The historian Professor Simon Schama concluded a bravura Balfour Centenary Lecture on Wednesday night with an emotional belief that some of the hopes and fears of the makers of the Balfour Declaration were being realised in Israel, “a living, breathing, debating, thriving, rejoicing democracy.”
Israel’s six million Jews, Professor Schama said, “are the ultimate retort to the number that Adolf Hitler exterminated. The life of Israel is Hitler’s failure”.
And he took pleasure in celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, because, he said, “the dark pages of Jewish history have been lit by such impossibilities.”
His lecture, which took place in front of a 300-strong audience at the Royal Society in London, was live-streamed to sell-out events across the UK including at JW3 in London, and venues in Bournemouth, Leeds, Glasgow, Belfast, Brighton and Barnet. The Royal Society was chosen due to its reputation as the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence.
In his hour-long address Professor Schama sought to put Balfour in the context of what was happening globally — and also locally, by starting his remarks with warm memories of his father’s experience of dancing in the streets of Whitechapel as the Balfour Declaration was made public to the Jewish community. At the beginning of December 1917, Arthur Schama stood outside the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as the audience rose to applaud the singing of Hatikvah.
But elsewhere there was a black trail of misery and oppression of Jews, with seemingly endless pogroms and persecution as the Russian Revolution took hold. Jews were accused of many types of treason, including “possessing telephones” for a network of treason.
And he spoke of the Christian “restorationists” who backed Balfour and supported Jewish return to the land of Israel, because they believed that would bring the Messiah and the End of Days.
Professor Schama also spoke with admiration of the seductive powers of Chaim Weizmann, who had first met Arthur Balfour in Manchester in 1906. “He spoke of himself as the little Yid from Motal [in Belarus] but he was no Tevye with a chemistry degree”.
Despite the darker side of his address, Professor Schama still expressed hope that there were “small vindications” to suggest that Israel’s prime minister, murdered 22 years ago this week, had not died in vain. One such was the Yad b’Yad schools network, run equally by Jews and Arabs, another was the Ecopeace project which focused on saving water.
The evening opened with a short film, of extracts from an interview with Lord Rothschild by former Israeli ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub filmed at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, with Lord Rothschild citing the Declaration as “One of the most extraordinary moments in the history of the Jewish people.”
The Declaration was addressed to the present Lord Rothschild’s uncle Walter, then the second Baron Rothschild, described as “a deeply eccentric individual” who was converted to Zionism by Chaim Weizmann. And to the audience’s great amusement Daniel Taub revealed that one of the second baron’s eccentricities was not to open any post for a period of two years. What if, he asked Lord Rothschild, he had not opened Arthur Balfour’s letter?