Zion of the times
One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, we seem no closer to a peace agreement. Leslie Turnberg's new book aims to shed light on the matter
18 May, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
WILL Prince Charles be in Israel for the celebrations in November to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the landmark letter that declared the British government’s support for a permanent Jewish homeland in Palestine – and resulted in the creation of Israel?
Or will it be Boris Johnson, if he is still Foreign Secretary, who will be representing the UK instead as bloody conflict continues to rage between Jews and the Palestinians?
And what of American president Donald Trump who, for all his alarming misgivings, has more than once given his strong support to the Jewish state? Will he be flying into Jerusalem or perhaps arriving in a battleship with an accompanying armada?
These are all essential questions yet to be answered in the tumultuous upheavals almost daily shaking the world of politics, among them the Labour Party election manifesto now claimed to be far more hardline Palestinian than anyone expected.
But one significant person who for certain who will be there is 83-year-old Leslie Turnberg, author of Beyond The Balfour Declaration, a remarkable man with a remarkable past of immigrant stock who grew up in the back streets of Manchester and now lives in Hampstead.
He is otherwise Baron Turnberg of Cheadle, knighted in 1994, made a Labour peer in 2000, whose many achievements include being president of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Medicine and Dean of the University of Manchester Medical School.
His eminent career as the son of Romanian and Polish Jewish parents has also taken in working at the Whittington Hospital, Highgate, and lecturing at the Royal Free in Hampstead. And he will be lecturing again on November 2, the Balfour Declaration day anniversary, to an historical society at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
He admits there was some scepticism when he decided two years ago to write a book about the Balfour Declaration, and nevertheless decided to do so – to understand the background better himself, if nothing else. And he reluctantly accepts too his abiding hope for a solution to hostilities has been somewhat over-optimistic.
“We absolutely have to cross our fingers about what is going to happen in the whole of the Middle East,” he said. “You can’t be entirely pessimistic. You’ve got to think that something good could happen and then try to work towards it.”
The problems are probably unique in that the number of displaced people in the world have reached the highest known figure – and still increasing – while Hamas, the Palestinian Sunni-Islamic organisation, has not, as has been suggested, softened its fundamental desire to destroy Israel.
Lord Turnberg remains suspicious about press reports that Prince Charles will not attend the Balfour celebrations at a time when fake news is abundant, while he points out that Trump truly wants to see if Israel and the Palestinians can make a deal.
“The trouble is that nobody knows what Trump is going to do next,” he adds. “He is so unpredictable. Leaving aside his presidency in America and what he is doing there, which is causing problems, as far as Israel and the Palestinians are concerned he is saying the right things that the two sides have got to get together. But you know it will need more than him, I fear.”
Meanwhile, Lord Turnberg’s extensive research and reading into the history of the Balfour Declaration is itself an absorbing and highly complex saga he handles with the meticulous skill of his profession, examining all the causes of concern and forever trying to find a solution.
It is revealing too about Arthur Balfour, former Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary himself, a persistent bachelor, who considered himself a philosopher and died in 1930, aged 81. Indeed, he had a detached attitude to life, epitomised by a remark attributed to him: “Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all.”
The truth about Balfour, said one critic, is this: “there’s been one ice age, and he thinks there’s going to be another”.
As Lord Turnberg writes: “Arthur Balfour had not been regarded seriously in Parliament at first. He gave the appearance of a detached, aloof man, aristocratically imperturbable and seemingly indolent but this was a superficial impression and a much more sympathetic picture is given of him by his niece and biographer, Blanche Dugdale.
“He was certainly appreciated by a large circle of friends and was recognised as being extremely intelligent and amusing. Though logical and persuasive as a parliamentarian, he was not a politician in the modern sense and he did not obviously strive to climb any greasy poles. Stabbing opponents in the back was beyond him.”
The inability of the Zionists and the Arabs to reach a compromise over the past century leads him to the conclusion: “There are tantalising glimpses of what the future could mean for Israelis and Palestinians. Will it take new leaders with fresh approaches? Probably. Will it take a long time? Certainly. Is the effort and heartache worthwhile. Absolutely.”
• Beyond the Balfour Declaration. By Leslie Turnberg, Biteback Publishing, £20