declaration, but because Jews sacrificed themselves with blood and fire and bullets”. As far as can be judged, Balfour actually envisaged not the truly independent Israel of today, but rather a Palestine reinvigorated (as he saw it) by Jewish settlement becoming a firm ally of the UK in the region, a Middle East version of the likes the settlement dominions such as Australia, Rhodesia or Canada, say. As Palestine passed from the Ottoman Empire to the British after the Great War, it was natural that London should envisage an imperial future for it as a client state of the UK.

Balfour undoubtedly gave an enormous moral and political boost to the cause of Zionism a century ago, and in doing so did help start a train of events, albeit not an inevitable one, that led us to what we have today. His name is still revered and despised – but not forgotten – across the Holy Land. There stands still one of the earliest proto-Israeli settlements in the north of the country, which was even named after him – Balfouria. It was on a visit here in 1925 that Balfour made a further declaration about what he called his “experiment” of Jewish migration to the region: “Unless I have profoundly mistaken the genius of the Jewish people, the experiment is predestined to inevitable success.” Aristocrat, Conservative statesman, amateur philosopher, champion of Zionism and imperialist: all these things Balfour was, but old Arthur was no fortune teller.

Strike Back, Sky’s military action series, back for a second run, is so nearly brilliant it is upsetting. On the one hand you have the thrill of it all: a wide selection of SUVs being driven like crazy across deserts, and gratuitously blown up by mortar fire (a bit like on Top Gear, but with fewer masculinity issues), and Chinook helicopters and goats in permanent mortal danger. Then there are the sumptuous Middle East and Maghreb backdrops, magnificent even when rubble. Plus a decent enough storyline about a bunch of American, British and Australian soldiers wanting to get their own back on a nasty Islamic State leader.

On the other side? The sheer incredibility of it all. Everyone with a speaking role, and indeed nearly all the extras, is unspeakably good-looking and improbably well-groomed, and goes around wise-cracking like Groucho Marx (or at least Roger Moore as Bond). Even their desert combat boots look like they’re fresh out of Harvey Nicks. All Strike Back really needs to make it perfect are some soldiers, terrorist and spies who look like the rest of us – plain through to pug ugly. Well, that and a make-up artist armed with a couple of buckets of theatrical mud and dust. It isn’t as bad as the fashion-shoot-with-guns that is the BBC’s embarrassingly awful Our Girl, but to my mind every dog of war (of all genders) should look like, well, a bit of a dog.

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