November 2 marks 101 years since Britain’s foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, wrote his famous letter to Lord Rothschild committing His Majesty’s government to view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. The Balfour Declaration sowed the seeds for the future State of Israel.
One has to admire the perseverance of Balfour, who faced opposition from none other than a Jew in government, Edwin Samuel Montagu, at that time the minister of munitions and secretary of state for India. Montagu’s memo to the cabinet in August 1917 stated, “When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens.” Montagu implied this would be the catalyst for increased antisemitism worldwide, giving countries the right to tell their country’s Jews to go to Palestine. Montagu was a rabid anti-Zionist evidently embarrassed by his Jewish identity. He felt that the Muslims and Christians had a greater right to Palestine than did the Jews, who were in his eyes not a nation, simply a religion.
Tragically, the Jews did not have to wait to be given a homeland in Palestine to become victims of the most horrific annihilation of human beings – simply because they were Jews. In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power. One of his first decrees was the dismissal of all Jewish teachers from schools and universities with Jewish students’ entry to university limited to 1% of the student intake. By 1938, Jewish children were no longer able to attend public schools. My husband, John, remembers how one day he was told he could no longer attend the school where he had been a pupil since the age of six. Simultaneously, one of his best friends, a non-Jew, informed him they could no longer be friends because he was a Jew.
THE WORLD began to show concern about what was happening in Germany; as a result of American pressure, an international conference was convened on July 7, 1938 in Evian, a border town between France and Switzerland. Its objective was to discuss what could be done to help the fleeing German Jews. Some 32 countries were represented and while each delegate expressed concern, very little practical help emerged. The British made it clear that they could not increase their quota. The Australian delegate said, “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” Others cited the economic depression as to why they could not allow German Jews to find refuge in their respective countries.
Hitler noted how “astounding” it was that, even though countries criticized Germany for its treatment of the Jews, they nevertheless refused to open their gates to those seeking refuge.
November 9, 1938, was the night when my husband, the son of the rabbi of the Bamberg Synagogue, saw his father’s synagogue go up in flames. Kristallnacht, as it became known, marked the night the Germans decided to set fire to synagogues all over the country. Over 1,000 synagogues were destroyed, as were some 7,500 Jewish businesses. Some 30,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps, as was my husband’s father, who was taken to Dachau. This was the moment John’s family decided they could not wait until their American papers, dated November 1940, would allow them entry into the US. The Americans’ quota system enabled the entry of only a limited number of German Jews per year.
Fortunately, John’s grandfather, an eminent rabbi in Budapest, spoke with his friend Dr. Hertz, the chief rabbi in Britain, and the Katten family received temporary visas allowing them to enter Britain in March 1939. Thousands of others with American visas dated September 1939 perished in the Holocaust.
In November 1995, the mayor of Bamberg invited John to take part in a ceremony on November 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, to unveil a monument in the area where the synagogue once stood. Ironically, the monument could not be placed precisely on the exact site because today it is occupied by the Ministry of Justice. As we sat in the square, on a cold morning, listening to speeches by the mayor of Bamberg, the culture minister, the justice minister and others, all John could think of was the night he witnessed his synagogue in flames. The fine words meant little to him.
Aside from this event, a special plaque was unveiled in the Bamberg Jewish cemetery with the names of those who were murdered in the Holocaust. The plaque included the name of John’s grandmother, who was unable to obtain a visa to leave Germany. Her days were ended in Theresienstadt.
The 32 countries at the Evian Conference were passive collaborators with the German murderers, as their barred gates played an active role in the annihilation of millions of Jews.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine – a state for the Jews and one for the Arabs. Amos Oz, in his autobiographical book A Tale of Love and Darkness, vividly describes how his family stood outside their home, together with their neighbors, listening to the wireless as country after country cast their vote; 21 of the 33 countries that voted in favor of the partition plan were those that chose not to offer refuge to Jews seeking to escape death in 1938, with an additional five Evian participants abstaining. The justifiable guilt felt by those countries that closed their gates to Jews in 1938 probably influenced how they voted.
TODAY IN the United Kingdom, the country that produced the Balfour Declaration, the major opposition party is headed by Jeremy Corbyn, a virulent antisemite. His antisemitism (like that of many others) is cloaked in his anti-Zionism as demonstrated by his choice of friends Hamas and Hezbollah. At the recent Labour Party Conference he promised that on becoming prime minister he will immediately recognize Palestine. This was received enthusiastically by delegates waving Palestinian flags. Life is being made impossible for the likes of the non-Jewish Labour MP John Mann, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on antisemitism. There is now a concerted effort to de-select those sitting Labour MPs who have spoken out against the antisemitism pervading the party. The Jewish community has every reason to feel uncomfortable – an anxiety that was accentuated during the High Holy Days when, for the first time, armed police (both in and out of uniform) were necessary to guard the synagogues and those at prayer.
Does a Jewish state create antisemitism? It was not the reason that six million of our people were murdered. Perhaps the question should be how many millions might have survived if there if there had been an Israel.
As we commemorate 101 years since the Balfour Declaration and 70 years since Israel’s rebirth, we take pride in what this little state has achieved. Israel’s hi-tech is on par with Silicon Valley. What would we do without Waze? Medical developments during 2017 include a compound that disables cancer cells, an artificial cornea and the world’s first bone transplant. Israel is among the first to aid countries hit by natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, as witnessed by our aid to Indonesia, a country with which we do not have diplomatic relations, yet Israel sent water purifiers and IsraAID sent teams of support workers.
On November 2, 2018, what is Israel’s prime significance to every Jew? In the words of the American poet Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.
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