When I think about the Balfour Declaration, my automatic first thoughts are ‘Finally! A lucky break for the Zionist movement!’
The Balfour Declaration, in my mind, was a delicious bone thrown to the scattered Jewish nation in the midst of a food famine and what ultimately led to the world’s approval of the establishment of the State of Israel.
However, these shallow reactions of mine are solely based on the Balfour Declaration that I know. One acquired by simplistic readings of school text book back in grade 10 and marred by the passing of time and some biased points of view.
To truly understand what the Balfour Declaration meant to the Jewish nation at that time, we must look at the reactions of the people who were closer to the event. People for whom this declaration could have meant hope or dismay, life or death. To get a real sense of the feelings surrounding what the Declaration meant, I must not think from my warm apartment in Katamon, Jerusalem, coffee in hand and internal heating on full blast. But from a cold, one-room apartment in Russia where Anti Semitism was rife and the news of the declaration had just been whispered through the door by the Jewish neighbors.
Like all seminal events, the closer one finds themselves to the event itself, the more varied and authentic the reactions are. This of course, applies to the Balfour Declaration where those directly affected were the Jewish People. And we all know that the one thing the Jewish nation is best at is maintaining different opinions.
Like many at the time, Arthur Hertzberg , a Zionist Historian, viewed the declaration with some skepticism. He maintained that the declaration had little relevance to the ultimate establishment of a Jewish state. His opinion is clearly seen by his words when he remarked-
‘England has not given us back the Land of Israel. It is at this very moment, when we feel joy at the great victory, that we must make it very clear: England cannot give us back the Land of Israel. This is not because the country is not or not yet, under her control. Even after England exercises sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, it will not become ours simply because that is her desire’1
While others received the declaration with rash excitement, their minds filling with the prospect of Britain fulfilling her promise, the majority of Zionist Jews were greatly disappointed by the actions of the British following the declaration. Among these people was Nahum Goldman, founder and president of the World Zionist Congress from 1948 to 1977, who wrote about that time- ‘Soon after the “honeymoon” that followed the Balfour Declaration, most Jews felt a deep dissatisfaction with British policy that varied in intensity according to party and temperament, but in effect dominated everything.’2
And of course, there were those who did not question the motives, sincerity or ambiguity of the declaration, but rather revelled in the support given to their cause by one of the most influential countries of the time. Rav Kook , first chief Rabbi of Israel, upon hearing of the declaration stated ‘I have not come here to thank the British nation, but even more, to congratulate it for the privilege of making this declaration.’3
It is clear, from the vast range of reactions to the Balfour Declaration, that this was not a simple victory for the Jewish nation and did not lead directly in any way to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. The road was fraught with hardships, hypocrisy and years of fighting for the right of the establishment of Israel.
So now, when I sit and think about the Balfour Declaration, I approach it somewhat differently. Does my inclination still tend towards a positive reaction? Yes, there is no doubt that the Balfour Declaration remains a seminal event in the progression of the Zionist movement. However, understanding the complexities that went with Lord Balfour’s words, I now deem the Declaration with less power on its own, and instead, see it as a shaky, yet important stepping stone. One which required the Jewish nation’s full balance, work and effort to ultimately take the leap and make their dream of a homeland into a reality.
Like Felix Frankfurter, an American Jurist and Zionist delegate so eloquently put-
I need not tell you that the phrase “that Palestine be established as a Jewish National Home” was a phrase of purposeful ambiguity and gave rise to a good deal of subsequent discussion. Did it mean that there should be a home for Jews in Palestine, or was Palestine to be the national home? Events have largely answered the question as events usually answer the lawyer’s ambiguity – that is…events pour meaning into the words and give them one vitality rather than another.4
Clearly, it was the events that followed this declaration, the hard-work, sweat, blood and tears put in by the Zionist movement year after year which ultimately poured meaning into the declaration and brought the idea of a Jewish homeland from a few vague lines written by Lord Balfour, into the strong, vibrant reality in which we live.
And it remains relevant for those of us today who are lucky enough to have inherited the legacy of Balfour and passion of Zionism. With this legacy comes responsibility, the responsibility to ensure that its significance as a stepping stone is not forgotten, nor discounted.