Thinking forward from past to present, I see how the Balfour declarations advanced Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism. Nevertheless, the proud Zionist activist in me shudders.
As a historian, I appreciate the Balfour declarations – plural. As a proud Zionist, however, I resent the cheers and the jeers the centennial is provoking.
Last Shabbat, I saw the master educator Mordy Hurwich- Kehat at synagogue. Having noticed that he was giving a lecture “celebrating the centennial of the Balfour Declaration,” I asked: “do you really think Balfour’s that important? All this celebrating feels pathetic.” Kehat – whose father was born on November 2, 1933, the Declaration’s 16th anniversary – noted that until 1948, Jews in Palestine celebrated “Balfour Day” as a national holiday, hailing this turning point in Zionist history. And he referred me to Martin Kramer’s impressive article in Mosaic, “The Forgotten Truth about the Balfour Declaration.”
Reading the article, and reflecting on our conversation, inspired three conclusions. First, we should call them the Balfour declarations, plural. Lord Balfour’s declaration wasn’t just one idiosyncratic British improvisation, Kramer explains, nor was it a British colonial power grab. Rather, it was one of many simultaneous affirmations. France, Italy, Japan, Siam, China and, most important, the United States of America echoed Balfour’s Declaration recognizing the Jews’ right to a national home in Palestine.
Second, the nineteenth century’s elaborate national matchmaking service, linking European national aspirations with geographic regions – as France became France, and Italy became Italy – went global after World War I.
On February 11, 1918, addressing a joint session of Congress, America’s president Woodrow Wilson proclaimed: “National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.”
The colonial empires were crumbling. Instead, peoples in Asia and Africa would achieve “self-determination,” expressing their collective nationalist identities through the political form of the nation state. The Balfour declarations, Wilson’s Fourteen Points, and the League of Nations mandate legitimized the quest for nationhood of all nations with a self-conscious identity. This process included the Jewish nation at the time and – trigger warning for right-wingers – the Palestinians, eventually.
Thus, the historian in me responds to Hurwich-Kehat and Kramer. Thinking forward from past to present, I see how the Balfour declarations advanced Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism.
Nevertheless, the proud Zionist activist in me shudders.
The Jews’ legitimacy as a nation doesn’t depend on one Balfour declaration from 1917 – or many of them. Jews didn’t need an international permission slip: not in 1917 nor even in 1947 from the United Nations, and certainly not today.
Such affirmations are welcome. They should help legitimize Zionism. But these documents are window dressing.
No such papers compare to the Bible. They don’t rank with 3,500 years of Jewish ties to the land, which make Jews, as the human rights activist Irwin Cotler teaches, the original aboriginal people, still reading the same Bible, speaking the same language, continuing the same culture, on the same land.
They don’t compete with Jews’ rich history in that land of Israel, with Deborah the prophetess and David the king, Isaiah the preacher and, yes, Jesus the teacher. And these documents lack the emotional power of the case Jews made starting in the 1800s, that Jews had nowhere else to go, nowhere else that was home – and nowhere else to flourish individually and collectively, spiritually and politically, as we have in Israel.
I am touchy on this point because our enemies are using the Balfour Centennial to reduce the Zionist claims to these 67 words of diplo-speak rather than 3,500 years of nationhood. Characteristically, Haaretz is running articles denouncing the Balfour Declaration as racist, imperialist, colonialist, evil. Such distortions make kneeling during the national anthem look patriotic; this vitriol from Israel’s truly loony Left is more like barfing on your founding documents.
And speaking of founding documents, did Great Britain or the United States need some Balfour-type permit? Like most countries, in the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence these nations seized the moment, emerging proudly, unilaterally, without anyone’s permission – simply asserting their national identities and resulting rights.
I am also touchy on this point because the fight against Israel remains so vicious that our enemies exploit any hesitation on our end, any sense that we are too pathetic to claim our basic rights – like all others. Jews shouldn’t be the Sally Field of Nations, waving the Balfour Declaration or the UN Partition Plan to say, as Fields said when she finally won an Oscar in 1985, “you like me… you really like me.”
Jews don’t need a Balfour green-light when authorities in Abu Dhabi won’t play Israel’s anthem – the Israeli Judo champ Tal Flicker starts singing “Hatikva” anyway, without anyone’s permission.
Jews don’t need a Balfour validator to confront the haters at McGill University – my academic home – who kicked the only three pro-Israeli, anti-boycott students off the student council: we fight antisemites loudly, proudly, unashamedly.
Jews don’t need a Balfour thumbs-up to mock those who view Israel as a disappointment. We salute Israeli democracy’s everyday miracles without seeking anyone’s approval.
And Jews don’t need a Balfour hug to prove what Israel has proved since 1948 – that the Jews are a people, fully justified in building a state in the Jewish homeland, and impressively capable of making that state a refuge for the persecuted and an oasis of idealism, a liberal democratic stronghold in the undemocratic illiberal Middle East and a source of old-new Jewish pride to a once depressed, now liberated, people.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.