LFI chair Joan Ryan MP’s speech to the Knesset Conference: ‘Centenary of the Balfour Declaration: Historical Context, Contemporary Implications’
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Thank you, Avi, for inviting me to be with you today at this special event to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. It is a huge honour to be here.
Labour and Balfour
I am incredibly proud of Britain’s role in helping to bring about the world’s first Jewish state and equally proud of the part played by my own party.
Labour declared its support for the Zionist cause three months before Balfour’s letter, when it published its War Aims Memorandum. In it, the party endorsed Jewish claims to settlement in Palestine.
When the Balfour Declaration was published later that year, Labour’s leader, Arthur Henderson, and his successors, Ramsay MacDonald and George Lansbury, welcomed the government’s stance.
And, when others subsequently wavered, Labour kept the faith.
In 1935, Labour’s new leader, Clement Attlee, spoke of the party’s support for “a national Jewish home in Palestine for the Jewish people”.
In parliament, Labour MPs voted against the MacDonald White Paper in 1939, which shamefully attempted to shut off Jewish immigration at the very moment when Europe’s Jews faced maximum peril.
Labour’s support for Balfour was endorsed by party conferences in the late 1930s and during the 1940s, with the party’s last war-time conference declaring a “Jewish National Home” before the war was now “irresistible” in the face of the “unspeakable atrocities” committed by the Nazis.
As the former Labour Prime Minister and great friend of Israel, Harold Wilson, later remarked: “It would not have been possible for a political party to be more committed to a national home for the Jews in Palestine than was Labour.”
But I am here this morning not just to mark the events of 100 years ago, but to celebrate the state that it helped lead to.
A beacon of democracy
For me, Israel is a beacon of democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East, a model to which its neighbours should aspire.
A state where free trade unions stand up for working people,
an independent judiciary and press speak truth to power,
and where the rights of women, the LGBT community and other minorities are respected and celebrated.
I believe Labour’s founding fathers would have felt their support for Zionism more than justified.
It may not have always seemed so in recent times but our party continues to be a home to many who are steadfast in their support for Israel.
On a personal note, I want to briefly mention my great friend, the former chair of LFI, David Cairns.
David passed away at a tragically young age six years ago.
Israel had few better friends in Britain than David and he would have so loved this occasion.
In his last speech, he explained his passionate support for Israel thus: “It’s because Israel embodies progressive values that I am a proud friend of Israel.”
That’s why modern-day Labour leaders – Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – have been among Israel’s staunchest friends.
And it why I and many of my parliamentary colleagues are, in David’s words, “proud friends of Israel”.
But it is not just Israel’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law and its respect for the rights of minorities which we admire.
Economic powerhouse and humanitarian aid
Today, Israel is an economic powerhouse.
Your investment in education, science and innovation, and a strong partnership between private sector and government, has produced a hi-tech miracle on the Mediterranean from which Europe has much to learn.
Trade between Britain and Israel is now worth close to £5bn a year.
Tying our two countries closer together and showing that – for all its noise – the BDS movement is fighting a losing battle.
Many believe that there is a trade-off between economic vigour and compassion.
I have never believed that.
And Israel shows that it does not have to be that way.
Nothing to me encapsulates this better than the work of Israid; today delivering vital humanitarian aid across the globe – in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and the Philippines, to name just five examples.
I want also to take this opportunity to thank the IDF and Israel’s doctors and nurses for the remarkable work they are carrying out on the northern border caring for the victims of Syria’s terrible civil war.
And let me just say: the contrast between the actions of Israel and Iran in Syria speak volumes.
Of course, the realisation of the Zionist dream in 1948 brought with it many new obstacles
Some of them – against great odds – Israel overcame.
Others remain unresolved.
As you face the challenges of the future, I want to make this pledge.
Naturally, I have spoken today a great deal about my own party.
But Israel has many friends on both sides of the House of Commons.
I know that I speak on behalf of us all when I say that together we will continue to:
Work ceaselessly to promote the cause of peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the wider Arab world;
Challenge constantly terror and those who incite, justify and excuse it; and
Fight relentlessly the campaign to delegitimise Israel and deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.