Simon Johnson: Commemorating The 67 Words That Changed The World

This is Simon Johnson's monthly column for the Jewish Telegraph and was featured in the print edition on the 3rd November 2016.

On 2nd November 2017, just 363 days from today, the entire Jewish community will have the opportunity to commemorate the piece of paper, containing just 67 words, which led to the creation of the State of Israel.  The piece of paper was the Government’s declaration of sympathy with Zionist aspirations, which soon became known as the “Zionist Declaration” and is now known as the “Balfour Declaration”.

The Balfour Declaration was the first statement of official governmental support by any government, anywhere, for Zionist aspirations. It was the British Wartime Coalition Government which took this step, and it is right that we, as proud British Jews, mark the centenary.  We should be proud of the British support for a Jewish and democratic state that strives to uphold the rights of all peoples living in the land. We are proud of the contribution that Great Britain made towards the creation of the State of Israel, which brought an end to two millennia of Jewish exile and persecution, and we support the enduring partnership between the UK and Israel.

I have read comments from respected journalists such as Anshell Pfeffer that the Balfour Declaration is not worthy of commemoration. I want to set out why I believe that this is an important event for the community to commemorate.

The Balfour Declaration was, admittedly, a letter, in the form of a statement of sympathy. The Balfour Declaration itself had no legal effect. However it became part of international law at the 1920 San Remo conference where Britain was given a Mandate by the newly created League of Nations to administer Palestine and was required to implement the Balfour Declaration.

The Balfour Declaration therefore was given effect by international law and received express sanction by international agreement.

The issuing of such a declaration was clearly a big deal to the Zionist campaigners such as Chaim Weizmann.  The campaign to achieve a declaration from the British Government, as the likely Imperial power over the area after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War 1, ran for nearly three years.  It involved diplomacy and lobbying at the highest level, led by Chaim Weizmann, but with a cast of other characters including Nahum Sokolow of the Zionist Organisation, Lord Rothschild, and CP Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian.  In fact, Weizmann and Sokolow toured the world in the years leading up to 1917, in case such a Declaration might be forthcoming from the other Imperial powers, such as France, Italy, USA, Russia and even Germany.

Why, if it was seen as so essential to the pioneering Zionists, and was the result of persistent and continual effort, would modern Zionists not see it as worth commemorating?

It is true that, following the Declaration, successive British Governments backed slowly  away from, chipped away at, and withdrew from their commitments under the Declaration., to such an extent that the British Government abstained in the UN vote on the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, which endorsed the creation of the Jewish State. But it was the vision of Weizmann and Lord Rothschild supported by the political pragmatism of Lloyd George and Balfour, which set the course for the eventual creation of the State of Israel.  There is a clear causal link and that is why our community will proudly mark the centenary.

The marking of the Balfour 100 Centenary will be a genuinely cross community endeavour, perhaps the most comprehensive and cooperative that I have been involved in during my three years at the JLC.

A steering Group has been meeting for nearly a year, chaired by Lord Kestenbaum, on behalf of the Rothschild Foundation, and comprising a representative from over 20 communal organisations with an interest of some sort in marking the Balfour Centenary. There has already been active coordination which is continuing all the way to the anniversary itself.

The committee has launched a digital resource, at www. Balfour100.com, which is intended to be the definitive resource related to Balfour100. Many events are being planned, but we are already able to confirm a major event in Manchester on October 31st 2017.  This will celebrate the pivotal role played by the Manchester School of Zionism, and of course the links with Manchester of Chaim Weizmann and CP Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, both of whom played a central role in the campaign for a Declaration.

On November 1st 2017, the ZF’s Annual Balfour Lecture will become the Balfour Centenary Lecture. Renowned historian Simon Schama will deliver the lecture at a suitable venue, with the community able to attend, and it also being streamed live on Balfour100.com.

We also know that the Shabbos of November 3rd and 4th 2017 will be designated by all synagogue bodies as Balfour Shabbat.  We hope there will be some activity in every shul in the country.  There will be educational materials, student activities, lesson plans in schools, political activity and lots of other events to be announced over the year.

Politically, as well as preparing our own events, we are getting ready to counter some of the opposition that will be thrown our way.  Let me highlight two of the most ridiculous arguments.

The first is the call of the Palestine Return Centre for a Balfour Apology.  They held an event in the House of Lords last week hosted by that renowned Israel hater, Baroness Jenny Tonge. I struggle to think of a more futile or hate-filled campaign.  What they are doing is asking for an apology for issuing a non binding statement of commitment that was the first step towards the establishment of a Jewish homeland. That is as close to denying the right of Israel to exist as I can think of, and should be called out as antisemitic.

Wile they are at it, why stop at asking Britain for an apology?  Why not also include the countries in the League of Nations who voted to include the Balfour Declaration in the British Mandate for Palestine?  Or the 33 Nations that voted in favour of UN Resolution 181, the Partition Plan for Palestine that established the Jewish state alongside an Arab Palestine state? So, let’s see the campaign for an apology from Belgium, Poland, Ecuador, Dominican Republic etc? Come on, Dame Jenny, go the whole hog and get your globe out and aim for as many apologies as you can.

And even more ridiculous is the campaign by the Palestine Authority to sue the British Government for the Balfour Declaration.  Any amateur lawyer will be able to advise them of the futility of suing for a non binding document issued 100 years ago.  So, they can’t be doing it because they have a chance of winning. They are doing it for the publicity.  Our Government needs to give this idea the shortest shrift possible, andnot even give them the credit of taking it seriously.

The Balfour Declaration is an historic step worthy of commemoration. The Israeli PM has called it Israel’s birth certificate. And we are proud to be part of the campaign to mark its’ importance.