2017: A Year of Anniversaries

One hundred and twenty years in August since Herzl opened the first Zionist congress in Basel.

Seventy years in November since UN Resolution 181 was passed which proclaimed the partition of historic Palestine – one state for the Zionist Jews, the other for the Palestinian Arabs.
Fifty years in June since Israel’s victory in the Six Day war and the conquest of the West Bank.
But above all 2017 will commemorate one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration on 2 November.

In 1917 the British government favoured ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. The meaning of ‘a national home’ was clearly open to interpretation. It could mean both a state and a community centre. It also implied that that it was ‘in Palestine’, suggesting the possibility that it could mean ‘not all of Palestine’. Moreover ‘the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ were upheld – as was ‘the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews’ in the countries of the diaspora.

The brilliance of the ambiguity of the Balfour Declaration allowed the British to keep their political options open after the end of World War I. It provided the stuff of almost Talmudic discourse for the next thirty years between British officials, Zionist Jews and Arab nationalists over the true interpretation of the Balfour Declaration.

The understanding of the Balfour Declaration could thus be finetuned in accordance with British interests and aspirations at any given moment. Indeed even after the Balfour Declaration was made public, Lloyd-George offered to fly the Turkish flag over Jerusalem.

For the Zionists, it was a great cause for celebration. At last, they argued, the light at the end of a two thousand year tunnel could be viewed. It provided continuity from Herzl’s desire to secure a charter from the Ottoman Turks.

The editor of the Jewish Chronicle in London persuaded the architect of the Declaration, Chaim Weizmann, to postpone its publication for a few days – so that the newspaper could be the first with the news in its edition on Friday 9 November 1917. The British press similarly welcomed the Declaration: the Manchester Guardian, the Spectator and the New Statesman were all enthusiastic. The Observer commented that ‘there could not have been at this juncture a stroke of statesmanship that was more just or more wise’.

While prominent Zionists, Jabotinsky, Tolkowsky and Margolin circled around a table, dancing a hassidic dance, in Weizmann’s study in Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk on the evening of the government decision, other Jews were concerned about the implications of the Balfour Declaration. For the anglicised, the assimilated and the acculturated, it suggested the possibility of double loyalties. For Russian Jewry in their shtetls, on the other hand, it promised national liberation, a victory for the downtrodden and the discriminated.

The Balfour Declaration also posed a problem for Jewish Jews as well. There were many who were ideologically anti-Zionist – for example, members of the Bund who argued instead for national-cultural autonomy in the areas where Jews were concentrated.

The hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution which brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power will also be commemorated in 2017. The Balfour Declaration and the Bolsheviks’ ascendency occurred within a few days of each other. For many Jews, it posed a dilemma. Should they follow the particularist path and attempt to create a Hebrew republic in Palestine as envisaged by the Zionist understanding of the Balfour Declaration? Or should they participate in Lenin’s building of a new international order in which all humankind would benefit? Both ideals can be located in Judaism and Jewish history.

This dilemma was most keenly felt by socialist Zionists in Russia. Should they stay and build Zion in Moscow? Or leave and construct socialism in Palestine? In 1920 Poale Zion, the main labour Zionist organisation split. Many former Zionists became Communists – and persecuted their former comrades.

The Balfour Declaration was an important building block to realise the aspirations of most Zionists – the creation of a state of the Jews in 1948. Some leading Zionists such as Nahum Sokolov were concerned that such a public assertion would cause hostility and do damage to the Zionist cause. Indeed shortly after the publication of the Balfour Declaration, Sokolov  attempted to suggest that the very idea of a Jewish state was not a Zionist aim.

Socialism did not reach the Arab masses in 1917. Rising Arab nationalism instead saw the Declaration as merely a ruse by the British to further control the Middle East. Zionism after World War I, in the eyes of Arab nationalists, was no more than an agent for British imperialism.

One hundred years later, the Zionists have built a stable and dynamic state in the midst of a Middle East in flames. Yet the possibility for peace remains – as it was in 1917 – a distant dream, marooned in the future.

balfour100.com 12 January 2017

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