ON NOVEMBER 2, 1917, during the First World War, UK foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour sent a letter to the leader of the British Jewish community, Lord Walter Rothschild, expressing the British government’s support for a Jewish national home in the area then known as Palestine.
“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object,” he wrote.
The declaration marked the first public support for Zionism by a major political power. The term “national home” had no precedent in international law, and was intentionally vague as to whether a Jewish state was contemplated. In addition, the intended boundaries of Palestine were not specified, but there is no doubt that the milestone document paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel 31 years later.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the declaration in November, Roderick, Lord Balfour, the 5th Earl of Balfour and the great-grandson of Arthur’s brother, Eustace James Anthony Balfour, is attending a special conference at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim on September 13 and 14. Israeli and British officials and experts are scheduled to discuss the importance of the historic declaration and British-Israeli relations at the gathering, entitled “From Balfour to Brexit.”
Arthur James Balfour (AJB) never married and died childless. Roderick, Lord Balfour, his closest living relative, is the founder and director of London’s Virtus Trust financial group. He was born in 1948, 18 years after the death of AJB, and never actually met him. However, he says the family remains immensely proud of the statesman and his contribution to the course of modern Jewish history.
“I’m happy to come to Israel because I realize that the Balfour Declaration, in his name means an awful lot to Jews in Israel and the Diaspora,” he tells The Jerusalem Report
in an exclusive interview. “And the Diaspora is as important for me as Israel in terms of having a home for the Jews, where they can go to if persecution arises again. I see it very much as a humanitarian gesture against the background of what was happening at the time.”
Balfour prefers not to comment in depth on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he has been criticized by some right-wing Zionists for expressing support for a two-state solution.
“Where I seem to get into trouble is when I remind people of the central tenet in the Balfour Declaration, which states: ‘It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ Clearly the two-state solution is meant to lead to an end of the conflict and to neighboring states recognizing the right of Israel to exist. Whether that will ever be achievable is hard to imagine. Various Israelis say to me, ‘We don’t want an enemy state on our borders,’ but isn’t that pretty much what you have already?”
Balfour rejects the criticism that the politicians who drafted the declaration excluded explicit mention of political rights for the non-Jewish communities.
“One has to be in their minds at the time and they probably didn’t use the term ‘political rights’ as we do today. If you say ‘civil rights,’ we understand this today as the right to universal suffrage – the right to vote – so you could say that political is wrapped up in civil.”
Arthur James Balfour, a Conservative party stalwart, helped draft the declaration when he served as foreign secretary in Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s coalition after earlier serving himself as prime minister between 1902-05.
Balfour acknowledges that his famous relative was for many years perceived as a weak prime minister, remembered for leading the Conservatives to their biggest political defeat at the hands of the Liberals in 1906. However, contemporary historians have been kinder in their assessments.
“I think there has been a complete revision of the view of Arthur. He comes out as a great statesman rather than a great politician. He was undoubtedly shrewd. He did a lot of great things – he was faced with very similar problems as those faced by the British government today – such as free trade and Ireland,” Balfour notes.
“What was remarkable about politicians in those days was that they came in and out of power. Now, if you are out of the cabinet once, you don’t really make a comeback. In those days people from different parties spent weekends together and they had a much more statesman-like view of their roles. They could afford in those days to take a much more relaxed view. I think the statesman has disappeared today and it’s all about politics and sound bites these days.
“Arthur was a great philosopher apart from anything else. He had a pretty remarkable intellect. Obviously I’m biased but what was regarded as a rather uninspiring reputation has now been revised.” The family also remembers him fondly, although he was not without fault.
“The recollection in the family was of a rather patrician character, a bachelor, who could never say no to any members of his family who came along with a begging bowl. Everybody in the family is very proud to have him as an ancestor but he did squander an awful lot of money.”
Contemporary antisemitism continues to provide justification for the idea of Israel as a Jewish home, in Balfour’s opinion.
“But the quid pro quo for that, and this where I get into trouble with ultra-right Jewish commentators, is that the expansion of the settlements and what is perceived to be the treatment of Palestinians gets a very bad press. And people start to feel anti-Israel in debates, and I’m afraid that people associate Jews with Israel and Israel with Jews. The perception is that Israel needs to be wary of its international PR and they don’t seem to be winning that battle at the moment.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called on Britain to apologize for the Balfour Declaration, and even suggested the possibility of suing the country, if it does not apologize. PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki has called on British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to recognize a Palestinian state in a declaration akin to that of the 1917 Balfour Declaration – an idea rejected out of hand by Balfour.
“In terms of the British government declaring there should be a Palestinian state, that’s not going to happen in the sense we are not under the Mandate any more. It’s not for Britain to decide if there will be a Palestinian state.”
And he finds the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation state difficult to comprehend.
“Aren’t all these three faiths called the Abrahamic faiths? They all hail from that part of the world. Why would any of them have a problem with recognizing the right of the others to exist there. It was pretty inconceivable to Arthur James Balfour and to the government of the time. It’s absolutely axiomatic for us that Jews have a connection to Israel.”
In addition to attending the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference, Roderick, Lord Balfour would like his Jerusalem trip to help solve a family mystery. In 1925, Arthur Balfour visited Palestine and was guest of honor at the opening of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was greeted enthusiastically and presented with what relatives remember as a magnificent Torah scroll, which has since disappeared. Balfour hopes his visit can shed some light on what happened to the elusive Torah scroll.