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article imageLord Balfour reflects on ancestor's divisive legacy

By Joe JACKSON (AFP)     Oct 31, 2017 in World

A century after his ancestor wrote a letter that became a foundation stone for the state of Israel, Lord Balfour condemns the "complete imbalance" in its application from the Palestinians' point of view.

Roderick Balfour spoke glowingly of Israel's achievements in an interview with AFP but said the Balfour Declaration's promise to protect non-Jewish communities remained unfulfilled to this day.

"I'm sure Arthur would say 'this is unacceptable', that there's got to be more help for the Palestinians," the banker said in reference to his great-great-uncle Arthur Balfour's 1917 missive.

"Israel has got all these people living in their midst, probably it's time that they took stock of that and helped," the 68-year-old said, speaking in his London apartment ahead of Thursday's centenary.

- 'Abject circumstances' -

The Balfour Declaration was a 67-word letter from Britain's then foreign secretary to Lionel Rothschild, a prominent British Zionist, supporting the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The document eventually led to the creation of Israel in 1948, the displacement of millions of Palestinians and decades of strife between the two communities.

Balfour pointed to the "abject circumstances" in which many Palestinians live but placed some blame for the perpetual state of conflict on hardline Islamist factions like Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

He highlighted the "quite widely-held views" that it suits such groups to "make sure that the population remain kind of benefit-led and repressed, and are constantly able to blame Israel for their woes."

"You get the sense that some of the leadership don't want to see Palestine become wealthy and in parallel to Israel, because people would be comfortable and they might not feel so aggressive," he said.

- 'Humanitarian' legacy -

Balfour, who has a copy of the letter on the mantlepiece in his house, said he would like its "humanitarian aspect" to be celebrated.

He said his ancestor would be "absolutely amazed" at how Israel has prospered since its founding and at its advancements in medicine and technology.

A copy of the Balfour Declaration dated November 2  1917
A copy of the Balfour Declaration dated November 2, 1917
Handout, GPO/AFP

"I think there is pride, but there is obviously work to be done by the international community to try and make sure that this doesn't remain a festering sore in the world of international politics," he said.

On Thursday night Balfour and Lord Jacob Rothschild -- a descendant of the 1917 letter recipient -- are hosting a dinner at London's Lancaster House.

Visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his British counterpart Theresa May are expected to attend, alongside other dignitaries.

- 'People love a scapegoat' -

Balfour said he became aware of the declaration's magnitude only gradually.

A copy hung on a wall while he was growing up, but it was largely out of sight in his father's lavatory.

"The family didn't sit around saying let us remember the Balfour Declaration," he recalled.

"One was aware of it, but I wasn't aware of its significance to the diaspora."

It took a Jewish taxi driver in London, who began singing impromptu songs in his honour on discovering his name, for a teenage Balfour to realise that.

The reaction has not always been so fulsome.

When Balfour travelled to Israel in the 1990s at the invitation of president Ezer Weizman, he received an unexpected grilling from immigration officials on leaving the country.

A portrait of Britain's then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour taken in 1917
A portrait of Britain's then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour taken in 1917
Handout, GPO/AFP

After producing his presidential invite, he recalled an unimpressed agent asked: "So what were you doing the other 48 hours?"

A lifelong financier with no political experience, Balfour has nonetheless found the declaration's legacy inescapable -- even in British high society.

People at social gatherings have invariably chided that his family is to blame for all the present-day problems there.

"I say: 'well that's a bit harsh, because it was the British government,'" Balfour added.

"People love a scapegoat."

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