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The Christadelphian | November 2017

In the magazine this month:

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The Balfour Declaration

A landmark in the purpose of God with Israel

“This is the day the Lord has made, we will be glad and rejoice therein.”

This quotation from Psalm 118:24 was used by the Jewish Chronicle to greet the publication of what became known as the Balfour Declaration on November 9, 1917 – one hundred years ago this month. The Declaration was actually a letter dated November 2 from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It was intended to set out an important marker for British policy at a time when British forces were pushing back the Turkish forces towards Jerusalem, which Prime Minister Lloyd George had determined should be liberated by Christmas.

The background

The year 1917 had been a difficult one for Britain and its allies: there had been little progress against the Germans on the Western Front, the Russian commitment to the war had been undermined and destroyed by the two Revolutions which had led to the abdication of the Tsar and the descent of the country into internal strife, the German U-boat attacks on British shipping had led to severe food shortages in the UK and although the United States had entered the war, its contribution was still limited. So the British government was desperate to gain any advantage possible – especially in undermining Germany’s ally, the Turkish Empire – and to establish its position with regard to any post-War settlement in the Middle East.

The motives of the British Government have been well explored in a recent article in The Christadelphian (“Britain in Palestine”, October 2017, pages 460-463). At best the policy was somewhat confused, promises having been made through Lawrence of Arabia to persuade Arabs to rebel against the Turks – promises underwritten by Henry McMahon in late 1915, who had exchanged ten letters with Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, in which he had promised Hussein to recognise Arab independence within some limitations. There had also been a secret deal in 1916 between Britain and France – known as the Sykes-Picot agreement – to carve up the Turkish territories between the two countries after the War, but with an internationalised Palestine. At worst, the publication of the Balfour Declaration suggested a cynical expediency in British policy motivated by purely British interests, which included keeping onside Chaim Weizmann, the Jewish biochemist and Zionist leader, whose discovery of the production of acetone used in explosives was a major contribution to the British war effort.

Nonetheless there is absolutely no doubt that the Bible upbringing of many in the British Government influenced their view of the desirability of allowing the much persecuted Jewish people to return to their own land and to be recognised as rightful occupants there. Throughout the nineteenth century there had been widespread sympathy for this view under the influence of major figures such as the great social reformer Lord Shaftesbury, the late nineteenth century politician Joseph Chamberlain and even Lord Kitchener – as well as sympathetic British officials in Jerusalem and Cairo. In the light of this the British policy expressed in the Balfour Declaration was not surprising, even ignoring the overriding hand of the God who rules in the kingdom of men!

There had also been considerable excitement in the Christadelphian community ever since the entry of Turkey into the War in late October 1914, since it at last seemed possible that, if Britain, France and Russia won, the Turkish Empire which had controlled the Holy Land for so long would relinquish its hold and a major obstacle to the fulfilment of prophecy be removed. In February 1917 The Christadelphian reported new appeals for the –

“creation of a Jewish state in Palestine under the protection of Britain … a haven of refuge for the sorely-tried, heavy-laden, storm-tossed sons of Israel … By this world war the Zionist movement has received a great impetus … The heavy hand of the Turk in Palestine is being removed.”

Nonetheless, Turkish resistance proved stubborn in the Persian Gulf and in Palestine and Syria, and for a long time these hopes seemed to be thwarted. Indeed, throughout most of 1917 the reports received from Palestine regarding the treatment of the Jews already back in the land and the remnants who had never left were extremely depressing. The Turks began with the widespread deforestation to provide fuel for energy needs and steam locomotives and proceeded to expulsions of Jews from Jerusalem, where the population was reported in April to have shrunk from 55,000 to 24,000 – partially from deaths by starvation. Later in the year evictions of Jews from Jaffa took place with resultant distress and in November it was reported that the price of bread had risen by 1,100%, oil by 1,300%, petrol by 3,000% and tea by 1,500% in Palestine since the start of the War. Constant collections were made in the brotherhood for the relief of Jewish suffering in Palestine and four or five donations each of £100 sent for this purpose during 1917. Over 9,000 Jews were reported as having fled to Egypt for refuge at this time.

