The Centennial of the Balfour Declaration

...and Lord Balfour in Eretz Yisrael in 1925

The Balfour Declaration (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
The Balfour Declaration
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
As a student in Hebrew school in the late 1940s, I learned from a very fine teacher, Irvin Citron, that there was a document labeled the Balfour Declaration that gave the Jews the right to build a “modern” homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
Citron was such a committed Zionist that in 1949 he left Atlanta secretly and somehow entered Israel without a visa. He served in the Israeli army, Zahal, as he had served in US Army in World War II. When we, his students, learned what he had accomplished, inspired by the Balfour Declaration, some of us thought about aliya as adults. I was fortunate that I took my impressions of his words seriously.
One hundred years have passed since the Balfour Declaration became public. In studying the history of the document closely, as my friend in Jerusalem Rabbi Stuart Geller has done, I learned the British cabinet had the Declaration in hand for several months before it was made public.
The document is actually a letter from Sir Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild with a notable sentence that inspired the aliya of many Jews around the world, in the 1920s in particular.
Now a century has passed; for 70 of those 100 years there has been a state of Israel. Sadly, the Palestinians believe that the meaning of the words that Balfour wrote excluded them from their natural rights as old-time residents, from transforming Palestine into their homeland, too.
Recently, it was announced that the British nation will be sued for issuing a document of this nature, which was so prejudicial.
I do not want to explain the meaning of that 100-year-old letter. I would like to share with you the trip Sir Arthur Balfour took to this country in 1925 when he had been chosen to give the major address at the opening of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. Various highlights of that visit are captured in colored postcards in the collection of Vivienne Silver of Ein Harod, an historian of the Holy Land found in images of all types beginning in the late 19th century. Let us follow that noted British leader in his travels through the country.
Upon his arrival on March 26, 1925, the Palestine Weekly emphasized that he was “a man of the highest ideals, of the most immaculate concepts and of an unfaltering vision.”
Placing this honored Britisher in proper perspective, the Weekly editorialized, “Long after Zionism shall have achieved its predestined purpose, the name of Balfour will be recalled with veneration, as a potent factor in the early beginnings, one might almost say, the makings of New Palestine.”
Why was Balfour’s letter so important? In the letter to Lord Lionel Rothschild, he wrote, “His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a National Homeland for the Jewish people.” With such encouragement by the British leadership in 1917, the flow of Jews to the country began in earnest after World War 1 was completed.
While the historians and modern Jewry see the Declaration as a watershed in the process of developing a “Jewish homeland,” it should be recognized that Chaim Weizmann had to travel for almost two years to many countries of the world to get the various governments to officially recognize the document.
About 25 years ago, I found in the Zionist newspaper of Shanghai of 1919 a description of how the Chinese were persuaded to let the world know that they favored this pronouncement. Weizmann was in correspondence with various Chinese leaders after the Great Revolution there. Finally, he reached the leading figure Sun Yat Sin, who was very moved by the Jewish concept of return. He wrote a letter in Chinese emphasizing how significant this document was. It first appeared in the Shanghai Zionist magazine in Chinese and English and then was circulated around the world.
On the other hand, the USA debated the issue of recognition of the Balfour Declaration until 1922 when the Lodge-Fish resolution stated the American affirmation and it was signed by President Warren Harding, who died the following year.
Balfour, in that 1925 visit was a hero in whatever city or town or collective settlement he visited, both kibbutzim and moshavim. For example when he arrived at Tel Aviv, an archway had been built. Waiting at the arch of welcome constructed at the beginning of Allenby street was mayor Meir Dizengoff, the chief rabbis of the city, the members of the City Council and an honor guard from the Maccabiah youth movement. The Tel Aviv City Council members did their share. They harnessed themselves to Balfour’s car and pulled it to the Herzliya Gymnasium where a large crowd awaited his arrival. There Dizengoff made this distinguished visitor a freeman of the city and announced the dedication of Balfour Street.
Balfour was thrilled at this reception. Given a chance to speak, he was most complimentary. He expressed the hope that the future would be grounded in the deep roots of the past.
“The Jews knew very well that their future,” he stressed, “and the future of the immortal country of Palestine and the success of Zionism depended on their conviction that Palestine’s revival should be not only for the Jews but for all humanity.”
Balfour was welcomed at the Rutenberg electrical plant and the agricultural research station. In the evening, he attended a presentation of the Saint-Sens opera, “Samson and Delilah” presented in Hebrew. After the presentation, he walked to Shmaryahu Levin’s apartment, where he was staying. As he made his way, there was constant shouting “Long live Balfour, Long live Balfour!” The Doar Hayom newspaper suggested that every child born that year should be named “Balfour or Balfouria.”
At the dedication of the Hebrew University on April 1, Balfour was described as standing in the amphitheater in his flowing robes like a prophet of old. He gave the main address of the day.
“Palestine was a land that inspired all humanity with deep religious feeling, a land to which the Jewish people was now returning and in which it would be rebuilding,” he said. “The great cultural genius that came to an end centuries ago and has been dormant for so many years is now going to be revived in this land” What a tribute by Balfour on Mount Scopus, what a monumental act in his declaration, which called for “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.”
We should recall him with great reverence 100 years after his notable act to encourage the Jewish people to come home. Israel at 70 is a testament to Balfour’s vision for the Jewish people