Supporters of Palestine marched through central London on Saturday, one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration was signed.
The declaration gave Britain’s official support to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and signalled the beginning of a century of Palestinian oppression.
Thousands of people joined the march organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. It came after Theresa May celebrated the declaration’s centenary with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu at a dinner on Thursday night.
May said she was “proud” of Britain’s role in creating Israel. But marchers said the declaration meant the mass displacement of Palestinians—and the continued suffering of Palestinians today.
One protester, Deena, told Socialist Worker, “My grandparents were from Palestine. They were displaced when Israel was founded in 1948. I don’t understand how anyone can celebrate the Balfour Declaration.”
She added, “There’s a line in the declaration that’s about protecting the indigenous Palestinian people and that hasn’t been kept to. But even if it was, how could they speak on behalf of that indigenous population. It’s a form of subjugation—a legacy of imperialism”.
Another protester Tahyia said, “I’ve been to Palestine, I’ve seen what it’s like there. I’m also from South Africa and there’s a comparison between the Israeli occupation and apartheid.
“The Balfour Declaration was supposed to protect the Palestinians. But that hasn’t happened—and Britain is culpable for that.”
The march comes as the right to point to Israel’s creation as the cause of Palestinian suffering—or even to call Israel racist—is under attack.
Israeli minister Gilad Erdan wrote to London mayor Sadiq Khan and Home Office minister Ben Wallace earlier this week urging them to stop the march.
A group of around 20 Israeli supporters also attempted to block the route of the march. But they were forced to move out of the way of the much larger Palestine Solidarity demonstration.
Erdan suggested that the march would encourage “incitement to terror and hate” and could breach the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. The definition has been used to stifle criticism of Israel.
Labour Party members in particular have been accused of antisemitism. The Labour right have attempted to use the left’s support for Palestine to discredit them.
Left wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for not attending the dinner with Netanyahu earlier this week. He sent a video message to the demonstration, saying the best way to mark the Balfour centenary was “by recognising Palestine.”
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott also sent a message to say, “Myself and Jeremy Corbyn have and always will stand for the rights of the Palestinian people”.
But no Labour MPs spoke from the platform at the end of the march. In previous years Corbyn would have been almost guaranteed to join the protest in person.
Earlier this week Corbyn ally shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry—who attended the dinner in Corbyn’s place—said there was “no place in modern society, and—let me stress—no place in the Labour Party” for anyone who questions Israel’s right to exist.
That would effectively exclude from Labour anyone who sees a single state, where Jews and Arabs can live together as equals, as the solution in Palestine.
And in a Times of Israel interview on Friday Labour’s Middle East spokesperson MP Fabian Hamilton said Britain’s relationship with Israel wouldn’t change under a Labour government.
Speaking to the march, left wing film make Ken Loach called on Palestine supporters to “support and strengthen the Labour Party leadership.”
He added, “You may find that Jeremy Corbyn has to be tactical—that his words won’t always be as strong as we might like. He is in a battle against the right of his party”.
But the biggest cheers of the rally went to those who defended the right to criticise Israel.
A speaker from Jews for Justice for Palestinians said, “Balfour said a Jewish state should not deny the rights of Palestinians. But this is what it did and what it continues to do.
“This criticism is not and cannot be antisemitic. A people that oppress another cannot themselves be free. Netanyahu you do not speak for me.”
And SNP MP John Nicholson said, “We must ignore the idea that mourning the atrocities committed against Jewish people in Europe in the twentieth century requires us to turn a blind eye to injustices committed against the Palestinians”.
Prominent Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti encouraged the protesters to keep campaigning despite attempts to discredit them. “One day they will write that the Balfour Declaration failed because of the heroism and resilience of the Palestinian people and because of the solidarity”.
And marcher Bushna told Socialist Worker, “I went to Jerusalem a few months ago and one of the things they told me was, don’t forget us. I can’t do much, but I came here to show my support for the Palestinian people.”