The Balfour Declaration 100 Years On
Examining the tumultuous century for Jews since the Balfour Declaration of 1917
We’re entering a symbolically fraught interlude in Jewish history: the interval between the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, June 5, and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, November 2. The symmetry of the two round numbers is purely coincidental. But they cast very real shadows. They remind us of where we’ve been, and demand a moment of reflection about where we’re headed.
Simply put, the two dates define the historical arc of modern Jewish life: from the moment in 1917 when the goal of Jewish statehood first gained formal international recognition and legitimacy to the moment in 1967 when the recognition and legitimacy arguably started to ebb, gradually giving way to 50 years of growing unease.
Put differently, the Balfour Declaration launched a diplomatic process that led to an international embrace of what had been up to then a crazy dream of Jewish national rebirth. The Six Day War touched off a series of events that may yet end in the dream’s demise.
The first half-century — from 1917 to 1967 — included two of the worst calamities to befall Jews. The first was the devastation inflicted on the Jewish populations in Poland and Ukraine during World War I and the Russian Revolution, leaving whole communities decimated and perhaps a quarter-million Jewish noncombatants dead. The second was the Holocaust, a calamity so vast that it’s all but eclipsed the memory of the first.
The second half-century, since 1967, has proved a time of mounting success. The 1967 war transformed Israel from scrappy underdog to the region’s economic and military superpower. American Jews during the same period rose from colorful outsiders to an affluent elite, trendsetters in the culture, influential in government, business, academia and more. Proudly identified Jews were visible
across the landscape, from Jon Stewart to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chuck Schumer to Scarlett Johansson.
Here’s the paradox: Even as Jewish fortunes were experiencing an astonishing reversal from powerlessness and suffering to almost unimaginable success, the inner life of Jews was changing in the opposite direction. For a halfcentury after 1917, the dominant mood among Jews in America and Israel alike was one of optimism. If the present was grim, the future could only be better. Since 1967, the mood has been increasingly gloomy and cynical.
Pre-independence Israel in the 1920s was a nation in the making, maturing rapidly under the rule of Britain and the Balfour promise: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour … a national home for the Jewish people.”
The 1922 League of Nations mandate to Britain to govern Palestine explicitly ratified the Balfour promise.
Arab hostility to the Zionist enterprise was growing rapidly in tandem with the burgeoning Jewish society in their midst, but for most Jews in what would become Israel, the expectation was of eventual statehood.
American Jewry in the 1920s was establishing itself in America. The second generation, children of the mass Eastern European immigration, American-born and English-speaking, was finding economic security and leaving immigrant ghettos for more spacious surroundings in places like the Bronx and West Rogers Park in Chicago. The next generation would move to the suburbs and become fully at home.
Even when World War II came, the mood among American Jews was one of determination, not despair. Though it’s largely forgotten now, there were mass rallies in support of Europe’s Jews, rallies that filled stadiums across the country. There were also protest marches against Hitler, even undercover campaigns against homegrown Nazis. Most telling, Jews enlisted in the military and gave their lives in greater proportions than the population at large.
After the war, Jewish pressure on the street and inside the White House was decisive in creating the Nazi warcrimes trials and establishing the notion
For a half-century after 1917, the dominant mood among Jews was one of optimism.