Celebrating Balfour

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2 November 2017
Josh Marks, FZY Movement Worker 2017/18 takes a closer look at the sixty-seven words that paved the way for a Jewish State

Today, 2 November, marks the centenary of The Balfour Declaration. On a scrap of paper no larger than A5, Lord Arthur Balfour dictates the all-important sixty-seven words to Lord Walter Rothschild:

His Majesty’s 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.

One hundred years later, the letter has become a contentious marker of the fine line that Israel has had to tread as an independent, democratic state, Jewish in nature and responsible also for its non-Jewish inhabitants. In an atmosphere of soundbite comments, hot-headed and short on nuance, here is an almost word-by-word of the promises that Lord Balfour makes, and an analysis of their respective successes.

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…

This is the easy bit. Note how the Conservative Balfour speaks on behalf of the Government, outlining the stance taken by the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The coalition was broadly echoing an opinion that the Labour party had endorsed just three months earlier in their War Aims Memorandum. That means that support for Zionism was truly a cross-party matter.

…and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object…

Did they? On the one hand, the British Mandate for Palestine had the establishment of a Jewish home as a stated aim, recognised by the League of Nations. It facilitated the establishment of the Jewish Agency and oversaw an estimated 360,000 legal Jewish migrants between 1920 and 1945.

On the other hand, the British Mandate in Palestine allotted 87,500 acres of land to Arabs to be cultivated and only 4,250 to Jews. A 1939 White Paper forbade land sales to Jews in 95% of mandatory Palestine.

…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…

British Jew Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner of Palestine, limited Jewish immigration to protect ‘the interests of the present population’. In 1980, the Jerusalem Law ‘secures rights of members of all religions’. All Orthodox religious ceremonies performed in Israel, under any religious auspice, are recognised. The Basic Law (1992), which outlines the ‘values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’, protects the lives, bodies and dignities of all people. There have been two Arab judges on the Supreme Court of Israel.

After gaining control of the West Bank in 1967, Israel guaranteed Muslim access to mosques and Christian access to churches. The Israeli Defense Forces foiled a Jewish attempt to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and continues to protect this site from attacks by non-Muslims. The city of Jerusalem has given financial support to religious Muslim activities.

There is still some way to go for this promise to be realised. All 137 official designated holy sites recognised by Israel are Jewish, and there is markedly less civil liberty guaranteed in the areas that fall under the governance of the Palestinian Authority. In spite of that, there is de facto recognition of other faiths and their religious rights, as demonstrated.

…or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

Unfortunately, this was the promise that was hardest for Balfour to ensure. In the decade that followed Israel’s declaration of independence, approximately 850,000 Jews were persecuted, expelled or evacuated from Arab and Muslim countries. In 1948, there were approx. 35,000 Jews in Libya. Today there are none. In 1948, there were approx. 135,000 Jews in Iraq. Today there are 5. In 1948, there were approx. 30,000 Jews in Syria. In 2014, there were just 17.

To conclude, then, we should celebrate with pride the Balfour Declaration, with its historic promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. We should be unapologetically proud of the role that young people played in establishing a Nation-State for a displaced people. And whilst we should note that some promises remain unfulfilled, we should continue to struggle towards the ‘infinite dream’ that is Herzl’s Zionism, and that is beautifully and succinctly summarised in Balfour’s sixty-seven words.

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