November is a month of remembrances for Israel. The highlight this year was Nov. 2, which marked the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Jews around the world commemorated the day when Great Britain’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, promised in a public letter to the Zionist financier, Lord Walter Rothschild, that His Majesty’s government views “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”
The background of this event has been described numerous times. It includes among other things the influence of Chaim Weizmann, the prominent scientist and world Zionist leader (later the first president of Israel), who devised a formula for producing the smokeless gunpowder British soldiers needed during World War I; the untiring work of Nahum Sokolow, the Hebrew journalist who traveled across Europe and America persuading government leaders to support Zionist aims; and the exaggerated belief of British officials that by backing the Zionist cause they could win the friendship of American Jews, who would then influence the American government to give Britain a greater presence in Palestine after the war ended.
But there are two other aspects of that story that should be emphasized. The first is the year of the declaration itself, 1917. An oft-repeated misconception about Israel today is that it was established because of the Holocaust, as a haven for the remnants of Europe’s Jews. Anti-Israel rhetoric, especially, claims that were it not for that disaster there would have been no need for a Jewish state, and with it the Arab-Israel conflict that resulted. In response to such misconceptions, the facts need to be brought home time and again.
Zionists began to return to the Land of Israel as early as the 1880s, and political Zionism dates back to Theodor Herzl and the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. The Balfour Declaration 20 years later built on the Zionist yearnings of the Jewish people to return to their ancestral homeland. The Holocaust made those yearnings urgent, but was not the key motivating factor for a Jewish state.
The second aspect, less well-known, is that England did not suddenly, on its own, produce the Balfour Declaration. As discussed in the online magazine, “Mosaic,” during World War I, Britain was allied with the major countries of the world—France, Belgium, Russia, Italy, later America. It could not have unilaterally issued a promise about the future of Palestine without the agreement of those other powers. That agreement gave the declaration its legitimacy. In fact, at the San Remo conference of 1920, when the victorious allies awarded England a mandate over Palestine, their edict was based on the existence of the Balfour Declaration and incorporated words from it. With time, and an increase in Arab violence, Britain pulled further and further away from the internationally endorsed declaration. Eventually, of course, it gave up its mandate, leading to the United Nations resolution to partition the land into Jewish and Arab states.
That resolution is the other emotion-tugging and powerful remembrance of this month. Seventy years ago, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Nov. 29, 1947, people in many parts of the world huddled around their radios, as members of the General Assembly voted “yes,” “no” or “abstention” on the partition resolution. When the roll call ended, 33 nations had voted “yes,” providing the necessary two-thirds majority. Jews everywhere celebrated wildly. In Jerusalem, people poured into the streets, some still in pajamas, dancing in circles and singing their way to the Jewish Agency courtyard.
At 2 a.m., Golda Meir addressed them from the balcony of her office, wishing them mazal tov and calling on the Arab nations to join the Jews in “friendship and peace.” A few days later she received a letter with a copy of her photo in the Palestine Post as she had appeared that evening. Instead of projecting joy, the letter writer complained, she had looked “like a mother standing at her child’s grave.” What kind of response was that? “I was looking very, very sad that night,” Golda later admitted. She knew, as did David Ben-Gurion, that war with the Arabs would follow the UN decision.
Israelis have paid a heavy toll for the establishment of their state. This month also marks a tragic event: the murder of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995, by his countryman, Yigal Amir. This tiny nation has weathered wars, terror and devastating internal divisions. Yet it continues to exist and to thrive in many areas, moving from a letter that held out a dream to an international resolution that shaped the dream—to next year’s celebration, the realization of that dream with the establishment of the state. So much struggle and sacrifice went into it all, yet as each step has unfolded, each has seemed like a miracle.
Francine Klagsbrun’s new book, “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” (Schocken), was published in October.