Three November dates that changed the course of Jewish history
There are three significant anniversaries in Zionist history to commemorate and celebrate this month.
The first, was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which was signed on November 2, 1917. That anniversary — the centennial of the declaration that became the legal basis for the creation of a Jewish home in Palestine, under the protection of a British mandate, has been the subject of much discussion in both the Jewish and secular media in America, in Israel, and around the world over the past few weeks.
I am certain that there will be similar responses to the 70th anniversary of the vote on the U.N. partition plan that ended the mandate on November 29, 1947. It was this vote that gave the legal right to create both Israel and a Palestinian state. The third critical anniversary is of Anwar Sadat’s speech to the Knesset, made 40 years ago, on November 20, 1977. That speech led to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and began a process that has yet to reach fruition. I fear that this third anniversary will receive far less attention and praise.
As I researched both the texts and the context of these three documents, for adult education programs that I am leading in a number of synagogues this year, I came to recognize some important truths that can be lessons for Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, in the century that lies ahead.
The history of political Zionism, which began only 120 years ago, is truly amazing. It deserves our gratitude both to God and to the small minority of idealistic Jews who, over the course of 50 years, from the first Zionist Congress in Basil, Switzerland, in 1897, to the vote of the U.N. General Assembly on November 29, 1947, brought the Jewish People’s 1,900 years of exile from the land of Israel to an end.
The Balfour Declaration and the subsequent British mandate inspired thousands of young pioneers to make Aliyah, as described beautifully in the latest biographies of Golda Meir and Shimon Peres. While there is great truth in the fact that after the Balfour declaration seemed to miraculously reverse two millennia of exile in a mere two decades, the next 30 years saw the British Mandatory Authority, with the tacit support of its Western allies, back away from the promises of 1917. While British restrictions on immigration after 1929 played a tragic role in closing Palestine as a place of refuge in the 1930s, policy disagreements in the American Jewish community over the issue of whether the a Jewish state should be created, and who should lead it, during the 15 years between the Balfour declaration and the rise of Nazism, tempered the economic development of the yishuv and deflated the numbers of Jewish immigrants who went to Palestine during the 1920s.
Although there was no unity about Zionism in the Jewish community in the decade after the declaration was issued, the opposite was true , from the onset of World War II, through the first three decades of Israeli Independence. American Jewish communal unity provided political and financial support that was of immeasurable value to both the issuance of the U.N. Partition Plan of November 29, 1947 and Israel’s successful defense of its independence in the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. The tragic truth of the months and years after 1947 was that the Palestinian State that was authorized by the very same November 29, 1947 resolution, never came into existence, because neither the Palestinian Arabs nor their brethren in the surrounding Arab states, were willing to accept the opportunity, to take responsibility, for creating the Palestinian State.
Forty years ago, in November 1977, when I heard Golda Meir announce at a Jewish Federations General Assembly, in Dallas, that President Anwar Sadat had accepted Prime Minister Begin’s invitation to come to Jerusalem, I felt sure, that the promise of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, at peace with its neighbors, as envisioned by both the Balfour Declaration and the U.N. Partition Resolution, was about to be realized. Sadat’s visit did lead to a peace treaty that has stood the test of time; those tests included the assassinations of both Anwar Sadat and Yitzchak Rabin, by citizens of their own nations, for the sin of making peace with their enemies.
On both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, both actions and inactions have proved to be obstacles to the realization of the peace, that I, and so many others, believed was imminent, 40 years ago this month.
I have learned a number of lessons from my research of these three anniversaries. The first lesson I take away from reading Zionist history of the last 100 years is the crucial issue of Jewish unity. Rather than just going back to the sloganeering of the early 1970s, when we proclaimed “We Are One,” American Jews, in particular, need to recognize, that we have been most effective in supporting Israel, and Jews across the world, when we have recognized that unity, does not demand unanimity of opinion on all issues. In fact, when we Jews have been more respectful and tolerant of our political and religious diversity, we have been more unified and effective, in support of Jewish values and Jewish rights.
I also have found solid proof for a second lesson I see in the history of Zionism over the last 100 years. Simply put, though it’s in fact a very complex proposition, despite my unquestionable belief in the justice of Zionism, I realize, Israel has made some mistakes and missed some opportunities, in the last 70 years. Many modern Israeli historians share that belief.
A third lesson comes from a statement made by Chaim Weizmann, a great, but humanly imperfect leader, who deserves much, but not all, of the credit he took, for the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann was quoted in the December 15, 1947, edition of Haaretz as saying “The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.” A few days later, Natan Alterman, a young Israeli poet — and like all Jews in the Yishuv, a new soldier in the battle for Israel — wrote a poem called “Magesh Hakesef” — “The Silver Platter.” There, he proclaims that he and his fellow soldiers are the silver platter upon which the Jewish people will receive a state.
As an American Jew who was born in April 1948, just three weeks before Israeli Independence Day, I look backward and forward this year, realizing that my generation of American Jews, and the generations of my children and grandchildren, have been given a great gift, to live in this epic era of Jewish history. To pass this silver platter along to the future, we must both count our blessings and recognize our mistakes. We must seek unity while acknowledging and celebrating our diversity.
As I reflect upon these three days in November that changed the course of Jewish history, I give thanks to God and ask all who are reading this message, to join me in recognizing our gratitude to both God and to the Zionist visionaries, soldiers and supporters, who have, in the spirit of Shehecheyanu, brought us to this moment.
Neal Borovitz, rabbi emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, is a former chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. He currently serves as a Vice Chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs