As we celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, we would do well to reflect upon the aims it set out, and examine whether they have been achieved.
The primary and most significant aim of the letter written by the then-Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour was ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. This was the first formal statement by a major modern power recognising our people’s right to national self-determination in our historic homeland.
Today, Israel is a prosperous democracy, a powerhouse of innovation and technology, and home to some eight and a half million citizens. The majority of Israelis are either refugees or the descendants of refugees who fled persecution, violence, and genocide to make a new life for themselves. Our people are now a free people in a free country, able to defend ourselves by ourselves.
Thus, the focal goal of the Balfour Declaration – to establish a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel – has indeed been realised in full. We can be proud of this.
When we examine Balfour’s remarkable letter, we also see two secondary aims.
One aim was to ensure: ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’.
That goal of protecting the civil and religious rights of all was realised on 14 May 1948, when Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed. It not only promised ‘full and equal citizenship and due representation’, but also pledged to ‘ensure complete equality of social and political rights’, and to ‘guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture’.
In fact, Israel’s Arab citizens are the only Arab community in the Greater Middle East to consistently enjoy democratic freedoms: freedom of worship, freedom to vote in elections that actually decide who forms a government, and freedom of speech. These liberties are enshrined in law and guaranteed by a genuinely independent judiciary.
It is clear that the secondary aim of protecting the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities has also been realised.
Finally, the Balfour Declaration states that nothing should be done to prejudice ‘the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’.
Balfour penned those words conscious of the fact that our people had endured persecution for many centuries: persecution that continued at the time of his writing. Unfortunately, the world’s longest hatred continued and intensified after his 1917 letter.
The Nazis annihilated six million Jews in the Holocaust. This was a pan-continental crime of calculated, systematic and scientific mass murder, committed as an act of policy by a genocidal state.
Following that abhorrent and unprecedented crime, we also saw the end of Jewish communities across the Middle East. In 1948, there were 851,000 Jews living across the Arab world; today, there are fewer than 5,000.
Clearly, the aim of upholding the rights and freedoms of Jews everywhere has not been realised. We cannot, must not and will not forget this fact.
Israel’s detractors are all too often keen to argue that the Balfour Declaration’s goals have not been fully implemented when it comes to the national rights of the Palestinians, despite there being no mention of these in the Declaration.
Those detractors would do well to acknowledge that over the last 100 years, the rights of Jews in Diaspora communities have not been upheld and that the Jewish state has offered our people freedom and security since its rebirth.
A century on from the Balfour Declaration, Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora can be proud of what has been achieved. However, we must ensure that every Jew no matter where they live can enjoy the rights and protections promised to them in the Balfour Declaration.