Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) held many posts in the British government, including prime minister (1902-05) and foreign minister. Even so, contemporary British journalist Harold Begbie wrote that Balfour “has said nothing, written nothing, done nothing, which lives in the heart of his countrymen.”
But Balfour is one of the non-Jews who lives in the heart of the Jewish world to this day. Streets and a moshav in Israel are named for him.
Why? Because a century ago this month, Foreign Minister Balfour wrote an official letter that said in part:
“His Majesty’s government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their 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.”
This Nov. 2, 1917, letter has become known as the Balfour Declaration. Without it, the state of Israel probably would not exist today.
This declaration was one of the byproducts of World War I. How that happened is a complicated story. Historian Jonathan Schneer told it well in his 2010 book “The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” that won a National Jewish Book Award.
Here, I would like to memorialize the declaration’s namesake. Balfour might not have been a great politician, but he was a remarkable man.
Balfour belonged to a British political family that went back to the 1500s. According to Schneer, his personality displayed “a sort of aristocratic indolence and imperturbability.” He served as president of the Society for Psychical Research, and was a philosopher who wrote a book on “Theism and Humanism.” Balfour is credited with the observation that “Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all.”
Therefore, as a politician and person “Acute, subtle, detached, and profoundly conservative… [Balfour] was not, on the face of it, a likely ally for the much-despised Jews,” Schneer wrote.
Nevertheless, when Zionist leader (and Israel’s first president) Chaim Weizmann met with Balfour to make the case for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Balfour was moved “to tears,” according to Weizmann’s account. “It is a great cause, and I understand it,” Balfour reportedly told Weizmann. The situation of the Jewish people became one of the “few things” that mattered to him, and he became one of the keenest advocates of a pro-Zionist policy within the British government.
This is worth remembering because some members of our community have a wary-at-best attitude about non-Jews generally. In truth, we have had and still have non-Jewish allies and friends in sometimes unexpected places.
Balfour was one. While he was not the only person responsible for the declaration, his name rightly belongs on it and deserves perpetual remembrance in Jewish history.
Former Chronicle editor Leon Cohen is chair elect of the advisory committee of the Coalition for Jewish Learning of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.