Friday, October 27, 2017

Balfour: The ideal that moves me - by Dror Eydar

The handful of lines that make up the Balfour Declaration ushered the Jewish people into a new age • Between a home and a state, between a dream and reality: eight comments on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

Lord Edmund Allenby, Lord Arthur Balfour
 and Sir Herbert Samuel in Jerusalem in 1925
Dror Eydar..
Israel Hayom..
27 October '17..

The handful of lines that have come to be known as the Balfour Declaration ushered the Jewish people into a new age. For the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the failed Bar Kokhba revolt 65 years later, an international body with some authority officially recognized the practical possibility of the Jews' return to Zion. The declaration was vague, but it contained the hope that ultimately, at the end of a long process, a Jewish state would be established.

The Jews were so impressed with the declaration that people started marking the declaration's date, Nov. 2, 1917, like a birthday. The comparison to the Cyrus Cylinder was almost immediate, and the expression "Atchalta de'geulah" (Aramaic for "The beginning of the redemption") was omnipresent. Children born around that time were given names having to do with the redemption.

To this day, historians still debate the reasons – diplomatic, military, political, religious - that led Britain to issue the declaration. It is hard to say specifically what prompted it, because it is still shrouded in mystery and has not been fully understood. In many respects, the declaration was unprecedented, because it promised the Jewish people a state in a geographical location where the vast majority of them did not live.


It is worthwhile to take a close look at the wording of the declaration. The introduction clarifies that it is not a balanced diplomatic document, but rather expresses the "sympathy" of the British government for "Jewish Zionist aspirations." The conclusion of the document also asks Lord Walter Rothschild, to whom the document is addressed, to "bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation." The reference is to the federation of British Jews, but still, it amounts to the recognition of the Zionist movement as a diplomatic body, capable of engaging in negotiations.

The body of the declaration is the long sentence between the introductory and concluding paragraphs: "His Majesty's Government view with favour …" – the initial wording proposed by the representatives of the Zionist movement was "adopts the principle," but the British, as they tend to do, took a less committed approach – "... the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people ... ." It did not say "the" national home, although everyone knew it would be the only national home. The word "state" was deemed too provocative. But what exactly is a "national home"?

Professor Aviva Halamish says that as early as the First Zionist Congress, in 1897, it was declared that "Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law." The architects of the Basel program did not use the word "state" mainly to avoid the wrath of the Ottoman rulers, although they clearly meant it. But did the British government also mean that the Jews' national home would eventually become a state?

In 1937, the Peel Commission investigated the topic. It pored over secret documents and heard testimonies, including from British Prime Minister Lloyd George. Its conclusion was that the British government meant (or at least did not rule out the possibility) that a Jewish state would ultimately be established in the historic land of Israel. The condition for the establishment of a state was a Jewish majority, and the declaration states that Britain would "use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object."


"A national home for the Jewish people" – not just for the Jews already living there, but for the entire Jewish people. This is an important point, because as the years progressed, the British sought to renege on their promise and tried to balance out the declaration and direct it solely at the local residents – both Jews and Arabs – and at the time, there was an obvious Arab majority.

"A national home in Palestine" – the original wording as it was formulated by the representatives of the Zionist movement was "His Majesty's government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people." The wording that was ultimately adopted talks about a national home in the land of Israel, but not necessarily in all of it. At the time of the declaration, it was not clear what part of the Ottoman Empire was defined as "Palestine."


Right off the bat, the declaration inserts caveats: "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." The final sentence was added because of British Jews' objections to the declaration, and to Zionism in general. They feared that the declaration would undermine their status as citizens of Britain, and taint them with suspicions of dual loyalty. They feared that they would be told to go to their "national home" in Palestine.

The most charged phrase in the document, however, is the one about the "non-Jewish communities." It views the region's Arabs not as a national collective but as separate communities and individuals whose civil and religious rights must be upheld. Thus, the document treats the Jews, who were a minority at the time, as the majority, and the Arab majority as the minority that must be protected. This phrase may be the conclusion of an earlier reference to the entire "Jewish people." While the Jews were indeed a minority, they were intrinsically linked to an entire people – one that demanded a right to, and ownership of, the land. Meanwhile, the Arab population really was made up of groups and communities, linked in the north to Syria, in the south to Egypt, and so on.

The territorial unit defined as the land of Israel only existed in the minds of the Jewish people and in their history and religion. The Arabs of the time lived as subjects of the Ottoman Empire, which never demarcated the borders that were later drawn.


It would be worthwhile to expand on this point. Over the last few weeks, I have written in my columns about the claim by the current Arab leadership, both in the Knesset and in Judea and Samaria, that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality. This argument is also espoused by some of the global Left. If we are not a people, then we do not have the right to self-determination, and our demand for this land is therefore invalid.

This argument is interesting because when the emancipation and civil rights of the Jews in Europe were up for debate, the anti-Semites claimed that the Jews cannot be granted these rights because they constitute a "state within a state." The argument was that they have national aspirations and could therefore never be loyal citizens. This is the age-old issue of dual loyalty.

