Balfour and Today
Rabbi David’s Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5778
In a number of weeks, there will be commemorations, throughout the Jewish world for the signing of the Balfour Declaration, which was sent by Lord Arthur Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, to Lord Walter Rothschild, on November 2nd 1917. We look at this document of course as the rubber stamp given by Britain, Imperial Britain, for the Zionist cause. The tragic Jewish writer Arthur Koestler would write about the Declaration that it was ‘one of the most improbable political documents of all time’.
In fact, there is much intrigue around the genesis of the Balfour Declaration that has more to do with the trajectory of the First World War than a simple British acceptance of Zionism. Many academic scholars note that 1917 was a difficult year for the Allies in WW1. There was an impending stalemate, and so to attempt to ensure that the USA and Russia would stay in the war, the Balfour Declaration would tempt the Jews of these countries to persuade their governments to that affect. It sounds a stretch really, but it seems that Britain believed that the Jewish people had a great deal of sway over their governments. There is an alternative theory that given that Britain and France were intending to carve up the Middle East after the war, Britain were desperate to be ahead on their claim for Palestine. Embracing Zionism would be a sure way to do this. And so, came about the Balfour Declaration.
Recently historian Martin Kramer has written a fascinating piece on what he calls the ‘forgotten truth of the Balfour Declaration’. Of course, it was the British government that issued the Declaration. And a central character in bringing the British government on side was the diplomatic work of one Chaim Weitzman. But for the British to accept Zionism as they did in the Declaration, they needed to know that other main allies were also on board. And so enters on the stage the less well known Nahum Sokolow, a Polish Jewish journalist who became a pupil of Theodor Herzl. He undertook countless visits to America, France and Italy including a meeting with the Pope. And these meetings bore fruit. When the Secretary General of the French Foreign ministry, Jules Cambon, warmed to the Zionism of Sokolow, he wrote this in an official letter to Sokolow representing the Zionists. It is of course a forgotten letter, but Kramer feels that it paved the way and heralded the Balfour Declaration which was issued 5 months later. In the Cambon letter it was stated that
‘it would be a deed of justice, and of reparation, to assist, by the protection of the Allied powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago’
Soon Sokolow had the consent of the Pope, who preferred a British Mandate rather than a French one; as well as the support of Woodrow Wilson in the US. Thus the path was paved for Britain to consent through its declaration. As Chaim Weizman exclaims at the Zionist Conference in May 1917 – ‘The support of the British Government when given, will be in conjunction and agreement with the Allied powers’. In fact according to Kramer, Sokolow, the wonderfully skilled diplomat, coined the term ‘hasbarah’ which we still use today to mean public diplomacy. With all that, he has always been a distant second in the memory to Chaim Weizman, who became Israel’s first President.
We are going to see a great deal of connections made between the Balfour Declaration, and the modern State of Israel. Well of course on the one hand it works. Balfour paved the way for legitimacy being attached to the idea of a Jewish nation state in Palestine. On the other hand though, it could be said that the State of Israel came about in spite of the Balfour Declaration. Britain made a meal of the Mandate they were given for Palestine by the League of Nations. Part of this Mandate was to allow for Jewish self-determination – and it never came to fruition in the roughly 25 years of the Mandate. It is in fact possible to say that American pressure on Britain after the second world war, which lead Britain to return the Mandate to the UN allowed for the partition plan through which Israel was born. Maybe.
But even before the wrangling over statehood, what the Balfour Declaration, and the Cambon letter in France months before, brought out into the diplomatic open, was the concept of the new Jewish nationalism – ie Zionism. Whether it would be realised as a sovereign country remained to be seen – but after Balfour, Jewish nationalism as explicitly referred to in the Cambon letter, was real and legitimate.
It was legitimate now, partly also due to Christian support for Zionism. Arthur Balfour for instance, was a member of the Church of Scotland as well as being an Anglican, which strongly supported the Balfour Declaration at the time, believing that the restoration of Jews to Palestine would pave the way for the return of the messianic figure. It was legitimate now, as there was growing support for self-determination after the first world war especially from US President Woodrow Wilson.
