Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

A Name to Conjure With

The name of England’s Foreign Secretary in 1917, Arthur Balfour, has been given to one of the more prestigious streets in Jerusalem, as is only fitting. After all, the official statement known as the Balfour Declaration, in which the Zionist leadership, as represented by Lord Walter Rothschild, was informed therein that “his Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…” helped to give a seal of official approval to what had till then been a collection of piece-meal efforts to establish a Jewish presence in the Holy Land.

It did not do the trick, but it helped, and with that encouragement Jewish settlement in the region continued, being bolstered subsequently by the British victory over the Ottoman forces in the region. Despite Arab opposition and many setbacks, the Jewish settlement project persisted, culminating in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

So it seems rather ironic to hear in the press these days that the name of Balfour is used to represent two contradictory phenomena in the context of modern Israel, depending on one’s point of view.

First, the fact that the fine building at the top of Balfour St. now houses the official residence of Israel’s prime minister and his family has taken on an additional meaning. The behaviour, some would say shenanigans, of the first lady, Sarah Netanyahu, with regard to the staff of the official residence – even leading to court cases being brought against her by former employees – has led to the term ‘Balfour’ being used to represent the actions of the first family. Somehow ‘Balfour’ has become synonymous with ‘misbehaviour’ of various kinds on the part of the various members of the first family (there is also an adult son, Yair, who lives with his parents, has no known occupation and seems to spend his time attacking the media and defending his parents on social media).

A few months ago a handful of people started demonstrating outside the prime minister’s residence on a constant basis. Then it became a regular Saturday night event, eventually snowballing into gatherings of many thousands of dissatisfied citizens. There were calls for Netanyahu to resign in the face of his pending trial on several counts of misuse of his office, demands for compensation from small business-people who had lost their livelihoods, calls from artists, actors and musicians to reinstate public performances, and other groups with complaints of various kinds. Speeches were made, noisemakers were brought into action, the police tried unsuccessfully to break up the demonstrations – sometimes doing so violently – and an attempt at a counter-demonstration failed miserably. And still they demonstrate each week.

The demonstrators simply won’t go away, and since they’re located, you guessed it, outside the official residence, they’re also known as ‘Balfour.’ So, depending which side of the political divide you’re on and which particular section of the spectrum you’re referring to, the epithet ‘Balfour’ is bandied about to mean pretty much anything and everything.

As is often the case, it is important to pay attention to the context of what is being said, by whom and to whom it is addressed. Sometimes, in the fast-moving world of today’s electronic media, it isn’t always possible to work out exactly who is the object of opprobrium of any given report, article or interview, but there’s nothing wrong with making a little effort to try and understand what it is and why.

What is really saddening is that the name of the illustrious statesman Arthur Balfour is being maligned in this way.

My latest book, ‘Friends, Neighbors, Traitors,’ describes life in Israel in the 1980s. It is available on Amazon.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.