In an effort to confront this claim, liberal Jews and some assimilated Jews cultivated the idea that Judaism is just a religion, and their nationality is a product of the land in which they reside.

When Theodor Herzl first thought up the Zionist idea, and spoke about the return to the land of Israel, those Jews rushed to oppose him, claiming that we are members of a religion, not a nationality. Zionism contradicted their desire to integrate into their host countries and be loyal citizens. Patriotic German Jews fought against patriotic French Jews. Possibly the only time that Germany's Orthodox and Reform Jews, who were openly hostile toward one another, agreed on anything was when they issued a joint letter opposing Herzl's vision. Zionism made them suspicious in the eyes of the rest of the Germans. They felt it made them appear as if they belonged in Palestine.

These Jews argued, among other things, that the Jews' most important task was to be a light unto the nations in all corners of the earth. The land of Israel, meanwhile, remained, in their eyes, a spiritual idea, relegated to the emotional desire for the coming of the messiah.


At the same time, the anti-Semites in the 19th century contended that the Jews had national aspirations and could not be trusted. This claim was turned on its head in the 20th century, especially following the Balfour Declaration. It is actually quite fascinating: The moment we, as a people, begin to return to our history, the anti-Semitism mounts and adopts a new strategy. Even during the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) era, anti-Semitism ensured that many Jewish scholars were excluded from European civil society. The argument was that the Jews are a "people" and not merely a religion, and that is why they did not want us (because of dual loyalty, etc.).

But upon the inception of Zionism, and more so after the Balfour Declaration (a physical representation of the Jews' return to history not just in the emancipatory sense but also in the national sense, as in "a national home in Palestine"), the world understood that after years of wandering the world, the Jewish people were ready to return home and realize the vision of the return to Zion.

Ever since that historic moment, all the anti-Semitic sentiments that so vehemently opposed the emancipation and integration of the Jews because of their Jewish nationality and the dual loyalty problem, suddenly took a 180-degree turn, opposing the return to Zion on the grounds that we are not a people but just a religion.

In certain parts of Europe, this sentiment is still prevalent to this day. The new anti-Semitism has assumed the guise of anti-Israeli sentiments, but the gist is still the same: opposition to the Jews' return to Zion and to a Jewish presence in their ancient homeland as an independent state.


The Balfour Declaration states that the British government would "use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object." This is a critical point. The British did not intend to hand us the state on a silver platter. They only planned on facilitating, or allowing it to be established. The one who would have to work toward realizing this objective were the Jewish people. It was up to us and no one else.

This declaration was important for us not only on the symbolic plane, but it also served as the clear foundation for the mandate that Britain was given in Palestine by the League of Nations. In fact, it was the foremost demand before the British were given authority – it was incumbent upon them to implement the spirit of the declaration. It was obvious to all that this mandate was different than any other mandate, anywhere else in the world. In other places, the ruling authority was in place to benefit the existing population, whereas in Palestine, the mandate was granted to benefit a population that was not in the region yet. The intended population was destined to arrive in the future, and the task of the British mandate was therefore to prepare for their arrival.

Indeed, Lord George Curzon, who served as the British foreign secretary when the mandate was drafted, came out against the draft, saying that the "document reeks of Judaism in every paragraph and is an avowed constitution for a Jewish state."


And one last point: Not everything is political and diplomatic. Lord Arthur James Balfour subscribed to the English philo-Semitic tradition, which associated the Jews' return to Zion with their Christian faith and sought to realize the biblical prophecy of the Jews' return to their homeland in the end of days.

As early as 1840, in the Convention of London, the British decided – inspired and influenced by those Christian circles – not to give Muhammad Ali of Egypt control over Palestine but rather support the continuation of the authority of the Ottoman Empire, which did not view this land as a separate geographical unit. In fact, this decision "kept" this land, in their perception, as a trust for the Jewish people when they would decide to return.

In a speech to parliament, Balfour declared: "This is the ideal which chiefly moves me ... that Christendom is not oblivious to their [the Jews'] faith, is not unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world, and that we desire to the best of our ability to give them the opportunity of developing in peace and quietness under British rule, those great gifts which hitherto they have been compelled to bring to fruition in countries which know not their language and belong not to their race."

Balfour's first biographer, his niece Blanche Dugdale, wrote that "Balfour's interest in the Jews and their history was lifelong. It originated in the Old Testament training that Balfour had received from his mother and in his Scottish upbringing. As he grew up, his intellectual admiration and sympathy for certain aspects of Jewish philosophy and culture grew also, and the problem of the Jews in the modern world seemed to him of immense importance. He always talked eagerly on this, and I remember in childhood imbibing from him the idea that Christian religion and civilization owe to Judaism an immeasurable debt, shamefully ill repaid."

Balfour's declaration was his way of making a small dent in this debt.

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