In a year of anniversaries which relate to the history of modern Israel, perhaps the centenary of the Balfour Declaration is the most significant. For those who resent the rise of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel, it represents a colossal historic mistake. It clearly upsets the ideological applecart, anchored in the belief that the Jews are not a nation in the modern
sense, but merely a fossilised remnant of the past – a primitive religious group which inexplicably has not disappeared. The twentieth century, it was argued in 1917, would solve the centuries-long Jewish problem through assimilation into other societies. Hitler also thought this, but he chose other methods.
The Balfour Declaration and the October revolution occurred within days of each other. One proclaimed a new Jewish future in Palestine, the other the liberation of humankind wherever the socialist sun shone. Both Zionists and Jewish Communists of the era laid claim to Jewish tradition – in particular the teachings of the Prophets. For Jews in the twentieth century, these rival ideologies magnetically attracted them in their tens of thousands. Yet there was a difference. Herzl wanted the Jew to become a different type of Jew. Lenin wanted the Jew to become a different type of non-Jew.
The great dream of Communism perished in Stalin’s gulag. For Diaspora Jews, there was a continuum of disillusioning events – the Moscow show trials, the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Doctors Plot, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. No wonder that many Jews went to Israel to build a new society, one profoundly different from the ones they had inhabited.
The Balfour Declaration was a breakthrough for Zionist diplomacy. Despite their best efforts, doors had previously remained closed in Whitehall. It was a rare constellation of political circumstances in 1917 that presented a window of opportunity. Weizmann, Sokolov, Jabotinsky, Harry Sacher, Leon Simon and many others understood their role at this juncture in Jewish history – and acted accordingly.
Zionism was not wrong, it was different. It was a revolt against traditional Jewish leadership. It was a protest against passivity. It was a rebellion against the acceptability of being a pariah people on the margins. It was a dissent from thinking inside the box.
The wording of the Balfour Declaration was a masterclass in ambiguity which allowed post-Lloyd-George British governments to interpret it according to its perception of national interests. The revelations of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the McMahon-Sherif Hussein correspondence and other lesser postulations indicated that the Balfour Declaration was merely one piece on the imperial chessboard – in an attempt to end the slaughter during the Great War.
Despite its best efforts, HMG could not quite absolve itself from its commitment to the Jews. To its credit, successive British governments allowed hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate to Palestine during the third, fourth and fifth aliyot. Many Polish Jews during the fourth aliyah and German Jews during the fifth effectively owe their lives to British adherence to the Balfour Declaration.
The Balfour Declaration was the first practical step on the road to the state. It realised Herzl’s dream of an international affirmation of the Zionist project. No longer was building Zion rooted solely in theory. While the infrastructure for a new society was already being laid by figures such as Ben-Gurion, Katznelson and Tabenkin, the Balfour Declaration literally opened up the gates.
One hundred years on, a vibrant dynamic state has arisen. Does Israel have its flaws? Certainly. Do some politicians lack a moral compass? Undoubtedly. Are there seemingly insoluble problems? Absolutely. But Zionism has achieved a remarkable success – and its genesis lies in the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917. This issuing of this document – a turning point in Middle East history – is dissected from different perspectives in this stimulating collection of Fathom essays.
Fathom 20 October 2017