This month marks two monumental events in the history of the Jewish people — the Balfour Declaration of Nov. 2, 1917, the first official recognition of Jewish national aspirations, and Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations vote for the partition of Palestine, which led to the establishment of the State of Israel a year later. I have found no mention of these two miracles on the pages of this newspaper, nor a celebration, lecture or student gathering in the Center for Jewish Studies in my university. I therefore dedicate this column to Lady History, as a token of appreciation for the two milestones she has so graciously given our people in the past century.
The Nov. 2 date this year was quite timely. Three weeks earlier, on Oct. 12, a phenomenon called a “history professor” was invited to UCLA to promote his new book: “The Invention of the Jewish People” (by Shlomo Sand, Verso, 2009). Don’t look at yourself too closely in the mirror, because, according to Sand’s book, Jewish peoplehood is a new invention, a fabrication of Zionist propaganda. On Oct. 29, another “history professor” phenomenon organized a symposium on “Settler Colonialism Past and Present” (again at UCLA, again at the now infamous Center for Near East Studies) in which Israel (you guessed it) was portrayed as the prime archetype of an ideological structure called “white settlers colonialism.”
It was therefore immensely refreshing for me to celebrate Nov. 2 in the privacy of my office, surrounded by books and pamphlets from the early 1900s, reading what Lord Arthur James Balfour (1848 -1930) had to say about Jewish peoplehood. A man of wisdom and character, Balfour considered himself a philosopher, not a “history professor,” and free from today’s academic pressures to rewrite history, he managed to take time off from his duties as Britain’s foreign secretary and listen carefully to the special tune that Jewish history has been singing through the ages.
“The position of the Jews is unique,” Balfour wrote in 1919, two years after issuing the historic declaration that bears his name. “For them race, religion and country are inter-related, as they are inter-related in the case of no other race, no other religion, and no other country on earth…. in the case of no other religion is its past development so intimately bound up with the long political history of a petty territory wedged in between States more powerful far than it could ever be; in the case of no other religion are its aspirations and hopes expressed in language and imagery so utterly dependent for their meaning on the conviction that only from this one land, only through this one history, only by this one people, is full religious knowledge to spread through all the world.” (From Balfour’s introduction to “History of Zionism, 1600-1919,” by Nahum Sokolow, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1919).
The Balfour Declaration itself was merely a mild letter to Baron Rothschild, and reads like a holiday greeting card: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour 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….” But, as often happens in human affairs, it is not what the world says that counts, but what we Jews interpret it to say. The Balfour Declaration was interpreted by world Jewry as a political legitimization of the ancient Jewish dream of Shivat Tsion (the return to Zion); it encouraged approximately 400,000 European Jews to emigrate to Eretz Israel in the years 1917-1940, without which the idea of a Jewish state would have remained an ancient dream to this very day, and all the “new historians” (assuming their parents would survive the Holocaust), would be looking for other challenges to prove their creativity.
Shortly before Balfour’s death in 1930, his niece wrote: “He felt that what he had been able to do for the Jews had been the thing he looked back upon as the most worth his doing.” Today, there is hardly a town in Israel that does not have a street carrying his name.
We now move 30 years forward to the second miracle of the month, the U.N. vote of Nov. 29, 1947. In my opinion piece for this newspaper last year (Dec. 17, 2008), titled “The Forgotten Miracle,” I suggested that the Jewish community in Los Angeles celebrate Nov. 29 as an annual Jewish Thanksgiving Day. I am glad to say that the idea struck a chord with several organizations. Starting November 2010, and barring unforeseen obstacles, this event will be woven into the tapestry of Los Angeles’ annual celebrations.
The objectives are humble:
1. To read out loud the actual text of U.N. Resolution 181, to re-enact the vote and to hear 33 “ayes,” in 33 languages, here in multilingual Los Angeles.
2. To remind 33 ethnic communities in Los Angeles that we Jews do not forget friends who stood with us on the side of justice — we give thanks and ask for nothing in return.
3. To remind the world that Israel is there by historical right, not by force, nor by favor.
4. To jolt American Jews into thinking seriously what their world would be like without Israel.
5. To remind the U.N. what kind of institution it once was.
6. To remind the Arab world that the U.N. voted for two states, not for a Jewish state only, as their spokesmen claim.
7. To remind our children that, before the reign of oil, the world was ruled by moral forces, at least 33 of them.
8. To remind the world that we once were, and in many ways continue to be, the David, not Goliath, and that we did not choose to become a “military superpower.”
8. To refresh our memories with the arguments, pro and con, with regard to a Jewish state — arguments that our enemies have mastered to perfection and that we have naively assumed to be no longer necessary, to the point of delinquent forgetfulness.
10. To read out loud Amos Oz’s description of his experience as an 8-year-old boy in Jerusalem, when he awoke and saw everyone out in the street, listening to a radio broadcast on that fateful evening of Nov. 29, 1947:
“I shivered. Like a frightening dream, crowds of shadows stood massed together silently by the yellow light of the street lamp, in our yard, in the neighboring yards, on balconies, in the roadway, like a vast assembly of ghosts. Hundreds of people not uttering a sound, neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers, some in their nightclothes and others in jacket and tie…. The whole crowd seemed to have been turned to stone in that frightening night silence, as if they were not real people but hundreds of dark silhouettes painted onto the canvas of the flickering darkness. As though they had died on their feet. Not a word was heard, not a cough or a footstep. No mosquito hummed. Only the deep, rough voice … of the president of the Assembly, the Brazilian Oswaldo Aranha. One after another he read out the names of the last countries on the list, in English alphabetical order, followed immediately by the reply of their representative. United Kingdom: abstains. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: yes. United States: yes. Uruguay: yes. Venezuela: yes. Yemen: no. Yugoslavia: abstains.” (Amos Oz, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” Harcourt, 2004.)
I vividly remember that night, an 11-year old boy in my tiny hometown near Tel Aviv, and I still find it impossible to describe the electric shock that emerged from the center of my spine to what I imagined to be the spine of every Jewish soul that ever lived, 100 generations long. If you have friends or relatives who were alive in 1947, ask them where they were on Nov. 29 and what they were doing when Oswaldo Aranha completed his vote tally with “Yugoslavia: abstains.” You will be surprised how vivid human memory can get when things matter and the course of history is hanging in the balance.
I remember it as Amos Oz does: “At that the voice suddenly stopped, and an otherworldly silence descended and froze the scene, a terrified, panic-stricken silence, a silence of hundreds of people holding their breath, such as I have never heard in my life either before or after that night. Then the thick, slightly hoarse voice came back, shaking the air as it summed up with a rough dryness brimming with excitement: Thirty-three for. Thirteen against. Ten abstentions and one country absent from the vote. The resolution is approved.
“His voice was swallowed up in a roar that burst from the radio…. a scream of horror and bewilderedness, a cataclysmic shout, a shout that could shift rocks, that could freeze your blood, as though all the dead who had ever died here and all those still to die had received a brief window to shout, and the next moment the scream of horror was replaced by roars of joy, a medley of hoarse cries and ‘The Jewish People Lives.’
“And the whole crowd started to revolve slowly around itself as though it were being stirred in a huge cement mixer … and my very cultured, polite father was standing there shouting at the top of his voice, not words or wordplay or Zionist slogans, not even cries of joy, but one long naked shout like before words were invented.” (“A Tale of Love and Darkness.”)
That naked cataclysmic shout of a nation reborn can only be heard once, but the joyful thanksgiving of a nation alive will resonate forever, during Novembers yet to come.
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (danielpearl.org), named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.