1917: the birth of the Balfour Declaration

We all know that there are some famous people whom we know very well from their writings and by their names in famous documents. When I was a schoolboy in the United States, I knew all about the Monroe Doctrine, but I never saw his photo – he was President of the United States. I heard about the Balfour Declaration for many years, but did not know what Sir Arthur Balfour was like, until one day.

About 20 years ago I was approached by a Jerusalem Post editor to work with a collector of Eretz Yisrael photographs from the early 20th century to the early years of the State of Israel. He had purchased a series of color postcards showing Arthur Balfour’s visit in 1925 before the opening of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I had to write the history of that visit working with her.

When I saw the photos of him, in color, I used them as my focus. I read in Hebrew the newspapers about the worship that was given to him in all the kibbutzim and moshavim and the schools that he visited. As I looked at him in those photos, I could see what Eretz Israel, Palestine, meant to him. In his face I recognized the happiness he felt for writing the Balfour Declaration. Through those photos, I can never forget it.

In December 1917, a month after the Balfour Declaration was issued on November 2, the Jewish world was astonished and moved when they and the people in general learned that there was now a document that promised a “Jewish homeland in Palestine ”. The thrill of that monumental act, 104 years ago, was hailed by Jewish communities in the United States and abroad. I remember how excited my mother, Anna Birshtein Geffen, 11 years old in 1917, told me how she danced on the streets of Norfolk, Virginia, near Church Street, where the Jewish stores were located. He was fortunate to study with Mr. Zvi Rekonty, a Palestinian Jew, who moved to Norfolk before World War I, and taught Hebrew to young people at his private religious school.

The celebration of the document can also be witnessed in other American cities. The historian and leader of the Jewish community for the past half century, Toni Young, in her acclaimed book Jews in Delaware from 1860 to 1925, described what happened there. “On December 2, 1917, the Jews of Wilmington held a rally at the YMHA (in the heart of the city) to celebrate the Balfour Declaration and prepare for the tasks that would follow.”

The White Paper, New York, 1943, reproduced with the cooperation of Historicana (credit: ARTHUR SZYK)

A prominent person had been invited to speak. “Charles A. Cowen, a member of the executive committee of the American Zionist Organization, explained the meaning of the statement. Those present unanimously expressed their deep gratitude and deep joy, and resolved to commit their lives for the work of the consummation of Zionist ideas ”. In the spirit of that great moment, “they sang the Jewish national anthem, ‘Hatikvah.’

WHAT IS SOMETIMES forgotten was how the major countries of the Far East recognized the Balfour Declaration with an official document. Let’s review some of those efforts. The Shanghai Zionist Association was led by Sir Ely S. Kadoorie, a well-known merchant and philanthropist. He was born in Baghdad in 1847 and moved to Shanghai in 1880. He and his brothers moved their business to Hong Kong in the first decade of the 20th century. Once located in the country, they established business centers in other Chinese cities. Shanghai was one of the main centers of his business. Kadoorie had moved there long before and ran the business there.

As a Zionist leader in that area, he persevered and gained the endorsement of the Balfour Declaration in the countries of the Far East. First he went to Siam, now Thailand. A letter was sent to Kadoorie from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok on August 22, 1918.

“I have the honor to declare that the royal Siamese government agrees with the comprehensive position taken by the allies regarding the establishment of Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people.” The rest of the letter emphasized what else was important. “It is clear that nothing will be done that could harm the civil or religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Continuing with her work, Kadoorie now headed to China. As you can imagine, given that China was in the throes of revolution, the completion of such a dramatic act, publicly stating a positive position on the Balfour Declaration, was going to be long. However, this Zionist leader was not prepared to allow this opportunity to pass through a Chinese endorsement of the Jewish homeland.

This process was fascinating. It began with an approach to Dr. Paul Reinisch, the American minister to China, appointed by President Woodrow Wilson. Then there were the efforts of Judge Charles Lobinger, who was serving in the US court in China. He called on the US State Department to ask the Chinese government to endorse the Balfour Declaration. The reply letter to Lobringer demonstrated double language and legal jargon.

