President of Israel On Balfour Anniversary: Jews and Arabs Are Destined—Not Doomed—to Live Together

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November 2 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS

At the time Lord Balfour made his famous declaration on behalf of His Majesty’s King George V’s Government, my family—the Rivlin family—had already been living in Land of Israel for over 100 years.

As he drafted the historic correspondence to Lord Rothschild, officially affirming British support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the land over which British and Allied forces were in the midst of fighting to liberate from the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, Jerusalem itself had already had a Jewish majority for over half a century.

And today, my grandchildren are ninth generation Jerusalemites, and Israel is a country of almost nine million citizens, three quarters of which are Jewish.

Yet, the Balfour Declaration—whose centenary we mark this week—changed history. It marked the first official recognition by an international power of the right of the Jewish people to independence and self-determination in our ancestral homeland. It paved the way—perhaps even provided somewhat of a template—for Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, just over three decades later.

The Balfour Declaration set out key criteria for the Jewish state, aspirations and criteria to which Israel continues to adhere and strive to realize in their entirety. The establishment of a national home for the Jewish people is a dream that has truly been realized, with more than half the world’s Jewish population now living in Israel. 

After two millennia of exile, the land of our forefathers is now also the land of our children and grandchildren. Israel is a vibrant democracy, a thriving economy, and a light unto the nations in innovation and discovery. This aspect of the declaration can be considered a great success.

Importantly of course, Lord Balfour also stressed that the rights and civil liberties of the non-Jewish communities must not be prejudiced. Indeed, non-Jewish communities who took Israeli citizenship share the same democratic rights and responsibilities as their Jewish neighbors. Today they total a quarter of the population of Israel, and include senior figures in Israel’s judiciary, military, legislature, civil service, industry and academia.

Is the job done? No. But I am deeply proud of Israel’s efforts to address the challenges, and work to ensure equality for all the Arab citizens of Israel. In the president’s office, as part of the understanding that Israeli society today is made up of different communities, Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, we have made tremendous strides forward in building bridges and understanding between the Arab and Jewish communities especially. We are on the right path.

Of course, there are others living with us in this narrow strip of land between the historic Jordan River, and the Mediterranean Sea. Israel will continue to seek and strive to find a lasting and peaceful solution to the conflict—the tragedy—between us and the Palestinians. A solution that is rooted in mutual acceptance. Because ultimately the Balfour Declaration called upon everyone to understand that the Jewish people had returned home. When it is truly understood, as I have always said, that the Arabs and Jews of the Holy Land are not doomed to live together but indeed destined to live together, then the legacy of Balfour will be truly realized.

RTX1YHSW Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during an 2015 even in New York City in 2015. Rivlin says that the Balfour Declaration intended for Arabs and Jews to live together in peace. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

There is one final stipulation in the Balfour Declaration which is also of great importance: that the establishment of a Jewish homeland would in no way prejudice the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. Words which, as we once again see the dangers of anti-Semitism raising its ugly head around the world, are as pertinent as ever.

While Jews will always be welcomed to their historic home in Israel, we stand firm in our support for every Jew to live in safety and freedom wherever they should choose. And we remain deeply grateful to the British government, and many others across Europe and the world for their commitment to the Jewish community, and to the fight against anti-Semitism and all racism.

Quite astoundingly, the Balfour Declaration is less than 70 words long, yet 100 years later, and 70 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, its legacy endures, as I am sure it will for many more years to come.

The author is the president of Israel.