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At CCJ’s recent Jewish/Christian dialogue group meeting on Israel/Palestine, Jews and Christians discussed the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. The two reflections below were presented at that meeting to help guide the discussion:

 

Judith Flacks, Head of Campaigns at the Jewish Leadership Council

On the 2nd November 2017, the British Jewish community will be celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. The British government have also stated on a number of occasions that they will be marking the centenary of the Declaration with pride.

I do recognise that this is quite a bold and controversial statement.

To a large part of the British, and indeed, international Jewish community, the Balfour Declaration is seen as the ‘birth certificate’ of the State of Israel. With all of the complexities that Israel carries with it today, it is for most Jews around the world, a homeland. The process of that homeland becoming politically recognised began with the issuing of the Balfour Declaration by the British government in 1917.

Our community decided that to mark this anniversary, we would do something that had not been done before on this scale. We formed a steering committee of 23 British Jewish and pro-Israel organisations, who would meet and contact each other regularly to coordinate a series of Balfour related activities, talks, educational resources, events and celebrations.

The Balfour Centenary Lecture with Simon Schama, which was highlighted as our public keynote event, sold out within 3 hours, and there are well over 100 other events planned in synagogues of all denominations, community centres and other central locations all over the country planned to mark the centenary. We have also commissioned a Balfour 100 website (www.balfour100.com) which is a huge educational resource, with downloadable programmes and easy to access information about the history of the Balfour Declaration.

Even with all of these celebrations, as a community, we do recognise that the Balfour Declaration was not without its controversies. At the time of drafting the Declaration, the government also recognised that this was a controversial step and took great care to ensure that the Declaration had acceptable wording to the Jewish community, at least.

The Balfour 100 website states that on October 6, 1917 the War Cabinet decided to send out the latest ‎draft text to eight Jews, four anti-Zionists and four Zionists, for ‎comment.

The cover letter acknowledged that “in view of the ‎divergence of opinion expressed on the subject by the Jews ‎themselves,” the Government “would like to receive in writing the ‎views of representative Jewish leaders, both Zionists and non-Zionists.” ‎

There were 5 drafts of the Declaration to ensure the wording was exactly as intended. You can see all of those drafts and the changes made to each at http://www.balfour100.com/declaration/.

Many historians have argued that the Declaration may not have been issued at all, had it not been for the First World War and the strategic vantage point that Palestine had, and still has in the Middle East today.

However, we must also remember that one of the most pivotal contextual points of the Declaration was the worsening humanitarian crisis for Eastern European Jewry. Russian Jews were subjected to mass expulsions from their homes and commonly faced pogroms. Within three years over 100,000 Jews were murdered in Ukraine by counter-revolutionary forces and community institutions and places of worship were demolished. Years of persecution and the creation of an ever-worsening refugee crisis was in urgent need of attention and resolution. World Jewry was growing desperate in its historic longing for a homeland safe from persecution, and in that vein, were all too glad to receive the Balfour Declaration.

Today, we have decisively come together as a community to celebrate 100 years on from that historic moment in Zionist history, and the decision by Britain in 1917 to take the first step in recognising Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people. Even as we celebrate, we must not forget that there are still many steps to be taken to guarantee a lasting peaceful resolution between Israelis and Palestinians.

 

Revd Peter Colwell, Deputy General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 expressed a positive sentiment towards creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine “without prejudice to the civic and religious rights of the existing population”.

In this very brief introduction to our discussion I wanted to make a number of points in relation to how Balfour impacts upon Jewish and Christian relationships to one another.

From the outset it is worth noting that Balfour goes to the very heart of the dialogical crisis between the two, given that for most Jews (and many Christians) this anniversary is a moment of celebration, whilst for many Christians, especially Palestinian, it is a moment of lament. So Balfour brings us face to face with contested history and how it relates to the ever elusive two state solution.

However, both the celebration and lamenting narratives are prone to a reading of history backwards. In other words we start with the present political realities and read the history in light of current events. The problem with this approach, apart from it being a poor historical methodology, is that it does not move relationships forward nor does it take us closer to conflict resolution. It also leads us towards drawing conclusions about the reasons and intentions for Balfour that may or may not have been in the minds of the protagonists of the time.

So let me make a number of brief observations about the Balfour Declaration. The first is the background to it both in terms of its theological antecedents and its foreign policy function which are inter-related at various points. It is often pointed out that Balfour was a Christian Zionist, whose belief in restorationism would hasten the second coming of Christ. Meanwhile The Balfour Declaration arose out of a context of growing interest in the Near East by the competing European powers, particularly Britain, France, Prussia and Russia. Russia was primarily concerned with Constantinople, whilst Britain and Prussia jointly established a Bishopric in Jerusalem.[1] This is why there is a Lutheran and Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, and one of the contributory factors in leading Anglo-Catholics to depart the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church.

From the 1840’s a movement aimed at the “restoration of the Jews”, led by Lord Shaftesbury, gained momentum in Britain.[2] However, the restoration movement was motivated by political interests as well as theological conviction. The Balfour Declaration that was, to some extent, the realization of the restoration movement, has cast a shadow over the politics of the region ever since, for whilst it spoke of not prejudicing the civic and religious rights of the indigenous population, Balfour himself in 1919 spoke of Zionism having more importance than the “desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit the ancient land”.[3]

The historian Gudrun Krämer points out that the Balfour Declaration introduces a term hitherto unknown in political discourse – “homeland”. What would “creating a homeland in Palestine” actually mean in practice? In light of what we know about British foreign policy of the time we can be fairly certain it did not mean the creation of an independent Jewish State, and numerous comments from the time, including Lloyd-George and Churchill, would seem to confirm this. Nevertheless it would come to mean this, especially as it began to gain momentum during the British Mandate period.

So restorationism and ultimately the Balfour Declaration are intertwined with a range of issues of which Christians and Jews wrestle with today, including intra-ecumenical Christian matters, Christian Zionism, the impact of colonial history, the nature of contemporary Judaism and how it relates to global Christianity.

The Balfour Declaration is not merely historical but is contemporary in terms of its impact. This is not only the case for the current conflict in the region but also in respect of Jewish-Christian relations at the present time.

[1] see Sybil M.Jack: “No Heavely Jerusalem: The Anglican Bishopric, 1841-83”, in The Journal of Religious History, Vol.19, No.2, December 1995, pp.181-203; Patrick Irwin: “Bishop Alexander and the Jews of Jerusalem”, in Studies in Church History, Vol.23 (1984), pp.317-327

[2] “The Restoration of the Jews” movement had strong roots within the Anglican tradition. For a recent Anglican survey of Christian Zionism see Land of Promise? An Anglican exploration of Christian attitudes to the Holy Land, with special reference to Christian Zionism. Anglican Communion Network for Inter Faith Concerns, 2012

[3] Alexander Schölch: “Britain in Palestine, 1838-1882: The Roots of the Balfour Policy”, in Journal of Palestine Studies XXII, No.1 (Autumn 1992), pp.39-56. See also Mayir Verté, , From Palmerston to Balfour: Collected Essays of Mayir Verté, (edited by Norman Rose), Frank Cass, 1992; Gudrun Krämer, A History of Palestine, Chapter 7