100 Years Since the Balfour Declaration

(L) British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour during a visit to Jerusalem. (Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Arthur Balfour, 1912. (Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Balfour Declaration.

The 17th of Cheshvan is a significant day in the Jewish calendar. On this day, the Mabul, the terrible Flood, began, initially as a modest rain. If the people would merit, the rain would continue as gishmei brachah, a blessing from Heaven.

The 2nd of November, 1917, corresponding to the 17th of Cheshvan, 5678, is a date that changed the course of Jewish history. A letter signed by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild included a commitment of the British Government to view favorably the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” and a commitment to “use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.” Lord Rothschild was asked to bring this letter to the attention of the Zionist Federation.

This letter was not drafted in a vacuum. How this commitment came about is a fierce debate between historians and politicians to this very day. Zionists, post-Zionists and religious Jewry have vastly different accounts not only of how it came about but moreover, what was it meant to be.

For secular Zionism, it was the opportunity for a de-facto transformation of the Jewish people from an essentially religious entity into one that defines Jews as citizens of a secular state.

This philosophy is contrary to the very belief in Torah MiSinai. For the Torah-observant Jew, Zionist or not, the character of Klal Yisrael is defined by its commitment to Torah. For the believer in Torah, Eretz Yisrael is the Jewish Homeland, regardless of its political ruler. Therefore, for them, the Declaration was an opportunity for Jews to settle and live in Eretz Yisrael, safely and undisturbed. The quest for their own state — at least for the non-Zionist religious — was not the agenda. For some, the establishment of a Jewish State is even a violation of the shalosh shavuos, the vow on the Jewish people not to settle in Eretz Yisrael against the will of the nations of the world. However, most Gedolei Yisrael did not view it as such. To the contrary, many saw the Declaration as a smile, so to speak, from Heaven, but were equally concerned that a secular leadership might squander this opportunity and misuse it.

Eventually, the Balfour Declaration was used by the Zionist leadership as the stage from which to declare themselves as the representatives of the Jewish nation. This enabled them to lead astray vast numbers of the Jewish nation from the responsible guidance of Gedolei Yisrael into the self-serving and short-sighted hands of a secular, political entity that still struggles to define its identity. Klal Yisrael suffers the ramifications of this tragic shift to this very day.

The forthcoming series of articles in Hamodia is an exploration of the historic facts of the yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, going back to the first attempts to resettle the land. The importance of those articles cannot be overestimated. It will give the reader a perspective on a process that is still evolving.

We all hope that we are living through a process that will ultimately turn into a complete blessing. After all, even a hundred years is a relatively short timeframe in the scope of history. But most important, it may induce us to pray for the Geulah Shleimah, when we will merit redemption from Hester Panim.