Lord Roderick Balfour, a descendant of the UK foreign secretary who penned the 1917 Balfour Declaration endorsing the establishment of Jewish state, said that Israel, by mistreating Palestinians, is failing to honor the terms of the document.
Balfour, who has visited Israel several times in his capacity as a banker, spoke to the UK Daily Telegraph newspaper about his ancestor Lord Arthur Balfour’s proclamation, which he described as “a great humanitarian gesture.” Next month marks the centenary of the original document and will be marked by events in Israel and the UK.
Palestinians, though, have roundly condemned the document as a major milestone in their eventual dispossession with the creation of the Jewish state, and have planned protests around the anniversary.
In rare comments on the document published Sunday, Balfour said he was worried that Israel was not living up to a stipulation to protect the rights of the Palestinians living in Mandate-era Palestine.
“I have major reservations,” he said in an interview. “There is this sentence in the declaration, ‘Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ That’s pretty clear. Well, that’s not being adhered to. That has somehow got to be rectified. Talking to the more liberal elements of Jewry, they would acknowledge there has to be a greater economic role for the Palestinians.”
On November 2, 1917, Balfour sent a letter to the leader of the British Jewish community, Lord Walter Rothschild, in which he stated his government’s support for a Jewish state in the area then known as Palestine.
The short document declared that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Despite his concerns, Balfour was unequivocal in the value he sees in the declaration.
“It was a great humanitarian gesture,” he said. “Humanity should be extremely grateful.”
A copy of the declaration, he revealed, was hanging in the bathroom of his family home when he was growing up. During his youth he gave it little thought until one day, as a teenager, he took a taxi ride with a Jewish cab driver who recognized his name when he saw it written on a piece of luggage.
The driver’s enthusiastic reaction when he discovered the family relationship left its mark on the younger Balfour, who had never met his famous forebear. Arthur Balfour died in 1930, and Roderick Balfour was born in 1948 — the same year as the establishment of the State of Israel.
“That was my first time I realized the importance of the declaration to Jewish people,” he said.
“We all knew about Arthur James because he had been prime minister, and the family were immensely proud of him,” he noted.
Balfour was in Jerusalem last month for a seminar on “From Balfour to Brexit,” which examined developments in the Israel-UK relationship in the century since the declaration.
He told the Telegraph that it is during his visits to Israel that he is reminded of the importance of his great-great uncle.
“People come running up to you and just say: ‘Thank you,'” he says. “I started going to Israel on bank business in the 90s and saw Balfour Streets in every town. The prime minister lives today on Balfour Street.”
In 1990, Balfour began working for NM Rothschild, a merchant bank run by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, a cousin of the Rothschild his great-great-uncle sent the declaration to.
As part of the centenary celebrations, Balfour and the current Lord Jacob Rothschild will host a dinner in London. Among those who will attend is a descendant of David Lloyd George, the prime minister in Britain at the time of the 1917 declaration.
Balfour and his family will also attend a major event at the Royal Albert Hall to mark the anniversary in November.
In February he heartily endorsed the Balfour Deceleration in a letter he sent to the Limmud FSU Jewish learning seminar in Britain.
In what was his first public statement on the declaration, he wrote of the importance of the State of Israel as a refuge for persecuted Jews.
“My family is very proud of the importance to Jewish people everywhere of this initiative by the British government of the day,” he wrote at the time. “The relevance to you all here today is that the imperative for it stemmed from the appalling Russian pogroms at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, and this is what we are most proud of, the declaration was first and foremost a humanitarian act trying to repatriate a talented but much-persecuted people to the land of the original Judaic roots.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.