Dr. Michael Reimer speaks on Jewish interpretation of the Balfour Declaration

Dina Salem
News Editor

Dr. Michael Reimer. Credits: Dina Salem.

On the 100th year since the release of the Balfour Declaration, Dr. Michael Reimer, an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History at the American University in Cairo (AUC), gave a lecture on the Jewish interpretation of the 67-word document.

The lecture, which was hosted by the History department at AUB, took place on Thursday, Oct. 26, in West Hall.

The public statement, written by Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Lord Arthur Balfour, and addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community, on November 2, 1917, announced the support of the British government for the establishment of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine.

Reimer began by placing his research within what he called an “intertextual interpretation”. He divided texts into a “production” side and a “reception” side, which work hand-in-hand, but as separate actors. “All text exists in conversation with other text,” he said.

In the context of the Balfour Declaration, according to Reimer, the division between “producer” and “receiver” is blurred. A close circle of Zionists from the Zionist Federation in Britain had direct involvement in the production of the statement.

Reimer went on to highlight the reaction of newspapers to the release of the Declaration, and their subsequent influence in shaping public opinion.

The Balfour Declaration.

The London Times, among other newspapers that Reimer used as an example, published over seven articles under the headline of “Palestine For The Jews”. “One contained a wild claim — which of course was completely impossible to substantiate —  that 90% of U.S. Jews were Zionists,” he said.

“There was this clash, as it were, between a more popular, reductionist reading [of the press] and nuanced reading [of the elites, both Jews and non-Jews] of the Balfour Declaration. I think if you were reckoning with the interpretation, you have to constantly bear this in mind,” he said.

Reimer then turned to American Jewry. He pointed out the divisions that existed within the members of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) on the subject of the Balfour Declaration. “They understood that the declaration gave a new kind of acceptability to Zionism, but they themselves were not a Zionist committee [at the time],” he said.

The AJC finally endorsed the Declaration, but not on national terms, and after rigid debate among its members, who remained divided on the topic. Yet, through an analysis of various statements from AJC meeting minutes that Reimer obtained, he concluded that there were a lot of negative reactions among American Jewry. “The AJC wanted to make it clear that it was not in favor of Jewish nationalism,” he added.

According to Reimer, the contention over the Declaration by Jews is even more vast than expected. The League of British Jews, headed by Lionel Rothschild (cousin of Lord Rothschild, the recipient of the Balfour Declaration) sent a letter to the AJC, outlining their support for the AJC’s endorsement of the Balfour Declaration, even with the absence of specific backing of a national state for Jews.

Reimer then moved to discuss German Jews, which according to him, were perceived as an elite body of well-established and well-assimilated Jews.

“German Jews were in a bit of a quandary, especially those who were in support Zionism. On the one hand, to show that they were patriotic Germans, they had to support the German war effort. On the other hand, for those who were in sympathy with Zionism, the British had given a public statement of sympathy, and that was very attractive,” Reimer said.

Reimer’s research revealed that there was a variety of responses to the Balfour Declaration from Jews in Britain, U.S. and Germany, as opposed to the widely-held belief that it was accepted uniformly by most Jews.

“There was a spectrum of Jewish reaction, which ran from enthusiastic endorsement, to qualified approval, to categorical rejection in hostility,” said Reimer in one of his concluding statements.

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