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Jews & the Land of Israel Part VIII:

Editor’s Note: This is the eight installment in the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD

By Alex Grobman PhD. - 9 Iyyar 5783 – April 30, 2023
“I felt as if a sun-ray had stuck me,” declared Chaim Weizmann, “and I thought I heard the steps of the Messiah.” Israel Zangwill, the Anglo-Jewish author, and Zionist leader, who initially sought practical alternatives to Palestine, said any resistance to a Jewish home in Palestine would be “treason to the Jewish people.” [1]
Although most American Jews praised the news, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) denounced the idea that “Palestine should be considered the homeland of the Jews,” while the Orthodox Der Morgen-Journal voiced reservations. Oscar Straus, diplomat, author, public servant, and jurist had opposed to political Zionism, and reflected the views of most American Jews who had previously paid no attention to Zionism. “I am not a Zionist,” he said, “but I will co-operate with them knowing that will be accorded to them under the Balfour Declaration will be no more than what they should have, equality for all in Palestine—just as they and we have in free America.” Instead of discussing the issue of a Jewish state, Straus said this should be left for the future: “We need not quarrel now before we have anything.” [2]
Almost six months after the Balfour Declaration, the American Jewish Committee announced on April 28, 1918, a qualified approval. The Committee acknowledged the Jews centuries-old yearning to return and commended the British for their role in the issuing the Declaration. They pledged to cooperate to create in the Holy Land “a center for Judaism, for the stimulation of our faith, for the pursuit and development of literature, science, and art in a Jewish environment.” The Committee was quick to restate, as “axiomatic,” that American Jews would continue to be loyal citizens of the US, as the Jews in other countries would be to their governments. This statement signaled that the Committee’s opposition to Zionism essentially ceased. [3]
Great Britain’s sponsorship of the Balfour Declaration must have allayed many of the Committee’s concerns about supporting the creation of the Jewish National Home, notes historian Melvin Urofsky. English Jews had attained significant positions throughout English society and the numerous English organizations had stressed their full rights as British subjects. Cyrus Adler, one of the founders of the American Jewish Committee, maintained the land of Israel belonged to all Jews, even those who had no intention of going there, but that they had the obligation and the privilege to participate in the rebuilding of Eretz Yisroel. Even the “most assimilationist Reform rabbi” had never challenged the notion that Palestine had assumed a central role in the history of the Jewish people. Now that the dream of reestablishing the land of Israel unexpectedly had become an actual possibility, the expression “Nex Year in Jerusalem” recited at the end of the Passover Seder, “affected those who thought such sentiments out of date and irrelevant.” [4]
Response to the Balfour Declaration in the British Press
Often forgotten is the sympathetic response to the Balfour Declaration expressed by the British press, demonstrating the importance they attached to this historical document. “Epoch-making is perhaps not too strong a term to apply to Mr. Balfour’s letter to Mr. Rothschild,” declared The Daily Chronicle. The Observer proclaimed, “there could not have been at this juncture a stroke of statesmanship more just or more wise.” The Daily News believed “The promise of the restoration of Palestine will count more in the judgement of the world than all the desolation wrought by the German legions among the nations whom they have trodden under foot.” For The Manchester Guardian, “It is at once the fulfillment of an aspiration, the signpost of a destiny.” [5].
A correspondent for the London Jewish Chronicle described the ecstatic reaction of the Jewish people when he wrote, “The Jewish masses were literally dazzled.” In expressing his profound gratitude of British Jewry for His Majesty’s Government’s sympathy with Jewish aspirations, Chief Rabbi of England Joseph Hertz said that conventional words of appreciation were completely inadequate. To convey his heartfelt feelings, he quoted Psalm 126, which described how the Jews responded when 2,500 years before, Persian king Cyrus the Great, issued an edict allowing the Jews exiled from Judah, to return to Jerusalem and the Land of Judah. [6]
“A song of ascents. When the Lord returns the returnees to Zion, we shall be like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with songs of praise; then they will say among the nations, “The Lord has done great things with these. The Lord has done great things with us; we were happy. Return, O Lord, our captivity like rivulets in arid land. Those who sow with tears will reap with song. He will go along weeping, carrying the valuable seeds; he will come back with song, carrying his sheaves.” [7]
Jews throughout the world experienced similar emotions of elation and amazement. At a demonstration at the London Opera House on December 2, 1917, organized to thank the British Government, The Right Honorable Robert Cecil, British Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, said “Our wish is that the Arabian countries shall be for the Arabs, Armenia for the Armenians, and Judea for the Jews.” He recognized that “it is not the birth of a nation,” expressed in the Balfour Declaration, but rather “It is the rebirth of a nation. “ He concluded that although personally he did not “believe in prophesy,” he “was convinced that the rebirth of the Jewish nation…will have far-reaching influence on the history of the world and the consequences which none can foresee on the future of the human race.”[8]
[1] Melvin Urofsky, American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday 1975), 213.
[2] Ibid. 213-214.
[3] Ibid. 214.
[4] Ibid. 215.
[5] Nachum Sokolow, History of Zionism, 1600-1918 (New York: KTAV, 1969),84-89).
[6] Ibid.104-105.
[8] Sokolow, op.cit. 101-103.
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and on the advisory board of the National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.
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