Balfour Day: Dynamics that accompanied famous declaration still at play - analysis

In 1917, the Balfour Declaration became the seminal document that led eventually to the establishment of the State of Israel.

Lord Arthur James Balfour and the text of the Balfour Declaration (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Lord Arthur James Balfour and the text of the Balfour Declaration
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)

On November 2, 1917, as World War I raged on, and months after various drafts were submitted and considered, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild to be transmitted to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland that electrified and transformed the Jewish world:

“His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

And so it began.

With a single sentence, with just 67 words – in Twitter parlance that amounts to 285 characters, or just over a two-screen Tweet – The Balfour Declaration became the seminal document that led eventually to the establishment of the State of Israel. Those few words would usher in the end of the Jewish people’s exile that spanned nearly 2,000 years.

In November of 1930, as the acting British police commander in Mandatory Palestine banned Jewish national banners and Arab black flags to mark the day, Haaretz’s editorial read: “The Balfour declaration is not a scrap of paper to the Jews, and someday Nov. 2 will be a day of real rejoicing for the Jewish people.”

A LARGE ROLE in securing the Balfour Declaration was played by the Jewish underground movement headed by Aaron Aaronsohn, seen at the rear of this family photograph. (credit: BEIT AARONSOHN ZICHRON YA’ACOV)A LARGE ROLE in securing the Balfour Declaration was played by the Jewish underground movement headed by Aaron Aaronsohn, seen at the rear of this family photograph. (credit: BEIT AARONSOHN ZICHRON YA’ACOV)

In the pre-state Yishuv, Balfour Day was celebrated by many as a holiday, a custom LATER eclipsed by Independence Day. END SENTENCE HERE. Just as a person’s birthday, not the day of conception, is celebrated, so too the date that a state came into being, not when it was conceived, is remembered for posterity.

Especially in the case of the birth of Israel, where many dates, in addition to the date when The Balfour Declaration was issued, could be designated as Israel’s date of conception: such as the convening of the First Zionist Congress in Basel on August 29, 1897, or the vote for the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (Partition Plan) on November 29, 1947.

Unlike what was written in the Haaretz editorial 91 years ago, however, November 2 has never really turned into a universal day of “real rejoicing for the Jewish people.” Most people, even those well acquainted with the contents of The Balfour Declaration, would be hard-pressed to name off the top of their head the date when it was issued.

Ironically, it was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who drew attention to Balfour Day by declaring in a speech to the United Nations in 2016, in advance of the centenary of the issuing of the declaration, that he was demanding an apology from Britain for the historic declaration.

“We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injustice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its consequences, including by the recognition of the state of Palestine,” Abbas said. “This is the least Great Britain can do.”

Abbas had his supporters in Britain, and – as former ambassador to the UK Mark Regev said – there was an organic lobby in Britain that was pressing for a British apology.

In May of this year, The Guardian – which in 1917 supported the declaration and whose editor at the time, C. P. Scott, was a strong supporter of Zionism – listed its advocacy of The Balfour Declaration, along with other issues such as its support for the US Confederacy, as among the positions it got wrong.

In an article in May headlined, ‘The Guardian’s worst errors of judgment over 200 years,’ the paper wrote, “The Guardian of 1917 supported, celebrated and could even be said to have helped facilitate the Balfour Declaration… Whatever else can be said, Israel today is not the country the Guardian foresaw or would have wanted.”

When a British apology for the declaration tarried in 2017, Abbas upped the ante, threatening that if no apology was forthcoming, the PA would file a lawsuit against Britain. Britain made clear it would not apologize, and – like so many other Abbas threats – nothing materialized from that lawsuit.

If many wake up Tuesday morning unaware that it is Balfour Day, many more are also probably unaware of two details about the declaration that are illuminating in light of the current debate around Israel in various parts of the world, including the United States.

The Balfour Declaration was the product of a British government where evangelical Zionists – Christians who believed that Israel was promised to the Jews by God and that a return of the Jews there presaged the Second Coming – held sway. As British journalist Melanie Phillips has pointed out, seven of the 10 men from the war cabinet who produced The Balfour Declaration had evangelical backgrounds.

Why is this relevant today? Because of arguments often voiced that Israel should distance itself from evangelical support, especially in the US, since it is pushing away liberal Democrats, including liberal Jewish Democrats, and that making common cause with evangelicals places Israel firmly on the Republican side of the partisan divide.

Had Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolow and other Zionist leaders pressing the matter at the time adopted A SIMILAR line of thinking, it is likely THE Balfour Declaration would never have emerged. The Balfour Declaration shows just how instrumental evangelical support has been for the Zionist cause.

And, secondly, Jewish voices against Zionism and Israel are not something new or invented by Jewish Voices for Peace, IfNotNow or the two Jewish Google employees behind a recent effort to get Google and Amazon to back out of a $1.2 billion contract with Israel.

The loudest voice raised against The Balfour Declaration when it circulated among Lloyd George’s cabinet in July 1917 came from a Jew, Edwin Montagu, an ardent anti-Zionist who was the Secretary of State for India.

Montagu’s vehement opposition led the draft to be changed from His Majesty’s government viewing with favor the establishment of Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people and calling for free Jewish immigration there, to the final text where the government viewed favorably the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, with no mention of immigration.

Thanks to the intervention of Montagu, a Jew, the declaration was toned down and rendered much more equivocal.

The Balfour Declaration may have been issued 104 years ago, but – in light of the debate that swirls around Israel today – the dynamics that accompanied its publication prove the axiom that the more things change, the more they stay the same.