The Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion 100 Years On

Ex­am­in­ing the tu­mul­tuous cen­tury for Jews since the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion of 1917

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By J.J. Gold­berg

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.


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