Balfour Day will come and go in both Israel and the Diaspora and no one will
take notice. There will be no fireworks on November 2, no concerts or picnics,
no celebration. And perhaps that is the way it should be – the legacy of the
1917 Balfour Declaration is bittersweet and ambiguous.
Empire, the superpower of its epoch, made promises that could have given Zionist
aspirations permanent legitimacy. Instead, England betrayed the Zionist movement
and reneged on its recognition of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. We can learn
many lessons today from this perfidy.
The declaration, issued by the
British government on November 2, 1917, expressed England’s intention to
establish a Jewish national home in a Palestine newly conquered from the dying
Ottoman Empire. Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann and Nachum Sokolow,
engaged the British in intense negotiations leading up to the release of the
Both British prime minister Lloyd George and foreign
secretary Arthur J. Balfour supported the recognition of a Jewish homeland in
Eretz Yisrael. The reasons for their support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine
are a complex mix of imperialist cunning and religious zeal. Eminent British
historian Sir Martin Gilbert argues that the political force of the declaration
was the primary motivation.
“As anti-war sentiment gained strength
throughout Russia,” writes Gilbert in his history of Israel, “the British
government became increasingly anxious to find a way to persuade the Jews of
Russia to regard an Allied victory as an essential element in Jewish national
Other historians posit the theory that the British Empire
produced the declaration as a way to convince American Jews to use their
influence to bolster US commitment to fight the war with Britain and France
In addition to the reality of the power politics of an
empire, the element of religion was also a reality that we cannot ignore. Lord
Balfour was a firm believer that Zionism was a fulfillment of the prophecy of
the Bible. Balfour’s “Christian Zionism,” explored by Emory University professor
Shalom Goldman in his most recent study, played an important role in British
support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
This Protestant theology of
restoration elevated the British victory over the Ottoman Empire as the
beginning of the final drama of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Balfour and other influential British statesmen, the Jewish return to the Land
of Israel was more than just an expression of modern Jewish nationalism. The
Balfour Declaration was a religious document.
The declaration took the
form of a letter from Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish
community in England and a representative of the powerful banking family. The
document assured that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the
establishment of in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish
The use of the word “home” and not “state” was
In what would prove to be the British policy in years to
come, the recognition of Zionist aspirations was tempered by England’s fear of
alienating the Arab world.
Some of the elite of the British Jews – led by
Edwin Montagu – were anti-Zionist to the core and pressured their government to
dilute its commitment to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
even in its final version the Balfour Declaration was a milestone in the history
of Zionism. For the first time, a great power in Europe had recognized the goals
of the Zionist movement. After the First World War, the League of Nations made
the Balfour Declaration part of its mandate.
As Professor Alan Dershowitz
convincingly argues in The Case for Israel (2003), the British declaration
became “a matter of binding international law.”
The Balfour Declaration
was the first step in the legitimizing by the international community of the
Zionist project to revive a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.
Balfour’s letter turned out to be a bittersweet victory for the Jewish people.
The British, in the end, reneged on their promise. After a series of attacks by
Arabs against Jews in Palestine in the post-war period, the British appointed
Haj Amin al-Husseini grand mufti of Jerusalem.
The appointment of this
man as spiritual leader of the Muslims in Palestine was meant to appease his
followers and put an end to the violence.
The reality, however, was that
Husseini was a rabid Jew-hater who gave his blessing to Arab pogroms against the
Jews in the Land of Israel. The grand mufti cursed any attempt by Zionists to
create a Jewish state alongside those of the Arabs. He promoted the use of
violence that culminated in the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929. It is
no surprise that later in his life, the grand mufti was an ardent Nazi who
propagandized for the murder of all Jews, from Auschwitz to Tel Aviv.
would not have been as influential a force in Palestine as he was had not the
British Empire given him his power in order to assuage the opposition of
Palestine’s Arabs to the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle
The imperialist betrayal of the Jewish people did not end with
Husseini. In what proved to be a disastrous British policy in regard to the Jews
of Europe, England closed the gates of immigration of Zionists to Palestine. In
1939, on the eve of the war that would prove to be the greatest disaster in
Jewish history, British colonial secretary Malcolm MacDonald restricted Jewish
immigration to Palestine – a drastic curtailing that closed the escape route for
Jews seeking a safe haven – and restricted sale of land in Palestine to Jews.
This betrayal of Lord Balfour’s promise was a calculated political move by the
British Empire to appease the Arabs of Palestine and the Middle East, enhancing
the power of the empire in the region.
As important as the Balfour
Declaration was to the Zionist movement, it turned out to be just a piece of
paper and an empty promise.
Zionism is, at its heart, an anti-imperialist
Theodor Herzl failed in all his encounters with imperial powers
– the Germans, the Ottomans, the Russians, the British – to find support for a
Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
The brilliant Vladimir Jabotinsky
believed that England was the key to the realization of Zionist goals – he took
a gamble that failed and his followers later fought the British Empire in the
pre-state underground. In the end, it was the blood, sweat and toil of Jews that
built the State of Israel.
Diplomacy and legal recognition were no doubt
important – and are still important today – in the reality of the State of
Israel. But let us never forget that the revival of our people by Jewish men and
women, many who gave their life for the cause, forged the reality of that
revival in Eretz Yisrael.
The lesson we should learn is that the promises
of empires and superpowers to the Jewish people often turn out to be the worst
sort of perfidy.The writer is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca