Thursday will mark a splendid occasion in which the United Kingdom can take enormous pride: on November 2, 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, launched into the universe of global geopolitics a rocket that continues to blaze after one hundred years. In fact, he wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, the head of Britain’s Jewish community, announcing, in fact, the end of the Jewish people’s 1800-year exile and its return to history, to its homeland – the Land of Israel.
A homeland that was never forgotten, even during the most frightening and difficult times, those of pogroms, racial persecution and religious torture: never ever had the Jews stopped praying toward Jerusalem, shouting to the heavens, “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” or as they repeat upon smashing a glass on their wedding day, a ritual symbolizing the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
Balfour wrote: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” Immediately, despite some forward-looking leaders who saw the opportunity this represented for some Arab peoples (the Hashemite Dynasty stood out in this regard), it led to the emergence of a bloody terrorist campaign that continues today, and which is fundamentally based on the religious refusal of any non-Muslim presence on the Islamic Ummah. The Palestinian leadership unwaveringly propagates this idea still today.
It’s crucial to remember that no Palestinian state existed, that the area was still dominated by the Turks, and that the decision was supported both verbally and written on behalf of the Americans, French, Italians and Vatican. Hence, it wasn’t an isolated action as Abu Mazen today suggests with his campaign, devoted to Israel’s destruction, and who has even asked the UK not only to apologize for the Balfour Declaration, but also to cancel all celebrations to mark its centennial: this is an affront to history, as well as to the unwavering determination of the Zionist movement founded by Theodor Herzl and also to the international consensus overall.
This was what in 1922 brought about the establishment of a Jewish national home, as laid down in the League of Nations preamble, and led to the creation of the British Mandate for Palestine. From the Balfour Declaration onwards, hundreds of thousands of Jews made their way to the land of their forefathers, therefore in retrospect, we can say that it saved them from the crematoria ovens.
They found Israel arid and abandoned as Mark Twain described it, but they tilled its land with their sweat, defended it with their blood, made it flourish and transformed it into the miracle of democracy and technology that this tiny country represents today. However, the UK wasn’t coherent in its message of justice, on the contrary, it quickly changed its policies as it became increasingly frightened by the Arab’s refusal of a Jewish homeland, which led them to police the seas by denying Jews entry into Palestine when they most needed to escape persecution, and more importantly, the Shoah.
Since the beginning of the Mandate, the British gave Arabs, not Jews, government positions. They produced official bulletins and documents in English and Arabic, not in Hebrew, the language that was miraculously reconstructed from the Bible and from prayers, which eventually became an integral part of their daily life. Later, tragically, the British restricted and blocked Jewish immigration shortly before the onset of World War II.
In 1939, the “White Paper” issued restrictions on Jewish immigration and limitations on the right of Jews to purchase land. Yet the miracle had already been achieved, the Jews had already undertaken their march back home with the force of joy and despair, ready to suffer in order to rebuild their homeland.
Theresa May is right when she responds today to the harsh Palestinian threats: “We are proud of the role we played in the creation of the State of Israel and we will certainly mark the centenary with pride.” Despite the fact that Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that he will not be participating in the centennial celebrations after repeatedly extending his friendship to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Although the wave of British anti-Semitism is also extremely high due to immigration, Britain can boast about the creation of a document that restored to Jews from all over the world a sense of their right to exist in this world, among the nations, and which certainly enabled them to survive morally even during the Shoah.
Balfour Declaration made life possible for many Jews after the Holocaust. My father, Aron Alberto Nirenstein, from the Jewish Yishuv where he went with his Zionist-Socialist group in 1936, had the idea of visiting his family in Baranov, Poland, just as the German troops were about to invade and deport most of all his family. Faced with the advancement of the black tide, he was able to start again, in the tragedy, with the most adventurous means in a country and a people who were his, forever, historically. Theodore Herzl and the Balfour Declaration had pointed the way.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal
This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale (October 30, 2017)