A Century Since Balfour: Israel and the Trap of Over-Simplifying
It’s a momentous anniversary for Israel and world Jewry. This week marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917) conveyed the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Mideast territory under British control after World War I. This year also marks 70 years since the State of Israel’s founding on May 14, 1948.
We needn’t be historians to sense how time seems to accelerate. The last century brought more change than any in recorded history – especially for Jews. How many people reading this post have known a world in which Jews systematically were denied rights in a true democracy? How may have known a world without Israel? Who doesn’t take for granted Israel’s countless contributions to the world – from cell phones and computer security to medical, agricultural and environmental advances? Before long, how many Holocaust survivors will remain? Who will remember a time before seemingly intractable strife and tragedy centered on the Middle East?
As I wrote recently, “anniversaries naturally loom large in human consciousness. They remind us where we’ve been, who we are and where we’re going.” For these reasons and others, this year is a special year for Israel, and for everyone – Jew and not – with a stake in what Israel is and isn’t.
I rarely comment publicly on controversial subjects due to judicial ethics. One truth I can say is that whatever one’s politics, beliefs, hopes and fears, this anniversary year probably will amplify them. Israel and “pro-Israel” voices will speak tremendous pride in Israeli miracles too many to list. Social activists in Israel will use the anniversary to press that Zionism’s dreams of a fully inclusive and progressive society remain unfulfilled. Some who criticize Israel from outside will do so lovingly; some to encourage Israel to realize her fullest potential; others with hatred in hearts and blood on hands. Palestinians, Bedouins and Druze will have much to say, some of it searingly painful.
Confirmation bias is powerful. Humans tend to view history through the lens of what we already see. But whatever anyone’s views, Israel is far more complex than any single perspective anyone can hold or imagine. Expect this anniversary year for Israel to prove these truths in spades.
At minimum, this anniversary year reminds that Israel wasn’t a fait accompli in 1917 or 1948 – and today is unique among nations in twinning strength with vulnerability. A century after Balfour and a lifetime after Israel’s lofty Declaration of Independence, many nations still challenge Israel’s right to exist and might obliterate Israel if they could.
I’ve never known this kind of uncertainty in my own life, but my father did. His parents were among thousands who fled Poland before the Nazi Luftwaffe flattened it in 1939. They ran east to Russia, hoping to turn south and then west to Palestine, but were blocked at the Turkmen-Iranian front. My father was born near a frontier town there in 1945, and spent his first years with his parents traversing postwar Europe before reaching Israel soon after independence in 1948.
My father remembers the uncertainty of early Israel – poverty, rations, barbed wire, air raid drills, makeshift everything and universal conscription. He remembers Israel birthing herself from throngs of humanity converging from everywhere, unsure if a tiny nation could absorb, uplift and deploy an immigrant influx double the existing population. He remembers the 1956 Sinai campaign, and the pride and sense of purpose – just 40 years after Balfour – that late 1950s Israel was booming. He remembers the 1967 Six-Day War that became the stuff of heroism legend, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War that shook Israel’s confidence.
What my father doesn’t remember are the stories of innocent Palestinians, Bedouins and Druze who felt (and still feel today) outside Israel’s proud and exhilarating history – who have their own history, their own triumphs and tragedies, their own pride, their own hopes and aspirations. He can’t remember them because he never experienced them, any more than most Palestinians living under Jordanian rule pre-1967 and then Israeli rule ever could know Jewish Israeli life. And what they and my father can’t remember, I suspect the Balfour Declaration’s authors couldn’t fully imagine in 1917.
This 100-year anniversary of Balfour is about all of that, and how we all tend to view history through our own lenses – and the almost super-human intellectual, emotional and spiritual work it takes to see more than what we’re already inclined to see. This 100-year anniversary is about an Israel that’s proud, capable, culpable, triumphant, tragic and so very easy to over-simplify.
During this anniversary year, celebrate all there is to celebrate about Israel, but please don’t let passion over-simplify complexity. Israel wasn’t easy – and for many if not most, Israel still isn’t easy. To imagine an easy Israel is to do great injustice, whatever one’s views.
So happy 100th anniversary, Balfour Declaration – and thanks, dad.
Dedicated to my father.
Originally published at Rabbis Without Borders / My Jewish Learning.