The Balfour Declaration – 100 years on

Ben Swartz: South African Zionist Federation – National Executive Chairman


29 August 1897: First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland
“If you will it, it is no dream.” (Theodore Herzl)

2 November 1917: Foreign Office, London
“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people … 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.” (Lord Arthur James Balfour)

And so the dream became reality.

As Israel celebrates the centenary of this momentous occasion, we reflect back on the significance of the permission given by Britain to create a homeland for the Jews. For the first time in world history, a people regained control of its homeland and revived its ancient tongue; and it is today an economic, military, moral and scientific powerhouse.

Yet to the Arabs who lived in the region it was seen as an act of dishonesty and betrayal by Britain; and they were determined to oppose its creation.

As a result, controversy dogged its heels every step of the way; and efforts to prove its illegitimacy and eradicate the rights of the Jewish people have continued unabated from then till now.  The Arab world persists in foiling Israeli claims to the most ancient and sacred Jewish sites, resulting in wars, guerrilla attacks, rockets and mortars, and the most reprehensible of curses heaped on the heads of the Jews.  Yet nothing has stopped – nothing will stop - Israelis’ resolve to persevere in claiming what is theirs, whether by divine promise, history or law. 

According to Dr Daniel Gordis, the celebration of the Balfour Declaration centennial “affords us an opportunity to reflect on the international consensus it once represented, the commitment to freedom and self-determination which lay at its core, and the extraordinary success that Zionism has been since Lord Balfour wrote a brief letter that changed the world.”  Were it not for the Balfour Declaration, it is doubtful that the Jews would ever have had their homeland, nor would there have been a place of safety where, after the two World Wars, the millions of refugees from European and Arab lands could find shelter and sanctity. 

The timing of the Declaration was most propitious.  By being ratified decades before the Holocaust, there was thus an acknowledgement by Britain and other European countries of the right of the people of Israel to establish a national home there because of their historical ties to the land, rather than because of the tragedy that was to befall them some two decades later.

The Declaration promoted the creation of a “national home”; where Jews and non-Jews would enjoy religious and civil rights.  Israel was not guaranteed then, and since 1948 has had to strive to be a Jewish state in the midst of a hostile and militant Arab region of 23 states: 8 500 000 Israelis (of whom some 75% are Jews) as against almost 400 000 000 Arabs. Israel has survived, and will continue to grow and flourish, through tenacity, an unimpeachable belief in the legacy it has inherited over the millennia, and Jewish chutzpah.  

balfour dec.jpg