The Balfour Declaration, Then and Now

Posted on Nov 02, 2017

This month we mark two anniversaries of momentous events in the history of Zionism and the State of Israel: 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, issued by the government of Great Britain on November 2, 1917, and 70 since the United Nations vote on November 29, 1947, for the partition of Palestine. It’s safe to say that had either of these events not occurred, there would be no State of Israel today. It is no less true that both created problems and dilemmas for which a solution is still nowhere in sight. I will reflect on the abiding significance of the partition resolution later this month. Today I want to consider an aspect of the Balfour Declaration that has not received the attention it deserves, either in Israel or among world Jewry: the avowal that support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” would not “prejudice the . . . rights of and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

That concern was, for good reason, uppermost in the minds of Jews considering the merits of Zionism in the opening decades of the 20th century. Jewish communities in Western and Central Europe had been told again and again that the rights they received or sought were conditional on assimilation to the ways of their surroundings. Under no circumstances would Jews be permitted to be “a nation within a nation”; the charge that they constituted such a foreign body continued to resound against Jews up to and during the Holocaust. Theodor Herzl in Der Judenstaat (1896) identified that accusation as the number one reason there could be no solution to “the Jewish problem” except a sovereign state where Jews would be a nation of their own. “We are a people—one people . . . I think we shall not be left in peace.” Herzl was enough of a realist to recognize that the Jewish State could not come into being without support and recognition by the European powers—and to predict that, once established, the Jewish State, like every other, would have enemies. True to Herzl’s vision, His Majesty’s Government was persuaded to issue the Balfour Declaration by a confluence of national interests and ambitions, buttressed perhaps by religion and sentiment. The Jewish people would get a “national home” in Palestine, and 31 years later that home would become a state among the nations. Some of its enemies have still not accepted its right to exist in their midst.

But what of the “rights and political status” of the Jews who continued to live among the nations? Herzl assumed that the great bulk of world Jewry would either immigrate to the Jewish State or assimilate within the countries where they lived. The majority of Jews in North America had other ideas even then. They were not in exile, but at home. What is the legacy of the Balfour Declaration to contemporary North American Jews, and to our non-Jewish countrymen?

When Solomon Schechter endorsed the Zionist cause in 1906, he sought to downplay concerns about the at-homeness of American Jews. Schechter was a passionate believer in the unique opportunities presented to Jews and other minorities in the United States. The Zionism he favored was not political, as it was for Herzl, but rather spiritual and religious. Schechter supported Zionism because it served as a bulwark against “the kind of assimilation I dread most; even more than pogroms.” The movement should not be judged “by what it has accomplished in Zion and Jerusalem,” he declared, but “by what it has thus far achieved for Zion and Jerusalem”: a national awakening. Schechter opposed the “territorialists” who wanted a Jewish state no matter where on the map it was located. This did not stop critics from attacking him as a Jewish nationalist who had abandoned the centrality of religion to Jewish identity, thereby surrendering the only definition suitable to Jewish citizenship in America. Jacob Schiff, a leading figure of the New York Jewish community and a major supporter of The Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote in critique of Schechter that “as an American, I cannot for a moment concede, that one can be, at the same time, a true American and an honest adherent of the Zionist movement; if they are honest Zionists . . . they place a prior lien upon their citizenship.”

Soon after the founding of the State of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and the head of the American Jewish Committee, Jacob Blaustein, arrived at a modus vivendi designed to ensure that neither community would meddle in the other’s affairs—and to refute the charge that American Jews who supported Israel were guilty of disloyalty to America. Jews have prospered on this continent as in no previous diaspora. Judaism too has flourished in many respects. Both developments owe a great deal to Israel. At the same time, our fellow Americans in recent decades have overwhelmingly affirmed that Jews and other minorities are and should be full members of the democratic and pluralist society we share.

American Jews like me are staking our lives on this promise, and on the conviction that authentic and rich Jewish communal life is possible here as well as in Israel. We are wagering that our Judaism will not fall victim anytime soon to the twin forces of assimilation and anti-Semitism. Israeli leaders from Ben-Gurion and Golda to Bibi have forcefully articulated their conviction that we in the Diaspora are deluded on this score. Look at the Pew Report for evidence of assimilation. Look at Charlottesville for proof that anti-Semitism has not disappeared. We respond by pointing to rights and privileges guaranteed by law; to an incredible record of personal achievement and cultural/religious creativity; to influence in the larger society greatly disproportionate to our small numbers. They point to a calendar that is not Jewish, streets that are rarely named for Jews, and a Jewish identity that must be chosen again and again, and can easily be sloughed off. Judaism here is an option. In Israel it is given “with the territory.” And besides, note some Zionist critics, no declaration can guarantee “rights and political status” for a minority—not in 1917 and not in 2017. The winds of public opinion might not always blow in a direction favoring Jews.

There is one final difference between the two Jewries addressed in the Balfour Declaration: whereas Jews in the Diaspora generally think about Israel with great concern, wondering how the State can survive the formidable challenges it faces, the Israelis I know sometimes worry about that too—but seem to worry more about whether we can survive as Jews in North America, given the forces of anti-Semitism that seem resurgent around the world and the ever-growing tendency toward assimilation. I rarely hear Jews in North America concede—as leading Zionist thinkers have long maintained—that we believe and practice Judaism as we do in part out of conscious and unconscious consideration for how much Jewish distinctiveness our societies will tolerate. Schechter took this question very seriously—and so should we.

Jewish survival in our day depends, as it did a century ago, on Jews’ ability to protect our interests and defend ourselves. Israel has been a game-changer in this regard. But Jewish survival and well-being depend no less on knowing who we are, going deep into our tradition and living by its teachings. We need proud Jews—but pride is not enough. We need engagement, learning, activity, commitment. With God’s help, and a lot of work on our part both in Israel and in Diaspora, we will ensure that our “rights and status” —and our tradition—long endure.