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The Balfour behind the declaration.

"The Jews are the most gifted race that mankind has seen since the Greeks of the fifth century," said Arthur James Balfour. "They have been exiled, scattered and oppressed. If we can find them an asylum, a safe home, in their native land, then the full flowering of their genius will burst forth and propagate." Coming from a wealthy, Scottish-born former British prime minister in an age of widespread anti-Semitism, it was a remarkable statement.

Today, if he is remembered at all, Lord Balfour is recalled as the person who lent his name to the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 letter to Britain's Jewish community that said the British government views "with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Foreign secretary at the time, Balfour was a bundle of contradictions. He was a Victorian-era graduate of Eton and Cambridge who considered himself a philosopher--"Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all," he once said--and could be condescending to his peers. He was also an ardent Zionist who nevertheless urged sympathy and wisdom in dealing with the Arabs--"a great, an interesting, and attractive race," he called them.

Balfour didn't begin his political career as a friend of the Jews, preferring to keep them at arm's length. Anti-Semitism was pervasive among Britain's upper classes at the time, and Jews were never a part of his social circle. In fact, as prime minister in 1905 he supported legislation to curb Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe into Britain, warning of the "undoubted evils that had fallen upon the country from an immigration that was largely Jewish." He also saw Jews as "a formidable power whose manifestations are not by any means always attractive," complained about the "self-protecting qualities" of Eastern European Jewry, and sympathized with those in Eastern Europe who were "afraid of the Jews." After all, he said, they were an "exceedingly clever people."

Blanche Dugdale, Balfour's niece and first biographer, attributed his initial interest in Judaism to his reverence for the Old Testament and its influence on Christian thought. But Balfour's curiosity was piqued when British Zionists rejected a government offer to create a Jewish homeland in colonial East Africa. In 1906, he met to discuss this with Chaim Weizmann, the research chemist and recent immigrant from pogrom-wracked Russia who, decades later, would become the first president of the State of Israel.

The meeting, scheduled to last for 15 minutes, went on for more than an hour. Weizmann struggled to explain to Balfour why only Palestine, and not some unfamiliar site, was acceptable to the nascent Zionist movement. Toward the end, Weizmann wrote in his memoirs, he had an insight as to how to make his position clear: "I said, 'Mr. Balfour, if you were offered Paris instead of London, would you take it?... He looked surprised. He said: 'But London is our own!' I said, 'Jerusalem was our own when London was a marsh.' He said, 'That's true!'"

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Though the two did not meet again for several years, Balfour was profoundly impressed by Weizmann and his dedication to Zionism. He himself became more and more convinced of the necessity of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, especially as the Ottoman Empire, of which Palestine was a part, began to crumble during World War I. He urged the British government to engage with Zionist leaders and endorse their demands, spoke frequently with Weizmann and other Zionists, and also met in the U.S. with Justice Louis Brandeis, the leading American Zionist of his time. Balfour's efforts culminated in the declaration that bears his name, which served as the legal underpinning of the British Mandate in Palestine following the war. Ironically, some of the strongest opposition to the Declaration came from British Jews who feared the rise of anti-Semitism and vulnerability to the potential charge of dual loyalty.

After the war, Balfour continued to seek support for recognition of Palestine as a home for Jews. "If a home was to be found for the Jewish people, homeless now for nearly 1,900 years, it was vain to seek it anywhere but in Palestine," he wrote in an introduction to a 1919 history of Zionism by Nahum Sokolow, a leading British Zionist.

In his later years, Balfour remained committed to the Zionist cause, and Zionists to him. The first moshav, a Jewish agricultural settlement, founded in Palestine after the war was named Balfouria. In 1925, he visited Jerusalem to open the new Hebrew University and received a rapturous reception (and a decidedly negative welcome in Syria). Shortly before his death in 1930, his niece wrote, "He said to me that on the whole he felt that what he had been able to do for the Jews had been the thing he looked back upon as the most worth his doing."

Judea Pearl, president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation and father of the slain journalist, says that Balfour's view of Zionism was clearer than any we have today. "Our generation's vision is contaminated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and unrelated and peripheral issues," he says. "Balfour could identify the unique features of the Jewish people and explain why they deserved a homeland in Palestine. No one has more clearly articulated Zionism than he did."
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Title Annotation:HISTORY BOX
Author:Weintraub, Boris
Publication:Moment
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2009
Words:878
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