“May I ask you to kindly explain this situation to the representatives of the Zionist associations and suggest to them that perhaps the matter could be more appropriately addressed through the Zionist organization in the United States which could raise the matter with the Department of State with a view to giving the legation the instructions it deems appropriate ”.

Lobringer did not give up. Several months later, he persuaded Reinisch to move on. He emphasized in a letter how important this American recognition of the Balfour Declaration was. He emphasized to Reinisch that “President Woodrow Wilson had unreservedly endorsed the Jewish aspirations regarding Palestine.”
It worked. Just over a year after the Balfour Declaration was issued, the letter of endorsement from the Chinese government was sent to Kadoorie. Copies were then made and shipped around the world. Publications in the United States and Europe printed the original letter and its English translation, and it generated great excitement. I saw a copy of the document in Chinese (with a translation) in the American Hebrew Weekly, printed in New York and distributed throughout the United States. That reproduction inspired me to know the history of Kadoorie.

To complete the Far East endorsements, Kadoorie turned to the Japanese government. He moved a little faster. In January 1919, the Japanese government sent a letter to the French embassy in Tokyo expressing its sympathy for the “establishment in Palestine of a Jewish homeland.” With the backing of the major countries of the Far East, the Shanghai Zionist Association with the perseverance of Kadoorie had achieved its goal. ANOTHER PERSON OBSERVED played an important role in England itself. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook went to Switzerland to fill a rabbinical position in 1914. Two years later, in 1916, from the start of World War I, he was offered a position in London, as he could not return to Palestine until after to end the contest. While in London, he worked hard to refute prominent British leaders who were anti-Zionists. His position on the upcoming Balfour Declaration was even debated in Parliament. A few weeks after the Balfour Declaration was issued, British Jewish leaders held a festive banquet. That night, Rav Kook said the following.

“The Jewish nation is the ‘scholar’ among the nations, the people of the book, a nation of prophets. It is a great honor for any nation to help you. I bless the British nation for giving such honorable help to the people of the Torah so that they can return to their land and renew their homeland. “

Another of his frequently quoted speech was given in Jerusalem at a public event on November 11, 1925. The meeting was called by British Mandate officials to commemorate various anniversaries. There was a request for two minutes of silence, following the cannon fire in Jerusalem, celebrating the Armistice that ended World War I. At the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City, that day, Rav Kook, then the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, spoke in this way:
“We, the Jewish people, have been silent not just for two minutes, but for 2,000 years. The nations stole our land from us. They looted our precious soil. They spilled our blood and we were always silent ”.

Then he continued in the most powerful way. “We suffered for 2000 years of unspeakable afflictions, but we kept the peace. Our silence today is our protest, our cry. Return the robbery! Give me back the holy places you took by force. “

ALTHOUGH THE Balfour Declaration may not have the impact on us that it once did, it remains an important pillar in the creation of our nation, Israel. I speak for myself and hope to speak for others when I emphasize how significant Sir Arthur J. Balfour’s act was. Furthermore, that act in England was endorsed by Judge Louis Brandeis when he emphasized to President Woodrow Wilson how important the statement was and that it should be announced for the whole world to hear.
The Balfour Declaration motivated an entire generation of American Jews to help make Eretz Yisrael the State of Israel and to consider aliyah as a real possibility.
Toni Young, a very committed Jewish leader in the United States and Israel for the past half century, shared with me her thoughts on the impact of the famous document since it was published in 1917:

“I believe that the Balfour Declaration is the turning point, the moment when the world officially recognized the ‘Jewish problem’ and decided to help Jews restore their dignity and return to their ‘ancient homeland.’ She strongly emphasizes, “I appreciate your courage. Without the Balfour Declaration, Israel may never have been created. “

Now it highlights the important process that was generated as a result of the declaration. “For the next 30 years, from 1917 to 1947, the Jewish people participated in a legal process through governments, the League of Nations, and finally the United States to establish a state.”

As a citizen of this country for more than 40 years, I fully agree with Young’s final words:

“All who understand all the good that Israel has done for the world, and all the ways that Jewish citizens have contributed to their countries around the world, must understand the fundamental role of the Balfour Declaration.”


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