This past week marked the 102nd anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the famed public statement issued by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announcing his government’s support for “the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.” The date of the declaration, November 2, has long been venerated by Zionists, and in some quarters of the Jewish community "Balfour Day" is still celebrated as a quasi-holiday.
Of course, Balfour Day has historically been regarded as a day of infamy for Palestinians, who understandably view it as an important historical turning point toward their eventual dispossession. After all, by issuing the Balfour Declaration, Britain was essentially promising a land that was not theirs (in 1917 Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire) to a people who did not actually live there (at the time, the Jewish population of Palestine was roughly 3%.)
It's also important to note that while Balfour has long been lionized as a Zionist hero, he wasn’t particularly well known for his love for Jews or the Jewish people. When he was prime minister, his government passed the 1905 Aliens Act, severely restricting immigration at a time in which persecuted Jews were emigrating from Eastern Europe. At the time, Balfour spoke of the “undoubted evils which had fallen on the country from an alien immigration which was largely Jewish.” Balfour, like many Christians of his class, “did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society.”
It is even less well-known that the sole Jewish member of British government, Edwin Montagu, strongly objected to the Balfour Declaration, submitting this memorandum to the British cabinet on August 1917:
I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic and in result will prove a rallying ground for Anti-Semites in every country in the world…When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants…
When the Jew has a national home, surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased. Palestine will become the world’s Ghetto. Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine. Why does Lord Rothschild attach so much importance to the difference between British and foreign Jews? All Jews will be foreign Jews, inhabitants of the great country of Palestine.
I've long felt that historical anniversaries such as these should be an occasion for reckoning rather than unabashed celebration. At the very least, these moments should motivate us to reconsider the figures we venerate and those who have been largely forgotten by history.
On this particular anniversary, it is well worth asking: who is more worthy of our veneration: one such as Lord Balfour, or Edwin Montagu, whose words resonate with haunting prescience for us even today?
Rabbi Brant Rosen