The Balfour Declaration: 95 Years Ago Today

The web site Israel Daily Picture features archive photos of the history of early Zionism from the late 19th century taken from the Smithsonian Collection. They offer a fascinating collage of photos with historical notes in today’s edition here, documenting the role of the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour’s declaration on November 2, 1917 regarding the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The statement was in the form of a letter to a leader of the British Jewish community:

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.

Lord Balfour speaking at the founding of Hebrew University in 1925 with Chaim Weizmann and Chief Rabbi Avraham Kook seated behind him

Under Ottoman rule, at the turn of the 19th century–what we might call “Mark Twain’s Jerusalem,” according to Turkish census figures, the Jewish population was the majority in the Old City with Muslim Arabs and Christians next in number (with populations of 13,300; 11,000 and 8,100 respectively). Jewish shops and business were found throughout the Old City including at the entrance of Damascus Gate, along David Street, on the Street of the Chain, throughout the Christian Quarter and on the central market streets. There were also significant Jewish neighborhoods north of the Old City, around the Orient House and the American Colony, as well as Yemenite Jewish communities in Silwan. By 1948 Jews had were mainly found only in the old Jewish Quarter and from 1948-1967 the entire Jewish population was expelled from the Old City  as well as East Jerusalem by the Jordanians following the War of Independence. The Jewish Quarter was destroyed, literally leveled to the ground and left in ruins, as I witnessed myself on my first trip to Jerusalem in 1962.  Other than on the southwest hill of Mt Zion, which was part of “no man’s land” following the War of Independence, Jews were confined to West Jerusalem and were not permitted to even pray at the Western Wall. The oft repeated phrase “historically Arab East Jerusalem” only existed from 1948-1967 before Jews were expelled from the Old City. From Byzantine times, through the Middle Ages, and especially throughout the 500 hundred years of Ottoman rule, significant populations of Jews lived in the Old City, as witnessed by the many historic synagogues, shops, houses, and schools. Many were destroyed by the Jordanians between 1948-1967 but most have now been rebuilt, including the historic Rambam Synagogue.

Yemin Moshe, to the west of the Old City, marked by the landmark Windmill, was established in 1861 by Moses Montifieore outside Jerusalem’s Old City as a solution to the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions inside the walls, and eventually named for him.  The original houses in the area, known as Mishkenot Sha’ananim, were built  with a wall around them and a gate that was locked at night. Today the Mishkenot Sha’ananim, with the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center, the Jerusalem Center for Ethics, and the Cultural Center, with the rerteat and Guesthouse serves as a place for artistic creation and scholarly dialogue. It has become my place of choice when I stay in Jerusalem.