Anniversary of Balfour Declaration: Remembering Arthur James Balfour

Thank you Britain for your Balfour Declaration – Chag Balfour Sameach!

Lord Balfour's writing desk. Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Lord Balfour's writing desk. Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With the coronavirus devastating people’s lives physically and psychologically, this is not the optimal time to celebrate. Yet, in three days, November 2, we mark the day back in 1917, when Britain’s foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild, head of the Zionist Federation, saying, “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.”
The Balfour Declaration was a key catalyst for the rebirth of the modern State of Israel – a reason for Jews worldwide to celebrate. The Israel, Britain and Commonwealth Association (IBCA), founded in 1953 with the encouragement of the British Embassy, annually celebrates the Declaration here in Israel with its flagship event: the Balfour Dinner. The evening is addressed by prestigious speakers from the United Kingdom and Israel. Recent UK speakers include Boris Johnson, Lord Rothschild and the Earl of Balfour; among the Israeli speakers were Yair Lapid, Natan Sharansky and Gideon Sa’ar.
This year’s dinner, planned for November 2, was to have hosted Lord John Mann as the UK’s honored guest. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the dinner has been postponed. IBCA’s choice of Mann, the adviser to the UK government on antisemitism, reflects the deep concern at the current unprecedented rise in antisemitism. Readers of my past articles will recall the horrific online posters blaming the Jews for COVID-19. One stated, “Get the bug – give a Jew a hug – Holocough.” Others projected horrific caricatures of Jews that would do justice to Der Sturmer.
The Internet has become a vehicle for projecting antisemitism worldwide, but on a positive note, Facebook has now committed itself to ensuring that Holocaust denial will be prevented from appearing on its platform online. Some 250 white supremacist organizations have now been banned by Facebook. In announcing its decision, Facebook recognized the frightening increase in antisemitism as well as ignorance of the Holocaust. A recent survey carried out by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany, found that 65% of those under 40 had little or no knowledge of the systematic barbaric murder of six million people solely because they were Jews.
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies for the Jewish People is that the 1917 Balfour Declaration did not come to fruition until 30 years later in November 1947. We can but ponder how many Jews might have been saved from the gas chambers had Israel existed in 1937. At that time it was still possible for Jews to find a refuge from Hitler in other countries but subsequently too many closed their doors.
As we commemorate the Balfour Declaration 103 years on, Israel remains indebted to the British government for its seminal role in its rebirth.
WHAT IS the state of the Israel/United Kingdom relationship today? The Magazine spoke with UK Ambassador to Israel Neil Wigan, who began by expressing pride in the creative role played by Britain in 1917 which, he noted, was reflected in the 2017 100th anniversary celebrations in the UK. Then-prime minister Theresa May warmly welcomed Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and at a festive dinner said her country would “celebrate with pride its role in the creation of the State of Israel.” The ambassador pointed out that the official residence in Ramat Gan boasts a copy of the Balfour Declaration, a portrait of Balfour, as well as a “Balfour” room.
The relationship between the UK and Israel is deep and broad. Britain is Israel’s biggest trading partner after the United States and China. In 2018, trade between the two countries reached $10 billion; in 2019 this sum increased even further. Some 85 Israeli start-ups are currently operating in the UK. The Royal Bank of Scotland and the National Health Service are among many key British concerns utilizing Israeli technology. Scientific and military cooperation are at an all-time high, with joint training operations carried out between the Royal Air Force and the Israel Air Force. The ambassador believes scientific, trade and technology links between Britain and Israel are at an record high with ever-increasing activity in these fields.
British Ambassador to Israel Neil Wigan. (Wikimedia Commons)
In response to the question as to how the UK viewed the recent normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (and now Sudan), the ambassador said that while recognizing the value of these relationships, he believes the Balfour Declaration has not been completely fulfilled because a two-state solution is yet to materialize.
On the question of antisemitism on UK campuses, Wigan affirmed his government’s strong opposition to antisemitism while ensuring the right to free speech. He pointed out that Theresa May’s government had elevated former Labour MP John Mann to the House of Lords, creating for him the post of adviser on antisemitism.
November remains an historic month – negatively and positively – for the Jewish People. November 9 marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht when, in 1938, the Germans set fire to Synagogues and Jewish businesses. On November 29, 1947 the UN voted for the Partition Plan. Amos Oz’s childhood memory of that moment, recorded in his autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness, gives a vivid picture of the excitement that filled the air as his parents and neighbors stood in the street outside their homes, gathered around one radio anxiously listening as each country cast its vote.
Back to Balfour whose letter to Lord Rothschild in 1917 laid the foundation for the State of Israel. Currently, as citizens of the one Jewish state, we are comforted in the knowledge that whatever challenges we might face will be easier to confront because we are in our own land in charge of our own destiny.
Israel’s existence ensures that “Never again” means never again – for every Jew, wherever he may live, the gates of Israel remain open. As the American poet, Robert Frost, once said, ““Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Thank you Britain for your Balfour Declaration – Chag Balfour Sameach!
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. The views expressed are hers alone.