Putting Balfour into Perspective

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This week I had the pleasure of serving my civic duty as a juror at Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center. Now, there’s nothing inherently Jewish about being impaneled in a criminal case — much less Zionistic — but as I was waiting to be called among hundreds of fellow citizens, I happened to be thinking of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

The 67-word statement of British foreign policy — sent to Jewish community leader Lord Walter Rothschild — is widely seen as setting in motion events leading to the establishment of the State of Israel three decades later.

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object,” Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote in the Nov. 2, 1917 letter, “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Perhaps even more than the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Balfour Declaration has been picked apart, studied, contemplated and subjected to enquiries academic, political and polemical. In that vein, what someone says about the document probably says more about the person saying it than the century-old sentence itself.

Some see in the declaration the righteous acknowledgment by the British Empire of the millennia-old longings of the Jewish people to return to their homeland and nothing less than a full-throated articulation of a new principle of international law and ethno-religious nationalism.

Others, particularly among pro-Palestinian camps, see in Balfour’s assignation of political rights to Jews but only civil and religious rights to non-Jews the original sin of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.

Still others recognize that while the statement articulated policy at the time, it was the product of a certain political calculus — Great Britain was facing a stalemate in the then 3-year-old World War I — and, as such, was always subject to reconsideration, amendment or revision. Indeed, the British after the war altered their stance, embracing Arab nationalism and advocating for something less than a Jewish state in all of historic Israel.

What cannot be denied is that the Balfour Declaration provided a surge of energy to the Zionist movement, leading to greater Jewish settlement in what was then Palestine. At a minimum, Nov. 2 is a major historic date in modern Jewish history and the marking of a major diplomatic victory by British Jewry and Zionism.

But it must be remembered that Balfour didn’t create anything. It would take more than 30 years until the Jewish state was born, that birth itself a product of the Holocaust, the young United Nations and — more than anything else — the fierce determination of Jews to determine their own destiny, to create a state of their own, to defend it and nurture it.

It’s the same dedication that any citizenry must exhibit if a state is to survive. That desire must constantly be refreshed. And so we see in Israel the continuing determination of its people — despite deep-seated political disagreements — to defend, protect, preserve and perfect their country and its institutions. We see the same embrace and determination in Jewish communities the world over, continuing echoes of the worldwide movement that led Balfour to make his famous declaration.

It’s also something that can be applied in non-Jewish, non-Israeli and non-Zionist contexts. Collectively, our community willed a state into existence and continues to will its survival. Every people and every nation needs the same.

That will can be expressed in voting. It can be expressed in protest. It can be expressed in military or civil service. And it can be expressed in being a juror.

In memorializing Balfour, we must never forget the collective actions and sacrifices of countless individuals that led to it, followed it and breathed actual life into the “national home of the Jewish people.”