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‘Balfour’: Israel’s history, reality and destiny

Today, the Jerusalem location of the Prime Minister's residence is a symbol for many Israelis of Netanyahu's abuse of power
Montage, left to right: Arthur James Balfour (PD, Library of Congress); View of the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on June 23, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90); Protesters scuffle with police during a protest against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside outside the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Montage, left to right: Arthur James Balfour (PD, Library of Congress); View of the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem on June 23, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90); Protesters scuffle with police during a protest against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside outside the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For many Israelis, “Balfour” has become a symbol of these turbulent times. It is the epicenter of conflicting emotions in this bewildering, tumultuous and decidedly unpredictable summer. What does the use of the “Balfour” appellation actually connote? What images does it arouse? What meanings does it evoke? What failures does it conjure up? And what hopes does it nurture?

“Balfour” brings together much of Israel’s past, present and future. Its various uses highlight long-established truisms alongside deep-seated contradictions; contested histories together with uncomfortable realities; lofty values and the basest of human instincts. Its small, physically confined, space contains the lifeline of contemporary Israel, where both the dogmas and the vitality of this diverse country reside in close proximity. Nothing demonstrates this bundle of conflicting experiences better than the four main associations the term invokes and the many ways these intertwine today.

“Balfour,” first and foremost, is a name: that of once Prime Minister and later Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Arthur James Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration of 2 November, 1917. This brief, essentially one-sentence, missive to Lord Rothschild, expressed “sympathy for Zionist aspirations,” thus laying the groundwork both for the establishment of the state of Israel some thirty years later and for over a century of ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs in the land. “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Indeed, the careful – and purposely ambiguous – wording of the Balfour Declaration has been the source of great pride for many Jews and of interminable frustration for Palestinian Arabs to this very day. In one brash expression of colonialist arrogance (even before the British secured a mandate over Palestine), it succeeded in simultaneously encapsulating Jewish hopes alongside Arab fears. Depending on how one perceives its contents, mere mention of this letter arouses very different and still-heated emotions.

“Balfour,” after 1948, also quickly became associated with a place: the very short Balfour Street in Jerusalem, which links the Talbiyeh and Rehavia neighborhoods from Salameh to Paris squares. Following the establishment of Israel, this heretofore unnamed stretch of land, which includes some magnificent Arab homes, was renamed – along with adjacent streets – to honor major figures instrumental in the creation of the State (such as Dubnov, Jabotinsky, Marcus, Smolenskin, and Ehad Ha’am).

For many Jerusalemites, mention of Balfour has traditionally been simply a geographic marker – one connected with a sleepy street inhabited by senior government officials and academics in the midst of the city’s most upscale neighborhood. Until recently, it served as a pleasant shortcut from King George and Agron streets to the President’s residence, the Jerusalem Theater complex and, for the hardier, to the German Colony and beyond. It would have remained so even today if not for additional meanings associated with its mention.

Balfour the street, in fact, was largely undistinguished until 1974, when it became the code name for the residence of Israel’s prime ministers. Yitzhak Rabin was the first to make 9 Smolenskin Street, on the corner of Balfour – which had served until then as the home of Israel’s foreign ministers – his official residence. Prior to that Israel’s prime ministers from David Ben Gurion to Golda Meir lived in what became known as the “Prime Minister’s House” on 46 Ben Maimon Boulevard – a short five minutes’ walk away. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, in turn, inhabited “Balfour” during their tenure. Thus, the location of the abode of the Prime Minister took on a new meaning: the “residence” (not the “house”) of the incumbent – or, in other words, the seat of the most powerful person in the land.

The Netanyahu family has resided in this rather creaky edifice (originally known as Beit Aghion after the wealthy Jewish family that built it in the 1930s) for a total of close to 14 years. It first entered the house when Netanyahu was initially elected Prime Minister in 1996 and was compelled to leave with his defeat in the 1999 elections (a process which Binyamin Netanyahu has frequently referred to as “a forced removal” akin to that of Amona – an illegal West Bank outpost evacuated under a High Court ruling in 2017). After Netanyahu’s reelection to the office of Prime Minister in 2009, the family returned to Balfour and continues to live there until this very day.

Over the past decade and more, the Netanyahu name and the seat of the Prime Minister have been conflated – a process which has become particularly pronounced since the exposure of numerous improprieties associated with the running of the household. These have included – but hardly been confined to – lavish entertainment outlays, glaring overruns in household expenses, as well as real and purported abuses of personnel (mostly by Sara Netanyahu). In the minds of many Israelis, “Balfour” has taken on the specific meaning of the use (or abuse) of power by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his closest associates.

It is this latter connotation that has led to the latest usage of “Balfour”: the town square. Sporadically for some time, the space in front of the Prime Minister’s residence – where Balfour, Gaza, Rambam, Keren Ha’Yesod and Agron streets converge near Paris Square – has served as the Israeli equivalent of the Greek agora. This summer, this meaning of “Balfour” – that of the embodiment of free speech and democratic liberty – has become paramount with its institutionalization as the center for the expression of civic dissatisfaction with the present government and its leader. Besides the permanent vigil initially protesting Netanyahu’s corruption and unsuitability for office and gradually morphing into a variety of protests (against everything from the mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, its economic and social byproducts, women and minority rights and relations with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, to opposition to the system as a whole), the weekend gatherings at Balfour have come to highlight specific grievances as well: the continued incarceration of Abera Mengistu by Egypt, opposition to annexation, extreme manifestations of violence against women, justice for Eyad al-Hallaq, LGBTQ rights, and, just this past week, the Breslav Hassidim’s distress with prohibitions on the annual pilgrimage to Oman.

It is hardly surprising that the term “Balfour” and anti-government protests have become interchangeable. In 2004, Natan Sharansky, in his book The Case for Democracy (written with Ron Dermer), offered what has since become a firm measure of a country’s democratic robustness: the town square test: “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a ‘fear society’ has finally won their freedom” (pp.40-41). The ongoing “Balfour” protests, with their overloaded mixture of criticism and officially-sanctioned violence, raise doubts about Israel’s current capacity to stand up to the town square standard. They, together with the more than 300 weekly demonstrations on Israel’s bridges and passageways, are all about the struggle over what’s left of Israel’s democracy.

So, when you hear the word “Balfour”, what comes to mind? Is it the Balfour Declaration with all its various implications? A street in Jerusalem? The seat of power? Netanyahu’s extended rule? The democratic values of equality, freedom and justice? Or is it all of the above?

In all probability, for most people, “Balfour” is some combination of history, reality and destiny. It alludes not only to ideals and flawed circumstances, but also to utmost human decency alongside outrageous chicanery. It encompasses both a sense of togetherness and the realization of enduring animosities. It evinces pictures of repression coupled with significant kindness. And it constantly evinces tremendous fragility together with noteworthy steadfastness. In brief, “Balfour” is that discombobulating admixture of opposites which makes up Israel today. Perhaps, then, by defining how we use the term and what it denotes, each one of us can help move it beyond its narrow confines and make it into the harbinger of an Israel imbued with human dignity and fairness for all its citizens.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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