The person who casually commented to me that ‘the Balfour Declaration was a mistake as it made the British have blood on their hands’ was not prepared for the strength of my reaction. As Prime Minister Teresa May rightly said last night, the Declaration is ‘one of the most significant letters in history’, opening the doors to making the Jewish homeland a reality.
To me, and so many others, this is not simply an objective fact. It saved my father’s life. He and his family might have perished in Nazi Germany, had they not been able to emigrate to Palestine. How many in the late 1930s wished they could have followed that same route!
The Balfour Declaration emerged out of The First World War. In the bleak months of 1917, with the Ottoman Empire on the German side, the British sought the support of world Jewry, and, separately, that of Arab groups prepared to rebel against the Turks. Chaim Weizmann, a man of charm, charisma and a diplomatic brilliance sorely lacking in the globe today, turned this belief in Jewish power to advantage. The Declaration was also motivated by Christian feeling for Jews, founded on respect for the Biblical vision of an ancient and courageous people returning to the land from which it was cruelly expelled.
Thirty-one years later, years which contained the terrors of the Russian Revolution, the persecution of Jews in the area known as the Pale of Settlement, the incomprehensible cruelty and slaughter of the Holocaust, and the horrors of World War II, Israel’s Declaration of Independence expressed the aims of the newly proclaimed state in terms closely consonant with Lord Balfour’s letter:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex…
Last night, the current Lord Rothschild, great nephew of the recipient of the letter, referred to these words with careful wisdom, noting, as did Teresa May, that the second clause of Lord Balfour’s note, referring to the rights of the ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ awaited fulfilment. To that end, he said, the same vision, courage, faith and tenacity had to be devoted by all sides, and the international community, as the realisation of the seemingly far-fetched dream of a Jewish state had itself not so long ago required.
As a lover of Israel, opposed to the boycott, with Israeli Jewish and Palestinian friends, having stood on both sides of the wall, having listened (though only little compared to many others) to pain, fear and the terrible anguish of grief from both sides, I pray for the enduring fulfilment of every one of the 67 words in that remarkable letter. I pray that, as we look back now on Israel’s many and remarkable achievements, we will one day in the not too far future be able to look back on what seems so far from attainment today: peace, security, justice, and the collaboration in the common interest of us all of those who are so often forced to see each other as enemies.
Lord Balfour’s letter also has a third clause, often overlooked, stating that nothing must be done to diminish the ‘rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. (The Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws just 18 years later). This touches upon the charter by which we all hope to live in open, plural democracies: freedom of conscience, speech and movement, and the right to live in equality as citizens protected by the impartiality of the law. In far too few places in the world is this truly the reality.
Today we need to do more than defend the right of Israel to exist (a challenge no other country has to face). I believe we must to do our utmost to make whatever personal and collective contribution we can for the peace, well-being, safety, and dignity of life for all the country’s inhabitants, – exactly as Israel’s Declaration of Independence states.
The image is taken from Jonathan Fishburn’s catalogue at www.fishburnbooks.com. The heading reads: Patshegen Hadekliratziah. Pathshegen is borrowed from the Persian and found in the Megillah, where it refers to the letters sent out first by Haman, then countered by Mordechai and Esther, in which the destiny of all the Jews in the Empire is at stake. It makes a telling, partner with the transliterated ‘Dekliratziah’ promulgated by a different empire millennia later.