One hundred years, and a day, ago the Balfour Declaration was signed.
“His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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.”
Those of you at last night’s lecture at New London, ‘Balfour and Beyond’ will have heard Professor Yaacov Yadgar’s superb presentation on the subject. He highlighted the challenges implicit in the declaration itself; Jews were to have a new national home, without losing rights in their existing national homes. The new national home would be for the Jewish people, but nothing should be done to suppress the rights of the non-Jewish communities. To these challenges he added others; what does a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ mean - is ‘being Jewish’ simply the collection of the things that Jews do, whatever and wherever that may be? Or is ‘being Jewish’ a spiritual vision of a covenantal relationship with God? And if the latter, who gets to decide what that means in a vibrant challenging polis?
Professor Yadgar showed how the Balfour declaration owed much to a rejection of a former vision of Jewish existence; a vision where Jews were ‘Englishmen [or Frenchmen, or Germans] of the Mosaic persuasion,’ a people whose external political life was entirely devoted to the states in which they lived, whose Judaism was an entirely inward-facing private apolitical matter. Early Zionist thinking, in large part, rejected that vision; replacing the internal aspects of Judaism with a complete focus on Jewish political national consciousness.
At the heart of all these challenges is the question of what, precisely, Judaism, or Jewish-ness, actually is. Are we a faith, a race, a people, a community ...? It must, indeed, be frustrating looking for a label which fits Jewish-ness. We seem to suit many a little and none precisely.
There is only one solution. We need to be able to embrace multiple contradictory claims as capable of bearing truth. ‘Elu v’Elu Divrei Elohim Chaim’ - teaches the Talmud - ‘Both these and these are the words of a living God.’ It’s hardly a new idea for us. Judaism needs to be both honoured in the diaspora and safeguarded in its homeland. It needs to be both a religious calling and a political reality. Israel needs to be a Jewish homeland which does indeed recognise rights and aspirations of non-Jews in its borders. Perhaps that is the greatest insight of the Balfour Declaration - it understood that Jews need to be ‘both and’ and not ‘one or the other’ if we are survive and thrive. If being ‘both and’ means we do not fit into the neat categories of non-Jewish ways of thinking about socio-religious political entities, so be it. In truth we know who we are. We know when our rights are threatened, we know what gives us pride and we know where we fall short. Maybe what we lack is the confidence to exist in our multiple-identities, the honesty to admit our shortfalls and the willingness to apply ourselves to do better.