Barbara Kay: Honouring Lord Balfour, who made Israel possible

Tuesday October 24th, 2017

Balfour Declaration and United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, confirming support from the British government for the establishment in Palestine of a "national home" for the Jewish people.

This coming November 2nd marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which with its portentous words, “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…” may be the most consequential foreign-policy statement in modern history.

Theodore Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” But without Lord James Arthur Balfour’s sympathy with Zionism, there would have been no Declaration, and more important, no British Mandate over the region of Palestine (there was then no country called Palestine). For it was the Mandate that gave the Declaration international standing, a status that cannot be legally abrogated. 

In 1902, the British government, in which Lord Balfour served, had offered Zionist Jews land in East Africa (later Uganda) to found a national home as a response to murderous pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe. The offer was rejected, fully rousing Balfour’s curiosity about the Jewish question. I say “fully,” because Balfour had been happily immersed from childhood in Judaism’s sacred texts — the Bible, the psalms and the prophets.

The Declaration may be the most consequential foreign policy statement in modern history

And so, in 1906, with time on his hands after his government’s defeat, Balfour met with Israel’s future first president Chaim Weizmann, a Russian immigrant (via studies in Paris), who at the time was teaching chemistry at a Manchester university in Balfour’s constituency.

This meeting was well documented in Weizmann’s memoirs. In a frequently-quoted exchange, Weizmann asked, justifying Zionists’ refusal of Uganda: “‘Mr. Balfour, supposing I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?’ He sat up, looked at me and answered: ‘But, Dr. Weizmann, we have London.’ ‘That is true,’ I said. ‘But we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.’ He leaned back and continued to stare at me … I did not see him again till 1916.”

Weizmann’s insistence on the Jews’ legitimate moral claim for re-settlement in their ancient homeland was the right argument for Balfour. Balfour’s niece and biographer, Blanche Dugdale, wrote: “(Balfour) understood from that time forward that the Jewish form of patriotism would never be satisfied with anything less than Palestine. The more he thought about Zionism, the more his respect for it grew.”

The British Mandate gave the Declaration international standing, a status that cannot be abrogated

(When Balfour and Weizmann met again during the First World War, it was as though they had spoken days, not a decade, before. Balfour said to Weizmann, “You know, I was thinking of that conversation of ours and I believe that when the guns stop firing, you may get your Jerusalem.”)

Weizmann was Balfour’s first non-establishment and bullishly Zionist Jewish friend. Balfour frequently socialized with the Jewish elites of his generation, like the Rothschilds. But almost to a man, they were assimilated Reform Jews and virulently anti-Zionist. Indeed, when official negotiations with the Zionists began in 1917, high-status English Jews were incensed. The Jewish Board of Deputies, the equivalent of our Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, looked down on the Zionists from Eastern Europe as impoverished, insular and deluded. But, as Herzl noted, they at least were Jews who fully embraced their Jewish identity and “were not tortured by the idea of assimilation.” 

One can see a contemporary parallel here in the division, especially on campus, between pro and anti-Israel Jews.

There is a bright line between the two camps regarding the idea of a homeland for the Jews

Today, the battle lines are not drawn between rich vs. poor Jews, or smoothly integrated vs. unrefined immigrant Jews, and the stakes are not cultural acceptance or security. We are all accepted, we are all as secure as Jews have ever been. Today, the battle lines are ideological: progressive, anti-Zionist Jews vs. classically liberal, Israel-supportive Jews.

But there is one unifying theme to be found between the divided Jewish communities of 1917 and 2017. In both cases, one can see the same conceptual bright line between the two camps regarding the idea of a homeland for Jews. One thinks along social justice lines; the other along existential lines. And the two points of view cannot co-exist in harmony.

The social-justice school sees the Jews as one people amongst many, but one singled out for persecution and in need of a safe space, wherever that might be. In 1902, such Jews found no problem with Uganda as a solution to pogroms. Today’s social-justice Jews understand Israel’s rise to statehood as a response to the Holocaust (a view endorsed and articulated by former President Obama). They consider it was right and proper at that time for the world to recognize Jewish suffering with a safe space. Israel happened to be the obvious choice.

Progressive Jews view the national Jewish home as a gift, rather than a right

The problem with the sanctuary vision is that the national Jewish home is looked at as a gift rather than a right. What is given by others can be taken away by others. Israel’s moral legitimacy is contingent on its passing what is sometimes referred to as the Holocaust test: you Jews suffered violence, you may therefore not show violence to others, even in your own defence. The question of legitimacy is always on the progressive mind. Increasingly, Israel is perceived of as having failed that test.

For those who hew to the existential line of thought — Zionists like Weizmann, Ben Gurion and Benjamin Netanyahu — the central tenet is not sanctuary, but nation-building. In this view, Israel’s legitimacy is inherent to Jewish history. When Balfour met Weizmann, he had only known Jews who embraced the first, social-justice vision.

Weizmann opened his eyes and heart to the existential vision. That is no small thing. It led to the great promise. And a most unusual friendship: when Balfour lay dying, Weizmann was the only friend admitted to see him. They did not speak, but Balfour moved his hand to touch the bowed head of his visitor.

The Declaration was regrettably later honoured more in the breach than in the observance. Still, it is doubtful that modern Israel would exist without the support of Lord Balfour. And so, in spite of the many betrayals of the Declaration that were to follow, the memory of Lord Balfour should be honoured in perpetuity by all right-thinking Jews, and other well-wishers of Israel besides.

National Post
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