Balfour Celebration at Israel’s Knesset
By Gabe Faber
Standing in the center of the sprawling Knesset courtyard, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and humility. Parked under the massive flags, and seeing the Menorah and olive branch seals shine bright in the sun’s rays, it felt like a veritable Jerusalem of Gold, and a supreme expression of Jewish national pride.
I saw men and women dressed in their best, speaking magnificent English, outfitted with pins of the Union Jack crossed with the Magen David, I thought this is a full realization of the bill we came to celebrate. The Balfour Declaration, the first piece of legislation passed which unequivocally recognized the need and right to a Jewish national presence in Palestine, had been signed nearly 100 years previously to the day.
It was an all-star lineup of speakers at the event, men and women who are at the cutting edge of their respective fields and conversations. The first portion of the day, after the delicious coffee and baked goods of course, was devoted to understanding the Balfour Declaration’s historical context, background and implications. The crowd was enamored by the wealth of information.
Martin Kramer led us on a journey through the geopolitics of the time, touching on the motivations and reservations behind Whitehall’s decision. Not only did the British believe this would curry favor among powerful Jews, whose support could help keep the other Allied powers of the United States and Russia in the war, but it would ultimately also give London the upper hand in the “postwar carve-up of the Middle East”, and enable them to exclude their neighbors across the Channel. Kramer went on to discuss the ‘Jewish Problem’ of demographics; the millions of Jews caught in the wake of war, and the heated debate in government on whether Palestine could adequately accommodate them.
Efraim Karsh elaborated on the response in the Arab world, and their forgotten-or perhaps deliberately suppressed- favorable view of the Declaration, specifically that of King Emir Faisal of Syria. Last but not least, we were all swept away by Simon Schama, who transported us back in time to London at the time of the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, and the tensions, aspirations and spirits the people shared.
After traversing the Middle and East and Europe over hundreds of years, we re-planted our feet on the ground and moved to the next session of contemporary issues. Acclaimed columnists, diplomats, and politicians sat together, and mixing their keen insights with insider information, they discussed the current affairs of Great Britain in the Middle East, and what can we expect moving forward. They also proved their acumen by expectedly dissecting the issue of Anti-Semitism rampant today, especially in England itself.
But the real treat was still to come. The keynote address would strike a chord with me I don’t think I will soon forget. The Balfour Declaration was issued to one man in particular, the 2nd Baron Rothschild, Lord Walter Rothschild. His great nephew, the current heir to the legendary dynasty, the 4th Baron Jacob Rothschild, addressed the crowd, and his elegance and prestige was palpable. It would not be an exaggeration to claim the existence of the Old Yishuv and prosperity of the New Yishuv would not have been possible without the efforts of this great family.
That moment when dry history becomes a living, organic and relatable experience is a special one that few sometimes have the chance to witness. He spoke of legends of history, the ones who received and propelled the Balfour Declaration, as exactly what they were to him-his uncles and aunts and cousins. His baritone voice, and tall stature exuded nobility and grace. He surveyed some of the events leading up to Lord Balfour’s letter, and some of his family’s activities in Israel today as a result. It almost had a calming effect, knowing that such great people cared so deeply for Israel; as if we could all rest more easily knowing we were in such capable and concerned hands.
The day was a gathering of Israeli and British Jewish leaders and laypersons alike, politicians and philanthropists; of the engaged elites and a few observing American students as well. It was a journey through history, examining the Balfour Declaration as one of the first coordinates in our navigation of Israel’s story.
Between the studious lectures, the parliamentary prestige of the Knesset and the influence and efforts of all the attendees, it was an event worthy of Lord Balfour himself. If just one letter and 100 years could bring such promise, I cannot imagine what we will be saying in another century, at the next celebration.