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The letter that begat Israel — 100 years later

It was the ambiguously worded run-on sentence heard round the world.

Next week, Zionists will celebrate (and anti-Zionists will lament) the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the British government’s stamp of approval of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

As history shows, the Jews took it and ran with it.

To mark the occasion, the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies will present a Nov. 13 lecture on the subject, delivered by Donna Robinson Divine, an emerita professor of Jewish studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. BIJLIS is a program of Berkeley Law at UC Berkeley.

Though she grasps the many political nuances surrounding the Balfour Declaration and its consequences, Divine affirms it was “the greatest political achievement since Zionism [had been] established. No question about that, it was Herzl’s dream to get something like that.”

The “dream” took shape in the form of a Nov. 2, 1917, letter from British Foreign Secretary (late Prime Minister) Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, then a leader of the British Jewish community.

Donna Robinson Divine will speak about the Balfour Declaration at Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies will present on Nov. 13.
Donna Robinson Divine will speak about the Balfour Declaration at Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies will present on Nov. 13.

Before that letter, though Jews had been migrating to Palestine since the 1880s, under the urging of Theodor Herzl and others, the Yishuv (as the Palestinian Jewish community was known) lacked one major building block: official approbation from the international community.

After months of wrangling over the wording, Balfour drafted a single sentence — of 67 words, three commas, and three uses of “and” plus one “or” — that declared “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” and noted that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people …”

Balfour didn’t say where in Palestine, he didn’t label the project a Jewish state, and he took pains to mention that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Though the wording was vague, the Balfour Declaration “legitimized the Zionist project,” Divine says, adding that Britain, still three years away from taking over Palestine from the dying Ottoman Empire, wasn’t sure what would happen next. Neither were the Zionists.

“Partly they didn’t know what they were doing,” Divine says. “They vetted [the Balfour Declaration] through Edwin Montagu, who was Jewish and an important member of the Liberal party. He was very afraid of the Balfour Declaration, for reasons that had nothing to do with Arabs. It had to do with the notion of intensifying dual loyalty in countries where Jews were living.”

Despite those misgivings, the San Remo Conference of 1920 enshrined the Balfour Declaration as official policy of the allied powers that won World War I.

The Jews were happy, but the Arabs of the British Mandate were not.

British Foreign Secretary (later Prime Minister) Arthur Balfour issued his declaration of support for the Zionist enterprise 100 years ago this month.
British Foreign Secretary (later Prime Minister) Arthur Balfour issued his declaration of support for the Zionist enterprise 100 years ago this month.

“By and large, the Palestinian leadership, even if they wanted to avoid violence, opposed the idea of a Jewish national home,” Divine says. ”They did not want to share the land under any circumstances. They did not want to combine with the Jews on any institution building, lest they give the impression that they were legitimizing the notion that Jews could have a homeland there.”

Lethal Arab riots took place throughout the period of British rule, and the English, too, seemed to have second thoughts about Zionism, at times restricting Jewish immigration to the region from Europe even as Nazi Germany posed an existential threat.

Sir John Hope-Simpson, a member of Parliament involved with Middle East affairs, wrote to John Chancellor, then the high commissioner of the British Mandate of Palestine, in 1930. “All British officials tend to become pro-Arab, or perhaps more accurately anti-Jew,” he wrote. “Personally I can well understand this trait … the offensive self-assertion of the Jewish immigrant is repellent.”

Nevertheless, they persisted. The Balfour Declaration spurred the establishment of Jewish civil society in Palestine, from opening the Hebrew University to forming the Jerusalem Symphony. And by the declaration of statehood in 1948, Israel had a Jewish population topping 600,000. The rest is history.

As for Balfour himself, Divine says he was a character. With a reputation as a do-nothing member of Parliament, he railed against foreign immigration to England early in his career, but later befriended Zionist pioneer Chaim Weizmann, who opened his eyes to the necessity of a Jewish homeland.

“Once he issued the letter, he saw it had such an impact,” Divine says of Balfour. “He went to Palestine for dedication of the Hebrew University. He milked it.”

“The Balfour Declaration and the World of Israel’s Founders,” a talk by Donna Robinson Divine, 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13, at Warren Room, 295 Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley. Free with RSVP.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.