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Arguable: Happy 100th, Balfour Declaration

Lord Arthur Balfour points out a feature of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Sir Ronald Storrs during a visit to Jerusalem on April 9, 1925.
Lord Arthur Balfour points out a feature of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Sir Ronald Storrs during a visit to Jerusalem on April 9, 1925. Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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‘His Majesty’s government view with favour. . .’

One hundred years ago this week — on November 2, 1917 — Britain’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, the president of the British Zionist Association. The British Cabinet, Balfour told him, had agreed on “a declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations,” and wished to make it publicly known. The declaration was just a single sentence:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

That sentence, known ever since as the Balfour Declaration, marked a brilliant victory for the struggling movement to revive Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland. For the first time since the birth of the modern Zionist movement in the late 1800s — indeed, for the first time since the extirpation of Jewish sovereignty in Judea by the Romans more than 18 centuries earlier — a major world power had endorsed the renewal of a Jewish national home in Palestine.


The Cabinet adopted the declaration as World War I was raging, and strategic considerations were invoked in its favor. Supporters of the Balfour Declaration argued, for example, that a friendly Jewish power in the region would help ensure the security of the Suez Canal, one of the British Empire’s key lifelines. Others, as David Brog writes in Standing With Israel , his absorbing 2006 book on the history and motives of Christian Zionism, offered diplomatic rationales. By throwing its support behind Jewish settlement in Palestine, Britain hoped influential Jews in the United States would support America’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies.


In November 1917, Palestine was still under Turkish (Ottoman) sovereignty, as it had been for centuries. But just five weeks after the Cabinet’s vote, British troops under General Edmund Allenby drove the Turks out and seized Jerusalem. The Balfour Declaration was no longer a statement of merely theoretical aspiration. Now it was the stated policy of Palestine’s new ruling power.

For a time, that ruling power attempted to make good on its pledge.

At the peace negotiations that followed the Armistice, Britain secured a mandate to govern Palestine and facilitate the promised Jewish national home, a mandate formalized by the League of Nations in 1922. By that point, Britain — seeking to appease Arab leaders violently hostile to Jewish autonomy — had severed nearly four-fifths of Palestine and created a brand-new Arab emirate, Transjordan, from which all Jews were excluded. The Zionists were left with only the narrow slice of historic Palestine west of the Jordan River. But the Arabs were unwilling to peacefully accept Jewish rule in even that remnant, and the violence persisted. In 1937, Britain proposed to formally subdivide what was left of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. When Arab leaders made clear that they would violently resist Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine, no matter how tiny, Britain capitulated. In 1939, it closed off all Jewish immigration to Palestine and declared its opposition to Jewish statehood, period — a 180-degree reversal from the policy of the Balfour Declaration.


Britain’s eventual betrayal, which condemned countless European Jews to die in Hitler’s gas chambers, makes its embrace of Zionism in 1917 seem, in retrospect, all the more worthy and far-sighted. While it is true that some British policymakers claimed to support the Balfour policy because of strategic or practical calculations, there is reason to doubt that those reasons were truly significant.

What really motivated British leaders in 1917, especially Balfour and Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was a passionate desire to see the Jews restored to power in the Holy Land. Christian Zionism had attracted many adherents in Britain during the 1800s, and while the sentiment was by no means universal, many embraced the cause with fervor.

It had certainly been a part of Lloyd George’s upbringing, as he told a Jewish historical society in 1925:

I was brought up in a school where I was taught far more history of the Jews than about my own land. I could tell you all the kings of Israel. But I doubt if I could have named half a dozen of the Kings of England, and not more of the Kings of Wales. . . . In our Sunday schools, we were thoroughly versed in the history of the Hebrews. . . . We were thoroughly imbued with the history of your race in the days of its greatest glory, when it founded that great literature which will echo to the very last days of this old world, influencing, molding, fashioning human character, inspiring and sustaining human motive, for not only Jews but Gentiles as well.


Balfour’s feelings were, if anything, even more ardent. “I have never pretended that it was purely from . . . materialistic considerations that the declaration of November 1917 originally sprung,” he told Parliament in 1922. Rather, he said, the government had wished to:

send a message to every land where the Jewish race has been scattered, a message that will tell them that Christendom is not oblivious of their faith, is not unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world. . . and that we desire to the best of our ability to give them the opportunity of developing in peace and quietness under British rule, those great gifts which hitherto they have been compelled to bring to fruition in countries which know not their language and belong not to their race.

