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Why the anniversary of Israel’s troubled birth has a resonance in Northern Ireland

On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration - the first time the British government endorsed the establishment of "a national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine - DUP leader Arlene Foster writes about its little known Ulster connections

Today marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. This brief letter marked the first recognition by a major power of the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, and that it would be in Palestine.

This commitment came with two important caveats. First, that it should be achieved through peaceful co-existence with the communities there. Second, that the creation of such a homeland should not be used to justify anti-Jewish discrimination in other countries.

In the following 40 years, neither of those proved achievable. As more and more Jews made Palestine their home tensions grew with riots, general strikes and ultimately an Arab uprising. Elsewhere, and in Europe in particular, anti-Jewish discrimination continued and intensified. Ultimately, it escalated to the Nazi attempt to systematically exterminate all Jews - killing millions of men, women and children.

These two strands came together in the form of the then Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, who fled Palestine because of his role in the Arab Uprising and ended up in Nazi Germany. He, with full knowledge of the 'Final Solution', actively lobbied against any Jews being allowed to escape death by emigrating to Palestine. He went so far as to lobby against 500 children being spared in this way.

The revealing of the Holocaust to the world and the end of the Second World War brought the issues of Palestine and a Jewish homeland there to a head. Our Armed Forces tried to maintain law and order in the Palestine Mandate while the newly-established United Nations sought to put forward a political solution. However, Jewish impatience and Arab resistance combined into a pattern of sectarian and terrorist violence.

From this turmoil and many subsequent attacks, grew the democratic state of Israel.

Northern Ireland has three connections to this story. The Declaration may bear the name of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, but its real author was Leo Amery MP. Amery was always a staunch supporter of the Unionist cause. He was the author of the British Covenant - the sister document of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant - which some 2 million mainland supporters signed.

The Royal Ulster Rifles were one of the Army units that tried to keep the peace, the first unit was transferred shortly after VE day.

Israel's sixth president, Chaim Herzog, was born in Belfast. The son of the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, he had successful military, legal, diplomatic and political careers. In 1975, when the United Nations adopted the General Resolution 3379 - Zionism is Racism, it was Herzog who spoke for Israel. His speech is considered one of the best political speeches of the 20th century.

In it he declares: "I come here to denounce the two great evils which menace society in general and a society of nations in particular. These two evils are hatred and ignorance."

Sadly, his memory fell victim to hatred and ignorance when the memorial plaque at his birthplace in north Belfast had to be removed following a series of incidents at the building. Our own local example of how in western democracies we see the growth in anti-Semitism as both the hard left and the far right tread that old, dark path.

As the Ulster Covenant was the birth certificate of Northern Ireland so arguably was the Balfour Declaration the birth certificate of the state of Israel. As we mark this centenary, we should remind ourselves of the commitment to achieve peaceful co-existence there and to oppose anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world.

The failure to achieve them in 100 years should not lead us to abandon them but to double our efforts to achieve them.

Belfast Telegraph

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