The Declaration, which was passed by Foreign Secretary Lord (Arthur) Balfour to Zionist Federation chief Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917, said the British government would do all its power to pursue a home for the Jewish people while “it being understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights enjoyed by Jews in other countries”.
There are numerous events being planned by synagogues and community organisations across the country to celebrate this landmark occasion.
Q: Prime Minister Theresa May calls the Balfour Declaration ‘one of the most important letters in history’. Is she right?
A: It certainly was for the Jewish people. It was the first recognition of the right of the Jewish people to re-establish a homeland in Israel after two millennia, not just by the British Government but by any government. Although it wasn’t a legal document in itself, it played a critical role in making the state of Israel possible. And when you look where Israel is today, and and depth of UK-Israel cooperation, it’s something Britain can be very proud of, too.
Q: What interest did the British have in issuing the Declaration, especially in the middle of the First World War?
A: It is remarkable to see the amount of time the War Cabinet devoted to discussing Zionism and the Balfour Declaration right in the heat of the war. Of course, in some ways, the two were related. Some members of the cabinet hoped they could use Jewish influence to generate American and Russian support for the war effort. But a striking number, Lloyd George and Balfour among them, were genuinely moved by the plight of the Jews in Russia and inspired by the dream of the return of the Jews to the land of Bible.
Q: You’ve looked into the background of the Declaration in archives in Israel and the UK. What surprised you?
A: There have been many surprises. Some are curiosities – I hadn’t realised, for example, that the song Hava Nagila was written in celebration of the Declaration. But the most remarkable thing has been to learn about the unusual group of people who helped make the Declaration happen. They were a very unlikely bunch, with no small amount of eccentricities, by no means people you would mark as leaders or diplomats. But they changed history. To me, that’s
a reminder that every one of us can play a part in writing the Jewish story.
Q: Any other lessons for our community leadership today?
A: It’s worth remembering that the Declaration very nearly didn’t happen, not because of British opposition but because of divisive splits within the Jewish community. That might be a useful reminder of how much damage destructive arguments within the community can cause, and how much we can achieve if we manage work together.
Q: In later years, Britain reneged on the Balfour Declaration and prevented Jewish immigration from Europe to Palestine when the Jews needed it most. Should that cast a shadow on our celebrations?
A: The White Paper restricting Jewish immigration was clearly a very low point in our relations, but we should also remember the British leaders – Balfour and Winston Churchill were among them – who spoke out passionately for Britain to honour the Declaration. I think that one of the messages of this centenary is that history isn’t carved in stone, it’s up us to write it. So while we have to be honest about the past, I think it’s also right that we choose to celebrate the people that made the Declaration possible, and all those who have contributed to the success of Israel and strength of the relations between our two countries.
Q: What about Israel? Are there lessons Israelis can take from the Declaration?
A: I think there are. The Balfour Declaration is obviously a historical document that played a historic role in in the establishment of Israel. But it’s also an aspirational document. Short as it is, it sets out a vision of Israel that is guided by Jewish values and which ensures equality to all its non-Jewish residents. In both of those missions, it’s still a work in progress. I’m currently working with Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild Foundation in Israel, and it’s very moving to me to see that the descendants of the Lord Rothschild to whom the Declaration was addressed are today involved in so many projects to fulfil the promise of that vision.
Q: In recent months, we’ve heard Palestinian representatives threatening to sue Britain for issuing the Declaration or to ask for an apology for it. How do you think Palestinians should relate to the Declaration?
A: I think Britain has rightly recognised these campaigns as nonsense. But the Palestinians who are making these demands are really missing the main lesson of the Balfour Declaration. Lord Balfour himself said that the Declaration didn’t give the Jews Palestine, rather it gave them an opportunity and they would have to work to take advantage of it.
We were blessed with leaders who did just that – establishing communities and industry in Israel and developing relationships across the world. I think the key lesson, for Israelis and Palestinians alike, is not to become obsessed with the past, but to seize opportunities proactively and work to build the future.
Q: You’ll be sharing some of your findings about the hidden history of the Declaration in the Isaiah Berlin Memorial Lecture next week. Is there a connection between Isaiah Berlin and the Declaration?
A: Isaiah Berlin’s active involvement in Zionism came much later. At the time of the Declaration, he was a young child in Russia, which had just gone through the Russian revolution. But he does write movingly that he remembers well his excitement when the Declaration was announced and he was given a blue and white and gold flag and taken to a celebration in the local synagogue. Only later did he realise that he was celebrating “the greatest event in Jewish history since the destruction of Judea”.
Mr Taub will deliver this year’s Isaiah Berlin lecture at Hampstead Synagogue on 13 July.
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