At a time when anti-Jewish bigotry was routine, Balfour was deeply philosemitic. His “interest in the Jews and their history was lifelong,” his biographer (and niece) Blanche Dugdale wrote. “The problem of the Jews in the modern world seemed to him of immense importance. He always talked eagerly of this, and I remember . . . imbibing from him the idea that Christian religion and civilization owes to Judaism an immeasurable debt, shamefully ill repaid.” Late in life, Balfour said that the achievement of which he was proudest was “what he had been able to do for the Jews.” He died 18 years before the State of Israel came into existence. But had there been no Balfour Declaration, the national liberation of the Jewish people would never have happened.


Which explains why, to this day, Balfour’s name is reviled by the enemies of the Jewish state. Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of Britain’s Labor Party and a harsh opponent of Israel, said he will refuse to join a British-Israeli dinner in London this week marking the Balfour Declaration’s centennial. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, announced last year that he planned to sue Great Britain for issuing the declaration in 1917 — an announcement as preposterous as it was revealing. The Balfour Declaration has been a dead letter for eight decades, but the cause it embodied — a Jewish national home in part of the Holy Land — remains anathema to Palestinian leaders.

Often it is claimed by Israel’s foes that the Jewish state was created on the backs of the Arabs by a world wracked by its guilty conscience over the Holocaust. That claim is false: Palestine’s Zionists had to wage a desperate and costly war to win their independence, against enemies who were openly calling for another genocide against the Jews just two years after Hitler’s “Final Solution” had ended.

But in 1917, the Nazi genocide lay decades in the future, unimagined and unimaginable. Britain’s government promulgated its declaration that year not because Jews had suffered a cataclysmic tragedy, but in recognition of the indissoluble bond between the Jewish people and its homeland. When the League of Nations later incorporated the Balfour policy into the Mandate for Palestine, it did so unanimously. What the Balfour Declaration demonstrated was that support for the Zionist project was nourished not by guilt, but by history and justice.

The Jews had a special claim on Palestine, said Prime Minister Lloyd George. “They are the only people who have made a success of it during the past 3,000 years. . . . This was their first; this has been their only home; they have no other home.”

For almost two millennia, no government had been prepared to adopt the cause of Jewish self-rule in the only place where Jews had ever ruled. That changed 100 years ago this week, when a one-sentence “declaration of sympathy” set in motion the end of Jewish homelessness.

Teens for less freedom

New Jersey this week becomes the third state, after California and Hawaii, to ban the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone younger than 21. On January 1, Oregon will become the fourth state to do so. Maine becomes the fifth next July.

The “Tobacco 21” campaign is pushing for a similar law in Massachusetts, which rarely passes up the chance to jump on a liberal bandwagon. Presumably it won’t be long before the tobacco-buying age is raised statewide here, too. (It’s already been raised in 160 of the state’s 351 cities and towns.)

Cigarettes on sale in Chilmark, Mass., where the minimum age to purchase tobacco is 21

Smoking is a dirty and unhealthy habit. Everyone knows it, and the vast majority of Americans don’t smoke. In the 1960s, more than 40 percent of Americans were smokers; as of 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the smoking rate had fallen to 14.9 percent. Thanks to antitobacco ad campaigns and medical warnings, often quite gory, as well as steep tobacco taxes, the public has long since gotten the message. Tens of millions of Americans have kicked the habit; tens of millions more have never taken it up. Smoking is now at an all-time low in the US, and lower still among teens. According to the most recent data, a mere 10.8 percent of high school students smoked even one cigarette in the last 30 days. As for frequent smokers, they amount to less than 3.5 percent of the high school population.

Bottom line: The battle to make smoking rare and reviled has succeeded. So why is it necessary to take away still more freedom? Because tobacco is unpopular, and piling new restrictions on smokers and tobacco sellers is politically riskless? That isn’t being brave, it’s being a bully. Is freedom of choice worth defending only if people make choices we like?

In the Massachusetts State House last week, a group of teenagers staged an event to promote a bill raising the tobacco-purchasing age to 21. The kids were praised for their efforts; the Boston Globe covered the rally and ran the story with a big picture. I don’t doubt for an instant the students’ earnest wish to prevent tobacco-related harm from befalling more smokers. I agree with them that smoking is harmful, that nicotine can be addicting, and that banning young adults from buying cigarettes until they’re 21 may deter some of them from taking up a nasty habit. But is a crackdown on other people’s liberty the only form of involvement available to anti-tobacco activists?

Perhaps someone should remind them that tobacco isn’t the only lawful product, activity, or choice that can have deleterious effects. Driving can and does lead to serious harm, including many deaths. How many of the kids taking the podium at that State House event would also favor raising the driving age to 21? Maybe it would be prudent to ban smartphones and internet access to anyone still in their teens — heaven knows, young people get themselves in all kinds of trouble online, sometimes trouble with lifelong consequences. Block everyone under 21 from the internet and a lot of sorrow could be avoided. Shall we pass a law?

