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The Balfour Declaration | The Nation

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The Balfour Declaration

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Great Britain grants a homeland to the homeless Jews.

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"His Majesty's Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

In these words the Right Hon. A. J. Balfour, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, speaking for the British Government, admits the Jewish people to an equal status with the Belgians, the Serbs, the Poles, and the other nationalities whose corporate rights are in issue in this civil war to make the world safe for democracy. They are words momentous for the Jews, and momentous for the world. They mark, in more ways than one, the close of an epoch in the history of mankind in Christian Europe. From the day in the year 339 when the Emperor of Rome deprived his Jewish subjects of the right to citizenship in his Christian dominion, to the invasion of Belgium by Kultur, and beyond, Jews have collectively and individually lived under disabilities that ranged from the mediaeval rigors of dynastic Russia and Junker-ridden Rumania to the fading survivals of social prejudice in England and America. Indeed, the democracy of a country can be accurately gauged by the attitude of its Government and people towards their Jewish countrymen. It is true, none the less, that in even the freest of countries certain disabilities persist, and that anti-Jewish agitation, on one ground or another, recurs sporadically. That this is natural, the very brief history which accrues to democracy in Europe makes evident. In lands with free institutions the enfranchisement of the non-Jewish masses dates, at its most ancient, from the French Revolution, and the enfranchisement of the Jew is hardly more than a couple of generations old. In the backward states, Jews share the political disabilities of the proletarians: a free Russia has meant a free Jewry, while no treaty can do anything for the Jews of Rumania without the relief of the terribly oppressed Rumanian peasantry from their Junker masters, if then.

The reason is that political establishments of the dynastic and bureaucratic type use the Jews as a convenient buffer between themselves and the rising discontent of their peoples. Thus, when the war broke out, seven and more of the ten-odd million Jews in the world lived in Russia and in Austria. More than half of these were concentrated in Poland, Lithuania, and Galicia. Their ancestors had settled in these regions centuries ago, on the invitation of a Polish king, who needed them to build up his Tartar-devastated country. He had given them a charter, which his successors extended and confirmed, and under this charter, which was ignored by participants in the crime of the partition of Poland, but never revoked, they lived with varying degrees of the full national autonomy it granted them. The regions they inhabited are the eastern field of warfare. When its fortunes revealed to the Russian people the treachery of their Government, the Government, as was its wont, used the Jews as its scapegoat, fathering on them all its crimes. Their consequent treatment at the hands of the simple Russian peasant armies left nothing to be desired in atrocities. The benevolent Poles added their noble bit, and the invading Germans, whose official classes are the protagonists of an anti-Jewish philosophy, and who were, moreover, playing politics with the Poles, did not deviate from the programme which has so benefited Belgium. The present record of their treatment of the Jews in the invaded portions of Lithuania and Poland satisfies even their rigorous standards of frightfulness. So, of all the tragedies of the war, the tragedy of the Jew has been the greatest. Enlisted in all the armies of the fighting world, with the overwhelming bulk of them in the armies of the Entente, they were permitted no portion in the cause for which they were pouring out their blood. That cause was peculiarly theirs. Yet they were equally the victims of its enemies and defenders. The position of the Jewish non-combatants in the war-devastated region was only a terrible aggravation of their position in times of peace. Wherever Jews were, they were regarded as not quite "belonging," as somehow foreign. The aboriginal and basic cause of this regard is religious prejudice, and this prejudice derives from the peculiar position of the Jewish people in the fundamental doctrine of Christianity. According to this doctrine the Jews had been God's chosen people. To them He had revealed Himself, with them made his covenant, and to them sent his only-begotten son for the redemption of sin-cursed mankind. The Jews, however, had rejected the God-born Messiah and had nailed him to the cross. For this they were accurst by God, cast out beyond the pale of the society of the saved, to live in disaster and dispersion till the Messiah's second coming. Every one in Europe knew this story of the Jew, from the serf with iron collar round his neck to the Holy Roman Emperor with an iron crown on his head. Europe was Christian, and the story fixed the Jew's place, not only in the religious, but in the political and social tradition of that continent. It set him beyond the law, tended to make him fearful, furtive, and fawning, to undermine his self-respect and destroy his nervous system. It made him the easy scapegoat for any malevolence any predacious power chose to attribute to him. By excluding the Jews from the common life of mankind, it threw them back upon themselves and their law. And their law saved them. The intensive elaboration of its prescriptions, the integration of their precarious community, the development and extension of their literary and philosophic tradition gave them healthy occupation. Such periods of comparative freedom from persecution rectified their intense self-consciousness with the perspective of achievement in the Moslem and Christian world. Without any territory definitely their own, with no civil or other rights before the law, without arms, or anything but an intense self-consciousness and a loyalty to their national tradition, they constituted, nevertheless, an imperium in imperio.

This rendered the position of the individual Jew peculiarly ambiguous--a citizen of no land, yet a subject of any ruler who chose to claim him. In many cases he learned to think of himself as the scornful Christian thought of him. He learned to resent the "accident" of birth into fellowship with a "peculiar" people and the disabilities this birth imposed. When the French Revolution brought him the opportunity to enter the wider world, he was eager to abandon everything which distinguished him from his French or German or Russian or Polish neighbor, to abandon, that is, the whole cultural organization of his people. What is known as "reform Judaism" is this attempt at political and social liberation by throwing over Jewishness. It is assent to the Christian conception that what is Jewish is bad. Under its operation Jews became amateur Gentiles in the practices of life and "Hebrews" in the speech of those who wanted to avoid offence by calling them Jews.

For the last two generations, the Jews of the world have been divided into two classes--the small, well-to-do, "assimilationist" minority, anxious to extirpate everything that might stand between them and their ambitions in the Gentile world, and the great impoverished, persecuted, and exploited majority, constituting by any criterion you choose a clear, defined nationality, hungry for freedom to live out its group-life in its own way, in its own land. The earliest ideal expression of this hunger is the religion of this majority with ritual and prayer directed towards the old agricultural economy of Zion, whereto Jehovah is in his own good time to restore his scattered people. The last and most efficacious ideal expression of this hunger is Zionism. This movement is the restatement of the religious aspiration in terms, a humanistic, political, and social programme. It reenforces the devout Jew's power to suffer with the modern Jew's imaginative courage and power to do. Its leadership has two sources--those Jews who had passed through the "assimilationist" stage and come out on the other side, and those who had grown up within the great Jewish community and had assimilated to the Hebraic spirit of their inheritance the whole achievement of modern civilization: Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau. Israel Zangwill, Louis Brandeis, the Rothschilds; Achad Ha'am, Tschlenow, Sokolow, Wolffson, the Wissotskis, the whole line of neo-Hebrew and of Yiddish poets and historians and thinkers. Zionism met, of course, with instantaneous resistance from the "assimilationist" interests, they being terrified lest they should lose the position for which they had paid so heavily. For Zionism asserts all they had been at pains to deny. Regarding the facts, it declares the Jews a nationality equally entitled with others to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." They, regarding their flesh-pots, declared them to be a religious sect, not otherwise different from the French, Germans, English, Russians, or Poles among whom they live. Zionism, regarding the facts, declares that the people must for themselves establish their status and destiny. Assimilationism, regarding its social position, tries to legislate for the Jewish nationality from without and above. It confronted the Jewish democratic statesman with the Hof-Jude, numbers with money, idealism with an appeal to self-interest. It fought a losing fight from the start.

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