The campaign waged by Palestinians and their supporters to demand that Britain apologize for the Balfour Declaration, a century after it was issued, betrays yet again their fundamental misunderstanding of how and why the modern state of Israel came into being. Israel is the outcome of deliberate Jewish action – not of foreign hand-outs. Israel is a country attained – not a land given.
The Balfour Declaration – that short letter written in the fog of The Great War by Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild, expressing His Majesty’s Government’s favorable view of the establishment of a Jewish Home in the ancestral land of the Jews – demonstrates the remarkable manner in which Zionism was able, in a few short decades, to infuse Jews with a sovereign spirit.
Multiple explanations are given as to why in 1917 the British Foreign Minister would write such a letter to a prominent Jew: anything from British anti-Semitism, to British religious philo-Semitism, to British war interests. But all of these factors would have been irrelevant in the absence of deliberate Jewish Zionist action. Without the preceding two decades of Zionist activism in making the case for Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel, and without the Zionist can-do spirit of Weizmann, who deployed his connections and his powers of persuasion to that end, there would still have been British anti-Semitism, British religious philo-Semitism, and British war interests, but no letter.
Moreover, without collective Jewish mobilization in the name of self-determination and liberation, this letter – along with many other promises, letters and declarations that were made by powerful nations towards less powerful peoples at the end of the War — would have come to naught. Nothing in what came next — the establishment of embryonic self-rule for Jews in the land, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which charged the British with the specific task of assisting the Jews in establishing their national home in the land, the immigration of Jews to the land, the building of cities, towns, and agricultural collectives, as well as economic, political and cultural institutions, the establishment of a state in all but name and independence on the eve of World War II, the United Nation’s grudging support after the War for the establishment of a Jewish state in part of the land, and ultimately the establishment of an independent State of Israel in part of the land — was pre-ordained.
Faced with mounting diplomatic and violent opposition, with a Britain that reneged on its commitments as soon it actually got its hands on the land, with forces that were determined to prevent the Jews from attaining liberty, equality and sovereignty, each fragile achievement after another depended on the deep and abiding commitment of the Zionist Jews to their cause of national liberation, their collective mobilization to realize it, their deployment to that end of all manners of diplomatic, narrative, economic and military skills, and ultimately their ability to remain focused on the singular goal of sovereignty and independence, even at the price of forgoing parts of the land to which they had a deep historical attachment and an internationally sanctioned claim.
The idea of Jews as active players in history – as masters of their fate — still grates on the consciousness of peoples and civilizations that were structured on the presumption that the Jews should have headed to the dustbin of history. For too many, the story that Jews could attain something for themselves by operating, as all peoples do, on multiple fronts – diplomatically, economically, militarily – is still so fanciful that to some, the story of Israel only makes sense if presented as a series of handouts by foreign powers with shady motivations.
To the chagrin of those who want to put the Jews back “in their proper place”, the State of Israel came into being thirty-one years after the Balfour Declaration, precisely because Zionist Jews were done entrusting their fate to others. Through their actions, from 1917 on, the Zionist Jews simply said to Britain, and the world: “Thank you very much Lord Balfour. We’ll take it from here.”