As we celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, we must remember that Balfour was not the beginning of Zionism. Our people’s longing to return home is as old as the Diaspora itself.
In the modern period, by the time of the Balfour Declaration, Jews had already been working for decades to build a state of their own. It was in recognition of those efforts that Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in 1917 officially expressed “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations”.
Thirty-five years before the Balfour Declaration, Leon Pinsker authored his famous work Auto-Emancipation, asking: “If other national movements which have risen before our eyes were their own justification, can it still be questioned whether the Jews have a similar right?”
In 1884, Pinsker helped to establish the Zionist movement Hovevei Zion, with delegates meeting in Katowice, Poland. Among its members were the pioneers of Rishon LeZion, one of the first practical expressions of Zionism that stands today as Israel’s fourth city.
Twenty-one years before the Balfour Declaration, Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State and in 1897, the First Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland, with the agreed goal of “establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.”
By the time Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour penned the final draft of his letter on 2 November 1917, there had already been eleven Zionist Congresses, Tel Aviv had been founded, and new communities across the land built.
The Balfour Declaration did not create a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. That presence had been there for millennia. Nor did it establish the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination. That is our fundamental right.
Rather, the Declaration is significant because it was the first time in modern history a major power — at the time Britain was the major power — publicly declared that it would facilitate the creation of a Jewish national home, helping to catalyse a chain of events in the years that followed.
In 1920, the San Remo Conference resolved to incorporate the Balfour Declaration’s promise into the Palestine Mandate.
In 1923, the League of Nations Mandate came into effect, committing the United Kingdom to the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
In 1947, the United Nations called for Jewish independence and for the British Mandate to ready “an area situated in the territory of the Jewish State, including a seaport and hinterland adequate to provide facilities for a substantial immigration”.
Each of these events reinforced Balfour’s words in 1917 and were crucial steps in the path to Israel’s rebirth in 1948.
As in antiquity, when the edict of Cyrus the Great of Persia endorsed the right of the exiled Jews to reconstitute their kingdom, so, too, in the modern period the Balfour Declaration supported the Jewish struggle to reconstitute national sovereignty.
Britain can indeed be proud of this, for in Balfour’s letter it was not only standing up for the Jewish people’s national rights but also for the finest values that the United Kingdom today cherishes.
In a volatile and violent Middle East, Israel continues to stand out as a beacon of democracy, pluralism and the rule of law, with its Declaration of Independence guaranteeing: “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was an important milestone on the road to the achievement of Jewish national aspirations.
The people of Israel will celebrate it as such and we invite the people of the United Kingdom to join us and proudly mark their country’s role in realising those dreams and in creating the Middle East’s only tolerant and free democracy.