As Methodist Conference convenes, a number of motions related to the Balfour Declaration are due to be debated. Marie van der Zyl reflects on the importance of the centenary of Balfour for the Jewish community
There has been a huge public outcry over recent years about the terrible plight of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe. The Jewish community has joined with Christians and others in calling for our government to provide more assistance to those fleeing conflict and persecution, particularly unaccompanied children. At the same time, we have also been remembering a period, 100 years ago when there was different influx to Western Europe.
The Jews of Tsarist Russia began fleeing westwards towards the end of the 19th century in response to pogroms and persecution in the lands where they had lived for hundreds of years. Many of these refugees became adherents of a new political movement called Zionism which had as its goal a Jewish homeland – a place where Jews, like other peoples, would be able to exercise their right to self-determination, without the fear of brutal racist attacks and casual discrimination.
Zionism was conceived as nothing more nor less than the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, exercising their long held desire – repeated every year at the Passover dinner – to spend “next year in Jerusalem”. Through the latter years of the 19th century and the first of the 20th, Jews began to settle in biblical Palestine, purchasing land to set up collective farms, known as kibbutzim, adding numbers to a Jewish community, which had been ever present in the region.
In 1917, Palestine was an outpost of the Ottoman Empire. British troops stood on the threshold of defeating the Turks and marching into Jerusalem and the newly founded Jewish city of Tel Aviv. It was in the context of the humanitarian crisis facing the Jews of Europe, that Lord Balfour issued his famous declaration that his government “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.
At the time of the Balfour Declaration, there was no state of Palestine, and the crumbling remains of the Ottoman Empire seemed a reasonable place to make this new nation. Indeed the Church acknowledges “the long association of the Jewish people with the region of the Holy Land and the aspiration of many for return”.
Lord Balfour’s belief that the Jews needed a safe haven from persecution proved prophetic. Within 30 years a third of the world’s Jews had been slaughtered in the Holocaust. Indeed, had the state of Israel been established 20 years before, a large number of those who died may have been saved. Since then, Jews have fled from persecution in Arab lands, from Ethiopia and the Soviet Union to safety in their own country. When others may have been reluctant to take them in, Israel gave refuge to those who had been abused and threatened in the countries of their birth. One shudders to imagine what may have happened to this tide of the dispossessed had they not been able to travel to a country which could take them in and offer them food and shelter.
In 1947, United Nations agreed that the Jews should have a state in a portion of the land which made up Ottoman Palestine (a territory which was originally made up of latter day Israel/Palestinian Territories and Jordan). The Jews who had settled peacefully in in Palestine during the period of British rule following the First World War were to be allowed live in their own state alongside a larger Palestinian Arab nation, in a way envisaged by Balfour. The Jews accepted the UN’s Partition Plan but the surrounding Arab countries declared war on the nascent state. Conflict has been raging in the region ever since.
The Balfour Declaration was a deeply humanitarian act by a government which recognised the suffering of the Jewish people and took responsibility for acting to alleviate this distress. It has led to the foundation of a Jewish national home which has not only saved lives but become a vibrant liberal democracy – the only one in the region – which gives all of its citizens equal rights be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Lord Balfour’s prescience and compassion is to be congratulated. Nonetheless, while we celebrate this legacy, the Jewish community in Britain still yearns for peace, with a secure Israel, living alongside a viable Palestinian state.
For that reason, it is with great sadness that we note the recent open letter from The National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine. This letter denies Israel’s right to exist, denies Jewish self-understanding regarding covenant, and calls for Christians to withdraw from dialogue with Jews. Were its proposals to be adopted by churches worldwide, it would cause a dangerous rupture in relations between Christians and Jews, and threaten the great progress which has been made through decades of dialogue.
Indeed, as of 2017, the Board of Deputies of British Jews is proud to be working with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland on a groundbreaking project called Invest in Peace.
This initiative links local churches and synagogues, whose communities come together to host Israeli and Palestinian speakers from peacebuilding organisations. The first such series of events took place in London in May 2017 involving Methodist and United Reformed churches, and Reform and Orthodox synagogues, who hosted the Parents Circle – Families Forum and raised money to support them.
United, these places of worship sent a message out loud and clear that British Jews and Christians are determined to export peace, rather than import conflict. As we reflect on the centenary of the Balfour declaration, we invite churches to reject the NCCOP’s dangerous and bigoted proposals, and join with us instead to invest in the peaceful future we all with to see in the holy land.
Marie van der Zyl is Vice-President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews