1917: The birth of the Balfour Declaration

In photos of Arthur Balfour's face, I recognized the happiness he felt for writing the Balfour Declaration. Through those pictures, I can never forget him.

 Palestine restricted, New York, 1944 (photo credit: ARTHUR SZYK)
Palestine restricted, New York, 1944
(photo credit: ARTHUR SZYK)

We all know that there are some famous people whom we know very well through their writings and via their names on famous documents. As a schoolboy in the US, I knew all about the Monroe Doctrine but never saw his picture – he was a president of United States. I heard about the Balfour Declaration for many years, but I did not know what Sir Arthur Balfour looked like – until one day.

About 20 years ago I was approached by a Jerusalem Post editor to work with a collector of Eretz Yisrael photographs from the turn of the 20th century until the early years of the State of Israel. She had acquired a series of colored postcards which showed Arthur Balfour’s visit in 1925 prior to the opening of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was to write the story of that visit working with her.

As I saw the pictures of him, in color, I used them as my focus. I read in the Hebrew the newspapers about the adoration given to him in all the kibbutzim and moshavim and the schools he visited. As I watched him in those pictures, I could see what Eretz Yisrael, Palestine, meant to him. In his face, I recognized the happiness he felt for writing the Balfour Declaration. Through those pictures, I can never forget him.

In December 1917, a month after the Balfour Declaration was issued on November 2, the Jewish world was amazed and touched when they and people, in general, learned that a document promising a “Jewish homeland in Palestine” now existed. The thrill of that monumental act, 104 years ago, was hailed by Jewish communities in US and abroad. I recall how excited my mother, Anna Birshtein Geffen, 11 then in 1917, told me how she danced in the streets of Norfolk Virginia near Church Street where the Jewish stores were located. She was fortunate to study with Mr. Zvi Rekonty, a Palestinian Jew, who moved to Norfolk before World War I, and taught the youngsters in Hebrew in his private religious school.

The celebration of the document can also be witnessed in other American cities. The historian and noted Jewish community leader for the last half century, Toni Young, in her acclaimed book Jews in Delaware from 1860 to 1925, described what happened there. “On December 2, 1917, Wilmington’s Jews held a demonstration at the YMHA (in the heart of the city) to celebrate the Balfour Declaration and prepare for the tasks that would follow.”

 The White Paper, New York, 1943, reproduced with Historicana cooperation (credit: ARTHUR SZYK) The White Paper, New York, 1943, reproduced with Historicana cooperation (credit: ARTHUR SZYK)

A noted personage had been invited to speak. “Charles A. Cowen, a member of the executive committee of American Zionist Organization, explained the meaning of the declaration. Those present unanimously expressed their profound gratitude and deep joy, and resolved to pledge their lives for the work of the consummation of Zionist ideas.” In the spirit of that great moment, “they sang the Jewish national anthem, ‘Hatikvah’.”

WHAT SOMETIMES is forgotten was how major countries in the Far East recognized the Balfour Declaration with an official document. Let us review some of those efforts. The Shanghai Zionist Association was headed by Sir Ely S. Kadoorie, a noted merchant and philanthropist. He was born in Baghdad in 1847 and moved to Shanghai in 1880. He and his brothers transferred their business to Hong Kong in the first decade of the 20th century. Once located in the country, they established centers of business in other Chinese cities. Shanghai was one of the major centers of their business. Kadoorie had moved there much earlier and led the business there.

As the leading Zionist in that area, he persevered and obtained endorsements of the Balfour Declaration in Far Eastern countries. He turned to Siam, now Thailand, first. A letter was sent to Kadoorie from the foreign office in Bangkok on August 22, 1918.

“I have the honor to state that the Royal Siamese government expresses its accord with the sympathetic position taken by the Allies with reference to the establishment of Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people.” The rest of the letter stressed what else was important. “It being clearly understood that nothing will be done that may prejudice the civil or religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Moving on in his work, Kadoorie now turned to China. As one can imagine, since China was in the throes of revolution, the completion of such a dramatic act, publicly stating a positive position on the Balfour Declaration was to be a lengthy one. However, this Zionist leader was not prepared to allow this opportunity to pass for a Chinese endorsement of the Jewish homeland to be.

This process was a fascinating one. It began with an approach made to Dr. Paul Reinisch, the American minister in China, appointed by President Woodrow Wilson. Next there were the efforts of Judge Charles Lobinger, serving in the US court in China. He asked the US State Department to request that the Chinese government provide an endorsement of the Balfour Declaration. The letter of reply to Lobringer demonstrated double-talk and legalese.