So early in the 20th century, Zionist leaders were fighting for the acceptance of Jewish national identity. This would then they hope deliver a state to express that national identity. It is incredible really that today, we have a strong state, a stable state, a state with many decades now of political and diplomatic experience – and yet we are still needing to debate the very legitimacy of the Jewish nationalism that came before it.
Now of course this Jewish national idea can be thought of in one way as ancient. It is certainly not new. God asks Abraham to leave his land and visit a new land where his future progeny would become a ‘great nation’. The word ‘Goi’ is used there in the Torah to mean a nation. It comes from the word ‘Gviyah’ which means a body. A nation is a conglomeration of many people who take on a new imagination of togetherness beyond their family and local community. The image of the body can mean that I am hurt and pained by other parts of the national body being hurt, even if I do not actually know them personally.
But we equally know that the national ideal of Zionism was not that of the Torah. Ben Gurion’s Zionism was not a nation under God and the Torah. In fact the opposite was the case – religion was a thing of Exile, of the past. The religious approach to Zionism, that saw the return to the land of Israel as prophetic and redemptive took a back seat. Now however, the religious Zionist approach championed by the settler movement has had decades of growing success at forcing governments to consider their vision of a greater Israel. The ultra orthodox communities also have grown in their ability to manipulate the political system so that they can have greater control of religious aspects of life.
I would add to this that the idea of a nation state – a specific nation having sovereignty in a specific piece of land is also pretty new in history. And look at how many nations over the last century have been born through conflict and war, including our State. It is not a simple concept at all.
So maybe we need to conclude this – that while our support for a sovereign state is unshakeable, we ourselves need to be aware and understand, that Zionism has many faces and that it must attempt to balance between a religious Jewish pang to return to the whole land, and a desire for a modern secular liberal state for all its citizens, each of which as extremes are seriously problematic. It is a relationship still in formation. It is a pendulum that will swing between each extreme and back again and hopefully one day find the right balance. And it is an arena in which we all should have a voice if we care about the State of Israel. We need to be able to debate the nature of Zionism, without it being considered a debate over the State of Israel. We need to be able to pass on to our children how complicated Zionist history is and combine teaching the great wonders and miracles of modern Israeli history with the sometimes serious mistakes that it caused. But we also cannot forever divorce the actions of any government in Israel from the nature of the Jewish national idea that is prevalent. I remember being in Israel in the 90’s and how critical religious people of all types were of the Labour governments that often seemed to sideline or work against religious aspirations. A liberal strain of Zionism was prevailing, bringing with it a desire to reach out to our neighbours, but many felt – if Zionism’s legitimacy comes from Judaism, surely it is dangerous to turn your nose up at religious institutions. Now, the Zionism prevailing is one that is more conservative, and more accepting of religious Zionist narratives. It is one that is able to pull people together who have been traumatised and are fed up by Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism. These two approaches are not in my mind just strains of policy decisions, likened to Tory or Labour approaches to policy here. They are approaches which embody different ways of understanding the State of Israel. On that, we as a people have not yet reached consensus and agreement.
So look. We know that Herzl dreamed. Weizman dreamed. Max Nordau dreamed. And their dreams delivered a State. We need to dream again as a people. We need to dream of where we would like Israel to be in another 100 years. Free of conflict. Parents not in fear of losing their children while serving in the army. Finding ways to configure a solution with the Palestinian people that retain the connections of both people to the land. We dream also that the surrounding Arab nations will learn to accept and grow together with the Jewish state.
And so on this upcoming 100th Anniversary of Balfour. We will feel thankful to God for a State for our people. We will feel proud as Jews and want to congratulate Britain for making the step it did. But we may permit ourselves also to feel that there is a long way to go still before we have truly reached the Promised Land.
Balfour put Jewish nationalism, Zionism on the world map. The UN granted us a State in 1947. Now we pray that our State will not only praised for its Hi-Tech innovations – but for its innovations in conflict resolution and society building for all its citizens.