This week sees the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration which, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is a pretty important part of Jewish, Israeli, and British history. I am humbled to be the Chairman of the ZF today, the original recipients of this eponymous document, and am proud to see how enthusiastically the community has taken to celebrating this milestone and standing up for the legacy of Zionism.
Despite the ongoing communal concerns about antisemitism in the UK, we should take a moment to acknowledge the freedom we have to conduct those celebrations. The official Balfour Centenary Dinner, which I am also privileged to chair, will be celebrated in London on Thursday, the actual anniversary, by the Prime Ministers of both Britain and Israel. It is a pronounced illustration of widespread acceptance that this important piece of joint British and Israeli history will not go quietly into the night, but publicly and loudly recognised as a milestone.
When my ZF predecessor, Chaim Weizmann, originally decided to set in motion the train of events that would culminate in the Declaration, he could scarcely have imagined that a century later the commemoration of the letter he had procured would be so visible, his achievement recognised as so momentous.
Then again, he could scarcely have imagined any of what would happen over the next 100 years. The re-born Jewish-majority state in its ancient homeland triumphed against a multitude of enemies - and has not just survived but thrived in an otherwise inhospitable environment. Few people at the time would have credited the idea that these marginalised, scattered peoples could form a nation of their own.
Weizmann’s ingenuity, perseverance, chutzpah and belief was one of many steps to eventually overturn that prognosis. For me, the real significance of Balfour is to remember and capture some of that boundless optimism and imagination. So in that spirit, these are the three things I would like to see achieved by the time the 200th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration rolls around.
First: saving the world’s Jewish communities.
Yes, Israel still needs Jewish communities around the world to stand up for her, and that is an important part of Zionism. But it is also, more importantly, so that a Shoah can never happen again.
The undoubted success of Israel is sadly mirrored by the dwindling fortunes of Jewish communities outside of it. France, home to the largest such community in Europe, is haemorrhaging Jews at an alarming rate. Elsewhere, a variety of factors mean Jewish demographics are in a slow but steady decline. It’s possible to feel joy, pride and even relief that Jews are making their way to Israel, whilst also recognising what is being lost elsewhere. We know that if the worst comes to the worst, there will always be one country that will protect Jews no matter where - one place that will accept Jews with open arms, no questions asked.
Israel was established as a safe haven for all Jewish people. That is both the most profound but also most pragmatic reason why we can never afford to stop defending it.
Second: saving the world.
It’s not just Jews who stand to benefit from Israel over the coming decades. We rightly celebrate the technological and scientific innovations of the Start-Up Nation but – useful as Waze undoubtedly is – we face greater issues than the optimum method for navigating our car.
So while we credit Israel with making the desert bloom, those skills will be in high demand as ecological threats like climate change continue to impact our planet. I dream that Israel will continue to develop and that the rest of the world will start to embrace the ingenious breakthroughs by Israel that are crucial to saving lives.
It says a lot that, in a list of dreams, saving the world doesn’t seem the most wildly utopian. For many, a resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians (not to mention the wider Arab and Muslim worlds) will look out-of-reach. But, if we are dreaming as they dreamt 100 years ago, then peace is not just a fantasy but an inevitability.
And if we must dream big, as the early Zionist pioneers did, then we must dream that change too will be achieved - and that one day, one hundred years from now, the passing of the Balfour Declaration will be as freely celebrated by the Jewish communities in Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Tehran as they are here in the UK.
And that here in the UK, it is celebrated as enthusiastically as it is around Israel.
Paul Charney is Chairman of the Zionist Federation UK and Ireland