Reflecting on the Centennial of the Balfour Declaration

Daniel Gordis Balfour Lecture

At Robbins-Wilf Lecture, Dr. Daniel Gordis Analyzes Impact of Historic British Statement on a Jewish Homeland 

On Monday, October 30, 2017, Stern College for Women’s Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Scholar-in-Residence Lecture program presented Dr. Daniel Gordis to discuss “The Balfour Declaration: Origins and Legacy” to an overflow crowd of almost 300 people. The historic declaration, issued 100 years ago on November 2, 1917, by the British government during World War I, announced the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in what the British called Palestine.

Dr. Daniel Gordis discusses the Baflour Declaration days before its centennial.

Dr. Daniel Gordis discusses the Balfour Declaration days before its centennial.

In his introductory remarks, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, referred to the legacy of God’s promise to Abraham to cede a homeland to the Jewish people and added that Jews today were “blessed to live in an era in which the actualization of Jewish hopes has come to pass and Jewish sovereignty has once again returned to Israel.” He cited Gordis as a “great example of a Jewish leader who has served as a role model for his public advocacy on behalf of our people and the state of Israel.”

Gordis is senior vice president and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel, as well as the author of more than 10 books and a regular columnist for both the Jerusalem Post and Bloomberg View. During the lecture, Gordis began by asking why the British government issued the declaration at a time when it did not have military control of Palestine, which wouldn’t come until six weeks later. He went through several historical arguments and settled on what he felt was the most plausible, which had to do with the political relationship of the United Kingdom and France, and the requirements of the Sykes-Picot Treaty, passed in 1916, outlining the spheres of influence in the Middle East among the United Kingdom, France and Russia. “But, in reality,” Gordis concluded, “we don’t know exactly why the British offered it when they didn’t have the land, and we don’t know why they didn’t attach any maps.”

But the fact that British motivations were not clear does not undercut the legacy of the document and its intentions, the most important of which, according to Gordis, is that “it gave the Zionist leadership a real sense that victories in the field can be had, and it introduces into international discourse this notion of a Jewish state.”

Daniel Gordis Balfour Lecture

The image on the right is the Hebrew translation of the Balfour Declaration.

This is especially important when it comes to Israel’s declaration of independence, drafted by David Ben-Gurion in 1947-1948. Gordis made the argument that Ben-Gurion is in dialogue with Balfour, with Ben-Gurion making clear and definite what was ambiguous or aspirational in Balfour. First, where Balfour spoke about a “home,” something without political definition, Ben-Gurion declared that Israel would be a state, equal to and defined like other states in the world. Second, this state is not authorized by the British to be grounded in Palestine but its deed of ownership, so to speak, comes from “the book of books” and is known as Eretz Israel. Third, where Balfour can be rescinded, which the British did in 1939, the right of Israel to be Israel cannot be made contingent upon the decision of anyone else but the Jews.

This effort by Ben-Gurion to refute Balfour is also bracketed, as Gordis pointed out, by the entirety of Jewish history. Gordis calculated that out of the 3,500 years of known Jewish history, the Jews had sovereignty over themselves for only 141 years: 75 years between the time David declared Jerusalem the capital of the kingdom until the kingdom was split in half, and 66 years from the time the Maccabees declared liberty against the Greeks to when the kingship is passed back into foreign hands.

“The default position in Jewish history is not sovereignty,” he said. “I want to suggest that as we celebrate and contemplate this centennial, with all of its problems and accomplishments, this current sovereignty is not guaranteed. It is actually in our hands to be wise, be thoughtful, to be nuanced, to understand the miraculousness of that which we hold in our hands, and the sacred task that we face in making sure that we can bequeath it for generations to come.”

Bryan Daves, director of the lecture program, moderated the event. The lecture was followed by a 20-minute Q&A session and a book signing for Gordis’ newest book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, which received the 2016 National Jewish Book Award as “Book of the Year.”

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