Balfour at 90

90 years ago, no less than today, there were those who saw recognition of Jewish rights as a provocation.

Balfour 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Balfour 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yesterday, at the weekly cabinet meeting, the government noted the 90th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: There is no doubt that the Balfour Declaration was an inseparable part of the decisive steps that enabled the establishment of the Jewish state. What a pity that it was established 31 years after the declaration and not much sooner ­ it is likely that our history would have been very different. For such an momentous document, it certainly was unimposing. Neither a treaty nor a parliamentary resolution, the declaration was made in the form of a short letter ­ conveying a British cabinet decision ­ from foreign secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, representing the Jewish community and the Zionist Federation. The operative paragraph read in full: His Majesty¹s 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, 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. In time, of course, as governments and circumstances changed, it seemed that Britain¹s "best endeavours" would be devoted to helping the Arab world squash the nascent Jewish state in its cradle by closing off Jewish immigration to mandatory Palestine. Yet the Balfour Declaration earned a critical place in history as the first statement by a great power favoring the national aspirations of the Jewish people in the modern era. Almost a century later, the latest tyrants seeking Israel¹s destruction, Iran¹s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Arab jihadi allies, habitually pretend that Israel exists only as redress for the Holocaust, and claim that the Muslim world is bearing the burden of the genocide in Europe against the Jews. But the truth, as Olmert¹s statement alluded, is exactly the opposite: If the Jewish state had been founded earlier, history, including the Holocaust, would have been very different. But even this tends to understate the Jewish national case. Do the national rights of any other nation ­ such as Egypt, or France, or Brazil ­ depend on the demonstrated threat of persecution? There is little doubt that the Balfour Declaration was promulgated partly on the background of relentless persecution of the Jewish people during the many of centuries of exile from its historic land. But there is no basis to suppose that its drafters anticipated the Holocaust. Rather, it was widely self-evident in the West that the Jewish people ­ with their own language, culture, religion and national identity ­ deserved a "national home" of their own. Long before the word "Zionism" was coined, a strong current of "restorationism" ran through the Christian world and strongly influenced many of the founders and almost all the presidents of the United States. Restorationists deeply believed the Jews should be "restored" to their ancient land. The British cabinet of 1917 did not act on a whim or in a vacuum, but in a political-religious landscape in which its action, while engendering some controversy, was considered natural and just. The Holocaust, along with the subsequent creation of more than a dozen Arab states, should have served to accentuate the urgency of recognizing Jewish national rights. Yet the Arab world managed to turn a key aspect of the Balfour Declaration on its head. The valid notion of not prejudicing the rights of "non-Jewish communities in Palestine" was transformed into justification for denying Jewish rights ­ despite the fact that new Arab states had already sprouted in abundance. The intolerance of many Arab states toward the one Jewish state persists to this day. This intolerance is so strong that it even holds hostage the prospect of creating yet another Arab state, this time for Palestinians. Further, we now see that it is a subset of a wider intolerance for Western democracies, which are seen as a threat to the Islamist dream of spreading its brand of theocratic dictatorship. Ninety years ago, no less than today, there were those who saw the recognition of Jewish national rights as a provocation and irritant. Since 9/11, if not before, it should be clear that the "irritant" to the Islamic extremist ideology is not Israel or any other Western manifestation, but the existence and independence of the West itself.