1917: British Jews and Zionism

The Balfour Declaration was watered down, due to Jewish anti-Zionists, but almost all British Jews supported Jewish statehood. The public war of ideas and words is important to recall on the eve of Independence Day.

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Larry Domnitch,

Larry Domnitch
Larry Domnitch
IsraelNewsPhoto: L.D.

            When a small but influential Jewish group sought to obstruct official British recognition of the right of Jewish Statehood in the Land of Israel, at a very critical moment in history, British Jewry raised their voices in support of Zionism.

            By the spring of 1917, the third year of the First World War, the issue of Jewish statehood loomed large as British and other allied forces were engaging Ottoman Turkish troops in Gaza as part of a Mideast campaign that would soon drive through the Land of Israel. In Great Britain, Zionists were pressing for a statement from the allied forces supporting a post-war Jewish State. Decades of support in Great British for the restoration of the land to the Jews were at a critical juncture.

            At that time, two small, but very influential groups of British Jews were attempting to impede British intentions to endorse such a statement. The two groups were the Board of Deputies of British Jews, led by Claude Montifoire, and the Anglo Jewish Association, led by Edwin Montique, also a member of the British Cabinet.

             The two Jewish organizations published a manifesto in the Times of London declaring their position.

            Published on May 24, the letter dated from May 17, 1917, opposed Jewish Statehood in Palestine, calling it “an anachronism.” The letter denied there was a national character to the Jewish people, “The Jewish religion being the only test of a Jew, a Jewish nationalism can not be founded on, and limited by, the religion”.  The letter also expressed concern that Jews would be given special rights and considerations in such a state to the exclusion of others. It was signed by David L Alexander, and President of the Board of Deputies and Claude G. Montifoire, President of the Anglo Anglo-Jewish Association.

             The members of the two groups, comfortable and affluent in Great Britain, feared that Zionism, which emphasized Jewish nationalism, would raise charges against the Jews of disloyalty and challenge the status quo.

             Although Great Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George, and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, supported Jewish statehood, the letter posed a challenge to British Jewry. An ample response was important to prove that the Jewish community of Great Britain did indeed wholeheartedly support Jewish statehood.

            Three days later, a letter appeared in the Times of London by Lionel Walter Rothschild, Jewish leader, and former member of Parliament, who responded by emphasizing that the views of the anti-Zionists did not represent Jewry, “Our opponents though a mere fraction of the Jewish opinion of the world, seek to interfere in the wishes and aspirations of the larger mass of the Jewish people.” Rothschild denied the charges that Zionism impeded upon the rights of non-Jews, “I can only again emphasize that we Zionists have no wish for privileges at the expense of other nations’ laities, but only desire to work out our destinies side by side with other nationalities in an autonomous state.”

            A letter by the Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz appeared, on the same page, also emphasizing that the expressed views belonged to a very small minority, stating, “I can not allow your readers to remain under the misconception that the said statements in the least the views held by Anglo-Jewry as a whole, or by the Jewries of the Overseas Dominions. “

            Rabbi Hertz’s letter was followed with one by Chaim Weizmann as chairman of the English Zionist Federation, which concluded by expressing regret “that there should be even two Jews who think it their duty to exert such influence as they may command against the realization of a hope which has sustained the Jewish nation through 2,000 years of exile, persecution, and temptation.”

            When the First World War broke out, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief Rabbi of the city of Jaffa, was in Europe, and unable to return to his home. Rav Kook who eventually accepted a post at the London congregation Machzeke HaDas, authored a vociferous letter addressing the Jewish community of Great Britain. The letter’s very title, “Manifesto on National Treachery,” suggests his unequivocal condemnation of the opponents of the Balfour Declaration.

            The opening lines read, “We protest against those who seek to crush the wonderful completeness of Jews and Judaism. We only know a whole Judaism.” Rav Kook cited from the afternoon Shabbat Minchah prayer the sentence, which contains the words of the prophet Samuel, “You are One and Your name is One, and who is like Your one nation Israel on Earth.” 

              Rav Kook warned, “The entirety of our original soul, cannot, under any circumstance, be divided into such parts as "nationalism" and "religion."  “The pettiness of those who want to split the completeness of our shining force of life into pieces, tearing off a part here and there, is not only a treachery to Jews but also to all of mankind.”

            Rav Kook did not request but demanded that the world return “that which was stolen from us,” and then followed by millennium of oppression. “The sin cries up to the heavens, it must be completely corrected….Without compromise, without flattery-- completely.”

            Rav Kook called upon his fellow Jews at that very crucial hour to “actively and forcibly demand that which is ours.”

            The letter requested that all Synagogue leaders read it aloud on the Sabbath of the reading of the Torah portion of Bahalotcha on June 15 of that year. 

            The pro-Zionist London Jewish Chronicle, was bombarded by letters and statements from Rabbis, readers, community leaders, Synagogues, and Jewish organizations. The Council of United Jewish Friendly Societies, representing dozens of organizations, released a statement, “expressing profound disapproval of such views, and dissatisfaction at the publication thereof and requests its representatives on the said Conjoint Committee to resign their membership thereof forthwith.”

            The Jewish Chronicle also carried a letter of resignation from the Board of Jewish Deputies by Orthodox Rabbi E.N. Adler, a letter of protest from the prominent leader of the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue, Rabbi Moses Gaster, and a reprinted article by Zionist leader and author Harry Sacher, which appeared in Daily News.

            Statements and letters by grassroots individuals and groups also appeared throughout the British press, in favor of a Jewish state.

             The opponents managed to have the original suggested text of the Declaration in support of Zionism, by Rothschild, which made references to unlimited Jewish immigration and Jewish autonomy over the land, replaced with a vague text calling for a “Jewish Homeland in Palestine.” That text, soon known as the Balfour Declaration, was publicized on November 2, 1917. The watered down version was nevertheless published. Their opposition also galvanized British Jewry to vocally support Jewish Statehood.

            Today, the Board of Deputies and the Anglo Jewish Association are strong voices in support of Israel and have been for many decades.

             The voices of British Jewry spoke and were heard. They helped bring about a policy statement backed by the British Government, which had the support of the United States and many other nations, calling for Jewish Statehood in the Land of Israel.






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