This week Israel’s judo team was harassed and
discriminated against by UAE officials when they tried to board a flight
from Tel Aviv to Istanbul, en route to Abu Dhabi to participate in the
Judo Grand Slam competition.
Apropos of nothing, UAE told the Israelis they would only be permitted to
enter the UAE from Amman. And once they finally arrived at the
competition, they were prohibited from competing under their national
The discrimination that Israel’s judokas suffered is newsworthy because
it’s appalling, not because it is rare. It isn’t rare. Israeli
athletes and performers, professors, students and tourists in countries
throughout the world are regularly discriminated against for being Israeli
Jews. Concerts are picketed or canceled. Israelis are denied educational
opportunities and teaching positions.
Israeli brands are boycotted and Israeli shops are picketed from Montreal
to Brooklyn to Johannesburg.
The simple act of purchasing Israeli cucumbers has become a political
statement in countries around the world.
And of course, there is the world of diplomacy, where the nations of the
world seem to have flushed the news of Israel’s establishment 70 years
ago down the memory hole. The near-consensus view of UN institutions and
to a growing degree, of EU institutions, not to mention the Arab League
and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is that the Jewish exile
should never have ended. The Jews should have remained scattered and at
the mercy of the nations of the world, forever.
In the face of the growing discrimination Israelis suffer and rejection
Israel endures, how are we to look at the centennial of the Balfour
Declaration, which we will mark next Thursday? One hundred years ago, on
November 2, 1917, Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary of Great Britain,
detonated a bomb whose aftershocks are still being felt in Britain and
That day, Balfour issued a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, the leader of
the British Jewish community.
The letter, which quickly became known as the Balfour Declaration,
effectively announced the British Empire supported an end of the Jewish
people’s 1,800-year exile and its return to history, as a free nation in
its homeland – the Land of Israel.
In Balfour’s immortal words, “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.”
The Palestine Arab leadership at the time rejected his statement. Shortly
thereafter the Arabs initiated a terrorist onslaught against the Jewish
community in the Land of Israel that has continued, more or less without
interruption, ever since.
Indeed, nothing at all has changed with the Palestinians. They have not
moved an inch in a hundred years. PLO chief and Palestinian Authority
Chairman Mahmoud Abbas now demands that Britain officially renounce the
Balfour Declaration and apologize for having issued it as if Lord Balfour
was still foreign secretary and David Lloyd George was still prime minster.
And their growing chorus of supporters at the UN, throughout the Islamic
world, and in Europe is similarly stuck in 1917.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t believe that the enduring Arab
and international rejection of Israel’s right to exist mitigates the
significance of the Balfour Declaration. Next week he will travel to
London to participate in the centennial commemorations of the Balfour
Declarations at the side of British Prime Minister Theresa May.
May said on Wednesday that she is “proud” to commemorate the
declaration. In her words, “We are proud of the role that we played in
the creation of the State of Israel and we certainly mark the centenary
This was certainly nice of her. But May couldn’t ignore the fact that a
hundred years later, a large and growing number of people refuse to come
to terms with what Britain did. So she added, “We must also be conscious
of the sensitivities that some people do have about the Balfour
Declaration and we recognize that there is more work to be done. We remain
committed to the two-state solution in relation to Israel and the
So we return to the Palestinians, and the UAE, and the protesters who will
be screaming out against Balfour and David Lloyd George from one end of
Britain to the other next week demanding their declaration be withdrawn
and history rolled back.
And the protesters of course aren’t alone. Britain’s main opposition
party is being led by an ardent Israel-basher. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
announced on Monday that he will not be participating the Balfour
It certainly makes sense for him to boycott them.
It would be awkward for a man who was elected and reelected after calling
Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists his “friends,” to be celebrating
Britain’s role in establishing the state his friends are working to
Corbyn’s boycott, and his very rise to power, are clear signs that
Balfour’s legacy is a mixed bag.
Except that it isn’t a mixed bag.
At a very deep level, Israel owes its existence to the Balfour
Declaration. This is true not because the Balfour Declaration changed the
way the world viewed the Jews. It manifestly did not – not in its own
time, and not today.
Indeed, it is ironic that the Palestinians and their supporters blame the
British for the establishment of Israel, because shortly after the Balfour
Declaration was issued, British authorities, particularly on the ground in
the Middle East, did everything they possibly could to cancel it.
