Should Jews celebrate Balfour Day?

The declaration was the culmination during WWI of a year of continuous negotiations between the Zionist movement and the British government.

Arthur James Balfour (photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Arthur James Balfour
(photo credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Theodor Herzl likely died of exhaustion and frustration on July 3, 1904. The founder of political Zionism and the great and charismatic leader at its helm struggled for almost a decade to find a strong foreign power with influence that would recognize the reality of a Jewish state. He negotiated with the Turkish sultan, Kaiser Wilhelm, the king of Italy, and Pope Pius X.
In his 1989 study of Herzl, biographer Ernst Pawel writes, “Time and again he proceeded to act on the assumption that a few men at the top were free to determine the course of events, and that if he could talk to the key players he could convince them to follow his game plan.” It was all for naught during Herzl’s lifetime, but his legacy would lead to what Zionists considered a major triumph years after the leader’s death: the Balfour Declaration.
The Balfour Declaration was the product of practical politics and religious zeal. On November 2, 1917, British foreign secretary A.J. Balfour sent a letter Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, the de facto leader of Jewry in England. Balfour assured Lord Rothschild that “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.”
The declaration was the culmination during WWI of a year of continuous negotiations between the Zionist movement and the British government. It was in part a gesture of appreciation for Chaim Weizmann’s critical work on developing acetone for explosives for the British military, an attempt to counter Bolshevik propaganda and convince Russian Jews to remain in the war effort, and the influence of Balfour’s Christian Zionist religious beliefs.
While news of the Balfour Declaration electrified the Jewish world, the joy would soon be tempered by political reality. The Ottoman Empire collapsed and was soon replaced by the British Mandate. There can be no doubt that the power of the British Empire played a major role in England’s promises to the Jews. Historian Sir Martin Gilbert states in his 1998 history of Israel that Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion “sounded a cautionary note” to the news of the declaration.
Ben-Gurion’s words were prophetic: “Britain has made a magnificent gesture; she has recognized our existence as a nation and has acknowledged our right to the country. But only the Hebrew people can transform this right into tangible fact; only they, with body and soul, with their strength and capital, must build their National Home and bring about their national redemption.” As it turned out, the British were the power Herzl was looking for. Yet, in a short time, they betrayed their promises and eventually had to be driven out of the Land of Israel by the Jews. Their policies that favored Arab wrath at Jewish immigration into the Promised Land didn’t help.
THERE ARE two betrayals by the British of the Balfour Declaration that stand out. The first betrayal was the British Empire’s appointment of Haj Amin al-Husseini as the senior Muslim cleric in Palestine following the 1921 riots against Jews that he led, and which resulted in 47 dead. This appointment of a murderer of Jews as “grand mufti” was done to placate Arab opposition to Jewish immigration into the Mandate. The leader of this pogrom soon became “the predominant Arab political figure” in Palestine.
The grand mufti inspired Arabs to murder Jews in future riots, especially the slaughter of the infamous year 1929. But British appeasement of the Arabs would fail, and by 1936 their anti-Jewish scoundrel of choice was leading a revolt against the empire. The British finally woke up and exiled the mufti. He made his way to Berlin and began a career as a Nazi propagandist during WWII.
On November 2, 1944 – which happened to be the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration – the grand mufti announced he was setting up an Arab army to fight alongside the Nazis. His grandiose plans were never realized but he did find the time to protest to the Bulgarian foreign minister about allowing Jewish children to leave Bulgaria for Palestine. Instead, Sir Martin Gilbert describes how he demanded they be sent to Poland – which the grand mufti knew meant death – “under strong and energetic guard.”
The second British betrayal of Balfour’s 1917 promise was the “White Paper” named after colonial secretary Malcolm MacDonald. This 1939 decree shut the doors to the Land of Israel to millions of desperate Jews. Over the course of five years, only 750,000 Jews would be able to find refuge in the British Mandate. The White Paper restricted areas of existing settlements.
As with the appointment of Haj Amin al-Husseini as grand mufti, it was appeasement – the Arabs protested Jewish immigration and wanted to protect their majority. The British acceded to their wishes. The British Empire knew that this was a death sentence for millions of Jews. It did not matter. The Arabs had to be placated. This was Balfour’s “National Home for the Jewish People.” That promise died with the grand mufti and with the 1939 White Paper.
November 2 is a bittersweet anniversary. We should be grateful that the British Empire fulfilled its necessary role as a major power recognizing the need for the Jewish return to Israel. This fulfilled Theodor Herzl’s dream. The idea of a Jewish home was “official” with the Balfour Declaration. But the tragic failures of the declining imperialists of Britain spelled disaster for millions of Jews and those Zionists who were able to settle in the Land of Israel.
The fact that Britain permitted waves of Jewish immigration that populated their Mandate does not erase the damage they did. More than 100 years after Balfour, I will celebrate – and lament.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.