What about legislation making it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to consent to sex? To enlist in the Army? To hunt? To play football? After all, those behaviors can all have grave and deadly consequences.

Yes, it is foolish to smoke. Yes, tobacco use can lead to sickness and a shortened lifespan. But part of life in a free society is letting adults make decisions for themselves. The autocrat’s way is to remove liberty for people’s “own good.” The American way is to respect fellow citizens’ freedom to choose. When it comes to cigarettes, the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens have chosen wisely. The fact that some still haven’t is not a valid reason to chop away a little more freedom.

Out of the bubble

Ken Stern, the former CEO of National Public Radio, was a card-carrying member of the liberal echo chamber, well aware that he was awash in liberal media bias. “When you are liberal, and everyone else around you is as well,” he wrote recently in an essay for the New York Post, “it is easy to fall into groupthink on what stories are important, what sources are legitimate, and what the narrative of the day will be.”

To his great credit, Stern decided not just to get out of that left-wing bubble, but to immerse himself for a year in what he calls “the other side.” He spent time at NASCAR races and Tea Party meetings, in evangelical churches and at a Texas pig hunt. He didn’t find what he imagined he would find, and the people he met frequently upended his long-held stereotypes. His pig-hunting buddies, for example, weren’t precisely Central Casting’s idea of gun-toting rednecks.

Collectively we were the equivalent of a bad bar joke: a Hispanic ex-soldier, a young black family man, a Serbian immigrant, and a Jew from DC.

None of my new hunting partners fit the lazy caricature of the angry NRA member. Rather, they saw guns as both a shared sport and as a necessary means to protect their families during uncertain times. In truth, the only one who was even modestly angry was me, and that only had to do with my terrible ineptness as a hunter.

At a convention of college-age evangelicals, what struck Stern was how earnest the young Christians were about practicing what they preached:

I wasn’t sure what to expect . . . but I certainly didn’t expect the intense discussion of racial equity and refugee issues — how to help them, not how to keep them out. . . . I met dozens of people who were dedicating their lives to the mission, spreading the good news of Jesus, of course, but doing so through a life of charity and compassion for others: staffing remote hospitals, building homes for the homeless and, in one case, flying a “powered parachute” over miles of uninhabited jungle in the western Congo to bring a little bit of entertainment, education, and relief to some of the remotest villages you could imagine. It was all inspiring — and a little foolhardy, if you ask me about the safety of a powered parachute — but it left me with a very different impression of a community that was previously known to me only through Jerry Falwell. . .

Stern’s year on the other side of the aisle is the subject of a new book, just out: Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right . I haven’t (yet) seen the book, but if his Post column is any guide, he learned enough to jettison some cherished preconceptions, and to fill the space thereby freed with real wisdom. “We are becoming angrier and more polarized not because of increasing issue disagreement,” he discovered, “but because we are increasingly participating in groupthink.”

Passionate media liberals have insisted for years that liberal media bias is a myth or a derangement, or perhaps just one more lie told by what Hillary Clinton notoriously raged against as the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” It took nerve and integrity for Stern to ignore the sneers and the hostility and to go check it out for himself. He learned a lot. If more journalists followed his example, they would too.


Yesterday’s column cast a cold glance at some of the rotters who make life worse for everyone else: The litterbugs who leave their trash for others to clean, for example. Or the shopping-cart deserters who turn parking lots into obstacle courses. Or the umbrella hogs who colonize sidewalks and menace pedestrians. Life is annoying enough, I wrote. Why must these nitwits make it worse?

In my column last Wednesday, I contrasted the refusal of countries like Spain and China to countenance statehood movements within their own borders with their insistence that Israel accept a Palestinian state. Madrid is vehemently opposed to independence for Catalonia; China will never agree to freedom for Tibet. If a “two-state solution” is an option they reject, why would they imagine it’s one Israel ought swallow?

Wild Wild Web

Magnificent libraries around the world.

You can order the grilled cheese sandwich dipped in gold for just $214.

A cat rushed the field during the Ravens-Dolphins game. Tony Romo had the play-by-play.

Salmon sex can move mountains, though it takes a while.

Fran and Marlo Cowan, an irresistible couple in their 90s, felt like playing the piano in the Mayo Clinic lobby.

A 1,300-lb. pumpkin is hoisted high above a car, and dropped. Buh-bye, car.

The last line

“When I felt too exhausted to go on, he would stop for a moment to look backwards, to see how much we had already done. And that would always give me heart for what remained.” — Ariel Sharon, Warrior (1989)

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Note: I’ll be traveling out of the country next week, and Arguable will be on hiatus until my return. Look for the next issue to land in your inbox on Monday, Nov. 20. See you then!

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.