In 1920, British military officers asked the local Arab strongman Haj Amin
al-Husseini to incite a pogrom in Jerusalem over Passover. Husseini’s
thugs murdered four Jews and wounded many more. The purpose of the pogrom
was to convince the British Parliament to cancel the Balfour Declaration.
The plan didn’t work. And two years later the League of Nations
established the British Mandate for Palestine on the basis of the Balfour
The Mandate required Britain to fulfill the promise of the Balfour
Declaration, by among other things facilitating mass Jewish immigration to
the Land of Israel.
But the seeds of doubt were duly sown. Almost immediately after the League
of Nations issued the Mandate, the British carved off three-quarters of
the territory earmarked for the Jewish national home to create
It was largely downhill from there. With each successive wave of Arab
terrorism against the Jews, the British issued restrictions on Jewish
immigration and limitations on the right of Jews to purchase land that
grew harsher with each iteration. These actions paved the way for the 1939
White Paper which abrogated the Balfour Declaration in all but name. It
renounced Zionism, and effectively ruled out any possibility of a viable
Jewish state being established by blocking Jewish immigration and land
It also sealed the fate of the Jews of Europe, by denying them the ability
to flee to the one place on earth that wanted them – their home.
British antagonism to Jews and their national liberation movement only
grew in the postwar years. News of the Holocaust didn’t move the British
to fulfill their commitment under the Balfour Declaration. Instead, they
threw Holocaust survivors into prison camps in Cyprus and raised the Arab
Legion, the most powerful Arab military force in the 1948-49 War of
Independence. Britain only recognized Israel in 1950.
So again why is Netanyahu making the trip to London? The answer is that
while the Balfour Declaration didn’t change the world, it changed the
After 1,800 years of dispersion and hopelessness, here was the British
Empire saying that the time had come for the Jews to reconstitute
themselves as a free nation in their land.
Theodor Herzl had held the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland,
20 years earlier. Zionist pioneers laid the cornerstone for Tel Aviv and
established the first kibbutz eight years earlier.
These were all significant milestones.
But until Great Britain announced it supported Zionism, the vast majority
of Jews thought the national liberation movement was doomed to fail just
like all of its messianic predecessors.
Suddenly, Balfour made it practically possible to achieve the goal of
national liberation. Under the League of Nations Mandate, Jews were given
an international charter for the reconstitution of their national
Just as important, the Balfour Declaration ignited the imaginations and
passions of Jews throughout the world. For the first time since the fall
of Betar, Jews, dispersed throughout the nations dared to believe that the
reconstitution of Israel could happen in their lifetimes.
Of course, for 6 million Jews in Europe, it was not realized in time. But
here too the Balfour Declaration was significant. The legitimacy that the
Balfour Declaration conferred on Zionism in the eyes of world Jewry gave
the Jews an answer to Hitler. As the Nazis rose to power, for the first
time, the Jews knew what they needed to do and for the first time, the
majority of world Jewry embraced Zionism.
After the Holocaust, that support became a demand. And due to the Balfour
Declaration, the nations of the world – particularly the US – were
empowered to stand up to the British government and demand that it step
aside and allow the Jews to establish their state.
In other words, the Balfour Declaration didn’t change the way non-Jews
felt about the Jews. It empowered the Jews to change their fate. And it
gave license to the nations of the world to support them – if only
fleetingly in most cases – and so allowed history to change in a
revolutionary way for the Jewish people.
Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion famously said, “It
doesn’t matter what the gentiles say. It matters what the Jews do.”
Ben-Gurion’s statement was harsh. But it was also accurate, by and
large. Generally speaking, the nations of the world have not supported the
Jews, not in the Diaspora and not in Israel. Jewish survival has always
been more a function of Jewish action than gentile sympathy.
But while accurate in the general sense, the routine hostility of the
nations of the world mustn’t make us overlook the enduring significance
of their acts of friendship. The Balfour Declaration didn’t change the
whole world. It changed the Jewish world. It didn’t change the Jewish
world by creating a state for us. It changed the Jewish world by helping
us to believe that we could fulfill our longing to return to Zion. And
once we believed it, we did it.
So Netanyahu is right to travel to London to show his appreciation for the
Balfour Declaration – protests or no protests. Indeed, he would be right
to go to London even if Corbyn were prime minister and no one greeted him
at the airport. By showing our enduring appreciation for what the British
government did for the Jews a hundred years ago, we may inspire new
unknown Balfours to stand with us tomorrow, even as the chorus of
Balfour-haters drones on and on and on.