Thursday, November 14, 2019 -
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The Balfour Declaration: reflecting on a centenary

Lord Arthur Balfour

Lord Arthur Balfour

Amid the destruction of WWI, hope emerged upon the horizon for the beleaguered Jewish people — the Balfour Declaration.

The war, which Germany officially joined on the same day as the ninth of Av, now offered a moment of respite and hope. The Balfour Declaration, announced by the British government through foreign secretary Arthur Balfour in a letter to British Jewish leader and former MP, Lord Walter Rothschild, stated British intentions to grant the Jews a national home in Palestine, an ancient name for the land.


It seemed like a dream: The establishment of a Jewish homeland as guaranteed by the Balfour Declaration seemed closer offering solace and hope. These were very tragic times.

At the beginning of WW I, there were about 95,000 Jews in Palestine. But those numbers soon diminished following the outbreak of war due to the forced expulsion by the Turks of Jews mostly with Russian citizenship, as well as Jews fleeing Turkish wartime oppression. Starvation and disease also tragically took a significant toll of the population. By November, 1917, there were less than 45,000 Jews in the land. The future of the Zionist enterprise was threatened.

Times were also very bleak for world Jewry.

Tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers from all sides were falling on the battlefields of Europe. Since the beginning of the war, about one-and-a-half million Jewish refugees fled the destruction wrecked by armies and by forcible expulsions by Russian forces, which presented its own dangers.

Jewish towns throughout Russia, Poland and Galicia were ravaged by pogroms causing even further devastation. Cities in Poland and Russia were overcrowded from the flood of refugees faced starvation.

The extent of the destruction defied description.

Amid catastrophe, the Balfour Declaration was issued.

Jews fought and bled for nations which too often told them in return that they were not welcome. The Balfour Declaration told Jewry that they had a recognized home, though not yet established.

Zion on the map

The Balfour Declaration was not just a British policy statement. US President Woodrow Wilson expressed his support, as did leaders of France, Italy, Greece and other Western nations. The prospect of Jewish statehood became something tangible.

Opposition to Balfour emerged among the British military occupation in Palestine soon after the war’s end. The British would eventually completely backtrack upon its commitments, with the issuing of the 1939 MacDonald White Paper, as Western nations looked away with indifference.

The Balfour Declaration did not create the Jewish state, but by galvanizing world support, its prospect became real.

Direction, impetus

Zion was now a more viable destination. The Balfour Declaration spurred the Third Wave of Aliyah, 1919-1923, from Poland and Russia. Forty thousand Jews arrived in flight from anti-Semitism and devastating post-war pogroms in Eastern Europe. The most horrific wave of pogroms occurred in Ukraine which saw the most emigrants to Zion. Many also arrived from recently declared independent Poland, where Jews also suffered anti-Semitic violence.

Immigrants of the Fourth Aliyah wave between 1924-1929 of 80,000, mostly from Poland and the USSR, were also escaping oppression.

The Fifth Wave, 1932-1936, of over 175,000 immigrants arrived, mostly from Germany as a result of the avalanche of Jew hatred in Germany with the rise of Nazism.

These waves, albeit under horrific circumstances, produced the foundation of the State of Israel.

What was promised, what was granted

As nations were being carved out of the vast, collapsing Ottoman Empire, the Jews were granted their portion via a letter.

According to the declaration, the Jewish homeland would include the eastern side of the Jordan River in what today is the nation of Jordan. The Jewish homeland was carved down in a 1922 partition, and then again in the November 29, 1947 UN Resolution 181, passed by the General Assembly, which granted the Jews 12% of the land mass that had been promised them by the Balfour Declaration.

A century later

In November, 1917, a small minority of Jewry lived in Palestine. Today about one half of world Jewry resides in Israel.

Today, opponents of Israel are still fighting the Balfour Declaration. The opposition was once spearheaded by the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. Today, there are several inheritors of that role, from Fatah, to Hamas, to Hezbollah.

Then, Jewish opposition was from among the elites and some others who feared that Jewish nationalism threatened their status and would cast aspersions on their patriotism. Suddenly, they might be seen as pariahs within their societies. These Jews were often referred to as assimilationists.

Today, those Jews who express opposition to the State of Israel are seeking amalgamation with their political allies— the far left — which has become increasingly anti-Israel over the last several years.

One century later, in a world being confronted by Islamic terror, Israel is on the front line in defending itself from those threats. It has managed to survive terror since 1920, and even thrive. The people of Israel, through their resilience, have given more to the world than the Balfour Declaration gave to the Jews.

The London Jewish Chronicle which lauded the Balfour Declaration, also made a poignant observation in 1917. “Neither England, nor France, nor the United States, can give Palestine to the Jewish people, it must be desired, it must be sought for, it must be earned.”

With the help of the Alm-ghty.

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