Ambassador Daniel Taub Unravels the Balfour Declaration
Marking 100 years since the British government issued the Balfour Declartaion, expressing support for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Ambassador Daniel Taub recently delivered the 2017 Isaiah Berlin Lecture on "Lessons from the Balfour Declaration."
In front of a packed auditorium, including Lord Balfour (great, great nephew of Arthur Balfour, author of the Declaration), as well as other members of the House of Lords, Taub gave a wide-ranging lecture, drawing on a range of diplomatic and literary sources. While much has been written about the political considerations and debates that took place around the drafting and adoption of the Declaration, Taub chose to focus on the social and ideological aspects of the discussion and asked whether there were lessons that could be learned from these events that might be relevant today.
Referring to documents in Israel's national library, Taub described the redemptive atmosphere in Palestine at the time of the Declaration, including the custom of dating letters from the date of the Declaration, and the writing of the well-known song Hava Nagila to mark the occasion.
Ambassador Taub, who currently works as Director of Strategy for the Yad Hanadiv (Rothschild) Foundation, was given access to the Rothschild archives and shared some behind the scenes insights about the intriguing background to the Declaration. In particular, he focused on some of the unusual and curious characters who played a part in the Declaration.
Among these was Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, who Taub described as "a brilliant scientist but an extraordinary eccentric" who assembled the largest the largest private collection of animal specimens in the world. According to Taub, his most passionate correspondence with Chaim Weizmann was probably when he asked him to find out what had happened to two ostriches he had sent to Palestine and which had gone missing.
Ambassador Taub also quoted from the romantic correspondence between James de Rothschild and his wife Dorothy. Even though still a teenager, Dorothy played an important role in introducing Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann to influential British circles. Reading these personal letters, which describe Dorothy's diplomatic activity, Taub said he was struck by the fact that not only statesmen but also eccentric zoologists and teenage girls could find a role to play in the story of Israel.
Another theme Ambassador Taub addressed was the relationship between scientific and diplomatic progress. Taub pointed out the critical role that scientific innovation, including Chaim Weizmann's own chemical discoveries, played in the Declaration, and in the subsequent progress of the State of Israel. Chaim Weizmann would later become the first President of the State of Israel, and also have Israel's leading scientific institution, the Weizmann Institute, named after him. There cannot be many countries in which scientific and political advancement have been so closely linked.
Daniel Taub also addressed the vocal debate within the leadership of the Jewish community at the time over whether to support the Declaration. He noted that the community was deeply split, with a number of community leaders publicly opposing the declaration since they feared it would lead to accusations of "dual loyalty" against the Jews. This internal debate also played out in the cabinet where there were two Jewish members. One, Edwin Montagu, was a vocal opponent of the Declaration, while the other, Herbert Samuel, was a passionate supporter and would eventually go on to serve as the British High Commissioner in Palestine. Pointing out that the debate within the Jewish community was eventually resolved, Taub suggested that one lesson to be learned was how much harm communal infighting can do, and conversely how much we can achieve if we manage to be on the same page.
He also contrasted the opposition of some Jews to the establishment of a Jewish homeland, with the passionate support of many British Christians. The spirit of Christian 'restorationism' had a long history both in politics and in literature, with novels like George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, giving powerful expression to the Zionist vision.
Ambassador Taub also drew some broader lessons from the Declaration. One was that history was not carved in stone, but that it remained open to us to shape and influence it. "The Balfour Declaration was precisely that, "he said, "a declaration, not a binding document. As Lord Balfour himself said, 'it didn't give a land. It gave an opportunity.' We were blessed to have had a leadership who knew how to seize this historic moment".
Taub also noted that the diplomatic battle for a Jewish homeland was by no means over with the granting of the Declaration. One could imagine many scenarios in which the State of Israel would not have come into being. Historical documents suggest that Britain would have been prepared to go back on its commitment in the Declaration had it felt that this would have led to success in its negotiations. Tragically, the British government during the Nazi Holocaust had not been guided by the Declaration and had severely prevented Jews fleeing the horrors of Europe from immigrating into the Jewish homeland. Nonetheless, he said, the adoption of the Balfour Declaration signified a moment in which British interests and values coincided and created an opportunity to play a key step in the creation of a state which till today remains the most democratic country in the Middle East and a deep and valued ally of the United Kingdom. For that reason, the anniversary was one to be cherished and marked with genuine pride.
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