Over two years of planning and hard work culminated on the evening of Nov. 7 when a whole-day program at the Knesset to mark the adoption of the Balfour Declaration on Nov. 2, 1917 ended on a note of success. The B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem — leading an initiative on behalf of the Balfour Centenary Committee — was the first to raise the specter of the impending, but still distant, historic milestone with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at a meeting in his bureau back in 2014 — but not before pro-Palestinian organizations had already started their campaign to pressure the British government to rescind the Declaration. This petty stunt got zero traction with Prime Minister Theresa May who declared that Her Majesty’s government would “mark the centenary with pride”— which it in fact did, both in Israel and in the UK.
Our committee felt that the right place in Israel to reflect on the various aspects of the historic event and on the current state of UK-Israel relations was the Knesset, and were pleased to receive immediate support from Edelstein who endorsed a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, an international conference and a Knesset plenary session all dedicated to the Balfour Centenary.
While the excitement around the centenary was somewhat eclipsed just a month later when U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and adopted a new global strategy that no longer sees the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the main cause of Middle East turmoil, the positive buzz left by these events persists: that Israel’s legitimacy, while constantly challenged, is firmly anchored in diplomatic convention going back 100 years and in the profound Jewish cultural-religious connection to this land going back thousands of years. These sentiments were borne out in many of the presentations made on Nov. 7.
The scope of this blog does not allow me to summarize all the many excellent speeches made during the day by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Head of the Opposition Isaac Herzog, Lord Jacob Rothschild and others. I would though like to share some of the poignant remarks made in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the most restricted of the sessions held that day.
Committee Head MK Avi Dichter opened the hearing, noting that the principal statement in the Declaration — that “His Majesty’s Government view with farvour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” — represented the beginning of modern Jewish history.
Lord Stuart Polak recalled the rarely-remembered end of the Declaration that states: “…nothing shall be done which may prejudice the …rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Polak argued that while some 170 U.N. resolutions, 13 U.N. agencies and billions of dollars have supported the Palestinian cause since 1948, nothing has been done in support of the 850,000 Jews forced out of Muslim lands after Israel’s creation who should have been protected under the terms of the Declaration that were later incorporated into international law.
Labour MK Joan Ryan, chair of Labor Friends of Israel, said she believed that in light of Israel’s progressive values and international humanitarian aid “Labour’s founding fathers would have felt their support for Zionism more than justified.”
Lord Jonathan Kestenbaum, chair of the Balfour 100 Committee in Britain, said that despite apprehensions the Balfour Centenary events in Britain were successful because it brought back to life the sense of shared purpose that Great Britain and the Zionist movement enjoyed 100 years ago, during the First World War period and shed light on the shared value, shared purpose and shared language that bind the two counties today.
Celebrated British historian professor Simon Schama interjected a more cautionary tone, noting that on the American and British campuses he teaches at, “Zionist is a title of honor one has to fight for.” He argued that in the context of Jewish history the “public knows only about the Shoah and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has no sense of the richness of Jewish history, its complexity and above all its connection to some of the great epic moral dramas of the history of the world — particularly the epic of homelessness and not just about the decency and virtue of our political position and the right to our defense.” He argued that the Balfour Declaration succeeded in part, because there was an “educated sympathy” by its protagonists toward the destiny of the Jewish people. “That sympathy is under siege today and we have to think creatively how to fill the world with the story of the Jews.”
B’nai B’rith International CEO and Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin expressed regret at the ongoing campaigns to erase both the intent and promise of the Balfour Declaration that prevail at the U.N., with that body’s 1975 “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution only the tip of the iceberg. Restating B’nai B’rith’s passionate support and devoted partnership with the State of Israel, Mariaschin said that “As we commemorate the Balfour Declaration as a monumental act of decency whose purpose was to recognize the injustices of the past and the legitimate right of the Jewish people to live in peace and dignity in its own nation, there are those who engage in global campaigns to turn the clock back in order to deny our people that right.”
The Balfour Declaration has engendered one hundred years of debate around the motivation, timing, relationships and interests that led to the decision taken by the British Government led by former Prime Minister Lloyd George. The policy shift taken by Trump will also inevitably be the source of vociferous debate into the future. In both cases, the responsibility lies with the leaders of the Jewish people and the State of Israel to make the most of these declarations and work with friends to ensure they will provide their intended benefits.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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