“May I ask you to be good enough to explain this situation to the representatives of the Zionist associations and suggest to them that the matter could perhaps be taken up more appropriately through the Zionist organization in the US which might lay the matter before the Department of State with a view to its issuing to the legation such  instructions as it may consider suitable.”

Lobringer did not give up. Several months later, he persuaded Reinisch to move ahead. He stressed to him in a letter how important this American recognition of the Balfour Declaration was. He emphasized to Reinisch that “President Woodrow Wilson had given unqualified endorsement of the Jewish aspirations as regards Palestine.”It worked. A little over a year after the Balfour Declaration was issued, the Chinese government’s letter of endorsement was sent to Kadoorie. Copies were then made and sent around the world. Publications in the US and Europe printed the original letter and its English translation, and a great deal of excitement was generated by it. I saw a copy of the document in Chinese (with a translation) in the American Hebrew weekly paper, printed in New York and distributed throughout the US. That reproduction inspired me to learn the Kadoorie story.

To complete the Far East endorsements, Kadoorie turned to the Japanese government. It moved a little more quickly. In January 1919 the Japanese government sent a letter to the French embassy in Tokyo expressing its sympathy for the “establishment in Palestine of a Jewish homeland.” With the endorsements from the major Far East countries, the Shanghai Zionist Association with Kadoorie’s persistence had achieved its goal.

ANOTHER NOTED individual played a major role in England itself. Rav Abraham Isaac Kook went to Switzerland for a rabbinic post in 1914. Two years later, in 1916, since World War I was on, he was offered a position in London, since he could not return to Palestine until after the strife ended. While in London, he worked hard to refute the noted British leaders who were anti-Zionist. His position on the forthcoming Balfour Declaration was even discussed in Parliament. A few weeks after the Balfour Declaration had been issued, British Jewish leaders held a festive banquet. That night Rav Kook said the following.

“The Jewish nation is the ‘scholar’ among the nations, the people of the book, a nation of prophets. It is a great honor for any nation to aid it. I bless the British nation for having extended such honorable aid to the people of the Torah so that they may return to their land and renew their homeland.”

Another often-quoted speech of his was given in Jerusalem, at a public event, on November 11, 1925. The gathering was called by British Mandate officials to mark several anniversaries. There was a request for two minutes of silence, following the cannon fire in Jerusalem, celebrating the Armistice concluding World War I. At the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City, that day, Rav Kook, then the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine, spoke in this manner:“We the Jewish people have kept silent not only for two minutes, but for 2,000 years. The nations robbed our land from us. They plundered our cherished soil. They spilled our blood and we always kept silent.”

Then he continued in a most powerful way. “We suffered for 2,000 years of indescribable afflictions, but we kept our peace. Our silence today is our protest, our outcry. Return the theft! Return our holy places which you have taken by force.”

ALTHOUGH THE Balfour Declaration may not have the impact on us that it once had, it is still a major building block in the creation of our nation, Israel. I speak for myself, and I hope that I speak for others when I emphasize how significant Sir Arthur J. Balfour’s act was. Moreover, that act in England was endorsed by Justice Louis Brandeis when he emphasized to President Woodrow Wilson how important the declaration was, and that it should be announced for all the world to hear it.The Balfour Declaration motivated an entire generation of American Jews to help build Eretz Yisrael into the State of Israel and to consider aliyah as a real possibility.Toni Young, a very committed Jewish leader in the US and in Israel in the last half century, shared her thoughts with me concerning the impact of the famous document since it was issued in 1917:

“I believe the Balfour Declaration is the turning point, the moment that the world officially recognized the ‘Jewish problem’ and decided to help the Jews restore their dignity and return to their ‘ancient homeland’.” She emphasizes strongly, “I appreciate its value. Without the Balfour Declaration, Israel might never have been created.”

Now she points out the important process which was generated in the wake of the declaration. “For the next 30 years, 1917 to 1947, Jewish people participated in a legal process through governments, the League of Nations and eventually the US to establish a state.”

As a citizen of this country for over 40 years, I strongly agree with Young’s concluding words:

“Everyone who understands all the good Israel has done for the world, and all the ways Jewish citizens have contributed to their countries throughout the world, should understand the pivotal role of the Balfour Declaration.”