Persistent hope

In the earlier part of the War there had been many suggestions regarding the settlement of Jews in Palestine – including at one time a proposal by the Tsar to provide a protectorate and to declare himself king of the Jews! As 1917 wore on there were more and more suggestions of how this settlement might be done, including German proposals designed to try to prevent influential Jews in the USA from supporting the entry of America into the war by advocating this. From Toronto came a comment:

“The supreme aim of the Zionist movement is ‘a Jewish life in a Jewish land, developing its own moral values and its own type of civilization …’”

In May, the Weekly Despatch reported that –

“A free Palestine, so long the dream of the Jew is at last within sight. I understand from most reliable sources that the triumph of the Allies will be followed by the realisation of the nineteen-century old ideal of Jewry – the restoration of Palestine … My information is … that the Zionists have received the highest possible encouragement in all Allied countries, including the USA.”

In June there were reports from a German paper that “England is about to carry out an extremely clever political move by the creation of a Jewish republic”. By this time the prospect was sufficiently serious for Muslims meeting in London to declare that:

“Such an outcome would be a world disaster … [leading to] … an exploited land … To give the land to the Jews would be to create a new and terrible storm centre.”

And in August Commander Josiah Wedgewood MP was reported as having said:

“I do not know whether the Jews are aware that they are living at the greatest moment in their history … A slight turn of the wheel – a military success in Palestine – and the Jews may become a nation once again.”

Reactions to the publication of the Balfour Declaration

So the Balfour Declaration would have come as no surprise to eager watchers for the restoration of Zion, but nonetheless it was recognised by the newspapers of the time as an historic moment.

The news was greeted in The Christadelphian with great joy:

“The Hope of Israel never shone more brightly than today. November 2 will be remembered in Israel both after the flesh and the spirit, for on that day Great Britain officially recognised Zionism and took up the position assigned by the prophets to the latter day Tarshish … this announcement sent a thrill of joy throughout the brotherhood.”

The Daily Chronicle newspaper likened the Declaration to the Edict of King Cyrus which allowed the Jews to return from their exile in Babylon:

“Epoch-making is perhaps not too strong a term to apply to Mr Balfour’s letter … One has to go back to Cyrus for a parallel … the hopes that have never been lost during eighteen centuries of Dispersion will return within the region of fact and accomplishment.”

The Jewish Chronicle headlined the event as “A JEWISH TRIUMPH” and –

“a great bound forward … there has arisen for the Jews a great light … The day of his exile is to be ended … The invitation to us is to enter the family of the Nations of the earth … The Government declaration marks the definite opening of a new chapter, we believe a great and glorious chapter … The year 1917 will stand out as one of the most wonderful in all the long Jewish annals.”

The following month The Christadelphian likened the Declaration to God’s decree to bring Israel out of Egypt at the Exodus and exhorted brethren and sisters who had been thrilled “the world over” to recognise the voice of God expressed in the affairs of men. “The Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad!”

There is no doubt that the Balfour Declaration was indeed a critical turning-point in the purpose of God.

100 years later

Those who rejoiced in 1917 could not have foreseen how their hopes and those of the Jews would work out and what further twists and turns in the purpose of God would follow. They would probably be surprised that the Lord Jesus has not yet returned to “reign over the house of Israel for ever”, as promised by the Angel Gabriel to Mary at his birth. They would be disappointed that the policy of British governments after the War eventually turned to trying to stop Jewish migration to Palestine. They would be appalled to see how hostile the world has become to the State of Israel, and perhaps they would be saddened to see a decline in the celebration and preaching of the Hope of Israel in our community today.

So on this 100th anniversary we need to marvel once more at the fulfilment of prophecy in 1917 and afterwards, renew our dedication to the Hope of Israel and sing the songs of Zion whilst we watch and pray for the peace of Jerusalem, knowing that without it there can be no peace for our sad and storm-tossed world.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls and prosperity within thy palaces. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”


John Botten


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