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Reflections on the Balfour Declaration

Amid the destruction of World War I, hope emerged upon the horizon for the beleaguered Jewish people with the issuing of the Balfour Declaration.

As British and Allied forces were closing in on Turkish forces in Palestine, the Balfour Declaration was issued by the British government through Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour. The message was contained in a letter to British Jewish leader and former MP Lord Walter Rothschild announcing British intentions to grant the Jews a “national home in Palestine.”

It seemed like a dream: The establishment of a Jewish homeland within the land of Israel as guaranteed by the Balfour Declaration seemed closer to offering solace. These were very tragic times.

At the beginning of World War I, there were about 95,000 Jews in Palestine. But those numbers soon diminished due to the forced expulsion of Jews, mostly with Russian citizenship, by the Turks as well as the flight of Jews from Turkish wartime oppression. Starvation and disease tragically took a significant toll on the population as well. By November 1917, there were far fewer Jews in the land.

Times were also very bleak for world Jewry. Tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers from all sides were falling on the battlefields of Europe. Since the beginning of the war, about 1.5 million Jewish refugees fled the destruction wreaked by armies and by forced expulsions by Russian forces. Jewish towns throughout Russia, Poland and Galicia were ravaged by pogroms causing even further devastation. Overcrowded cities in Poland and Russia from the flood of refugees faced starvation.

The extent of the destruction defies description.

Amid catastrophic times, the Balfour Declaration was issued.

Jews fought and bled for nations which too often showed them no gratitude, but expressions of antisemitism. The Balfour Declaration told Jewry that they have a recognized home in their homeland, though not yet established.

The Balfour Declaration was more than an official statement of British policy. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson expressed his support, as did leaders of France, Italy, Greece and other nations. The prospect of Jewish statehood became something more tangible.

Zion was now a more viable destination. The Balfour Declaration spurred the third wave of aliyah, 1919-1923, from Poland and Russia. Forty thousand Jews arrived in flight from antisemitism and devastating post-war pogroms in Eastern Europe. The most horrific wave of pogroms, which occurred in the Ukraine during its civil war, drove emigrants to Zion. Many also arrived from recently declared independent Poland where Jews also suffered antisemitic violence. Immigrants of the fourth aliyah wave (1924-1929) of 80,000 were mostly from Poland and the USSR, also escaping oppression. The fifth wave (1932-1936) of over 175,000 immigrants arrived, mostly from Germany as a result of the flood of Jew hatred with the rise of Nazism.

These waves, albeit under extreme circumstances, produced the foundation of the State of Israel.

According to the declaration, the Jewish homeland would include the other side of the Jordan River in what today is the nation of Jordan. Borders were drawn in a 1922 partition, and then again on November 29, 1947 in U.N. Resolution 181, passed by the General Assembly, which granted the Jews 12% of the land mass, initially guaranteed to them by the Balfour Declaration.

Opposition to the Balfour Declaration emerged among the British military occupying Palestine soon after the war’s end. The British government would paddle away from its commitments and eventually issue the 1939 MacDonald White Paper, under the government of Neville Chamberlain. The White Paper severely restricted Jewish immigration to 75,000 in total over the next five years and ruled that further immigration would then be determined by an Arab majority. Western nations looked away with indifference.

The Balfour Declaration did not create a Jewish State, but it gave impetus and more support to the cause of Zionism.

In November 1917, a very small minority of Jewry lived in Palestine. Today about one half of world Jewry resides in Israel.

Today, opponents of Israel are still fighting the Balfour Declaration. The opposition was once spearheaded by Mufti Amin al-Husseini. Today, there are several inheritors of that role from Fatah to Hamas to Hezbollah.

At the time of the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration, there was some Jewish opposition from the elites and some others who feared that Jewish nationalism threatened their status and would cast aspersions on their loyalties to their respective host nations. They feared they would be seen as pariahs within their societies. Today, those Jews who express opposition to the State of Israel are seeking alignment with their political allies, the far Left, which has become increasingly anti-Israel over the last several years.

One century later, in a world confronted with Islamic terror, Israel is on the forefront in defense against those threats. It has managed to survive terror even before its independence, since the 1920 Arab pogroms during the British occupation, and even thrive. The people of Israel, by their resilience, have given far more to the world than the Balfour Declaration gave to the Jews.

The Jewish Chronicle in London, which lauded the Balfour Declaration, also made a poignant observation in 1917. “Neither England, nor France, nor the United States, can give Palestine to the Jewish people, it must be desired, it must be sought for, it must be earned.”

With the help of the Almighty.

Larry Domnitch, formerly of Bergenfield, lives with his family in Efrat.

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