We Don’t Need no Balfour Declarations… or Celebrations

 In World
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.

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