Much publicity has been attracted by the controversial joint statement issued to the Times just over one hundred years on May 25 1917 by David Lindo Alexander QC , then President of the Board of Deputies and Lucien Woolf, then Chairman of the Anglo Jewish Association(AJA). In their letter they stated that Zionism was of little interest to the mass of world Jewry, who just wished to remain loyal citizens of their own native countries.
The background was the intense struggle of the First World War. The British government, perhaps overestimating the importance of world Jewry, was anxious to enlist the support of American Jews to persuade their government to enter the war, and of Russian Jews to persuade their government not to leave it. British Jewry was represented by the Board who in matters of foreign policy co-operated with the AJA. They did this through an organisation known as the Conjoint which represented the anti-Zionist views of the Cousinhood- the Anglo-Jewish establishment- and resented the Zionists efforts to lobby the Foreign Office. A statement from two leaders of such standing was a serious blow to Zionist aspirations.
The sequel was however even more interesting. At the next meeting of the Board a motion was proposed censuring the President for signing the letter. Alexander’s response was to announce that he was treating the motion as one of confidence thus throwing the full weight of the Presidency against the motion. Nevertheless it was passed by a majority of 56 to 51 votes. Alexander immediately resigned as did some of the other honorary officers to be replaced by deputies who, while not all Zionists, did not share Alexander’s rabid anti Zionism or that of his friends from the Cousinhood.
The vote was passed on June 17. A day or so later the Foreign Office wrote to Lord Rothschild, the President of the Zionist Federation, and to Chaim Weizmann already then a leading Zionist figure asking them for their proposals regarding a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The road had been opened for the Balfour Declaration.
The Declaration which took the form of a letter from Lord Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, addressed to Lord Rothschild was issued barely four months later. Rothschild in addition to being President of the Zionist Federation was also Senior Vice President of the Board thus preserving the Board’s role. More important it is hard to see the declaration being considered let alone issued had it not been for the vote of censure passed by the Board in June 1917
The vote was not the result of a mass conversion of the deputies to Zionism. Historians have shown the complicated reasons underlying the vote. Indeed it was some decades before the Zionists could claim to have taken over the Board. The vote did however reflect the independence of the Deputies, their refusal to buy into the anti-Zionism of the Anglo-Jewish establishment or to be bound by its views.
Critics of the Board have made much of the letter but unaccountably have glossed over the much more important vote. Its consequences for our time are massive and its implications should not be overlooked.