On the fourteenth of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan 94 years ago, Lord Arthur James Balfour granted the Zionist movement a unprecedented historical declaration. The Balfour Declaration was a result of British policy gradually becoming committed to establishing a Jewish home in Palestine (Eretz Yisrael). In his letter to Lord Rothschild, Lord Balfour writes: “His Majesty’s Government views with favor 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.”
Lord Balfour chose the term Jewish home, and those words represent all that the State of Israel stands for and are just as relevant to the state’s identity today. In July 2011, Yonatan Touval wrote in the New York Times: “Historically, the modern Zionist movement has sought to transform the term “Jewish” into a distinctly national category. But it has not fully succeeded. If it had, Jewish might have signified today a member of a national community — in the manner, say, that French refers to a national of France or Polish that of Poland.
“And yet in much of the world Jewish today remains a fuzzy term whose precise meaning depends on context. Jewish can stand for a religious attribute, an ethical or spiritual one. It can mean an ethnic group or cultural tradition. For some Jews, especially in pre-emancipation Europe, Jewishness was felt to be a destiny. In certain milieus in the U.S. today, Jewish primarily defines a genre of humor.
In fact, only in Israel does the term Jewish refer to one’s nationality, although the source of authority lies outside the exclusive purview of the state. Indeed, even as Israel proclaims to be the nation-state of the Jewish people, it has no legal definition for the term Jewish other than a religious one: It is rabbis who determine for the Israeli state who is a Jew.” The full article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/opinion/30iht-edtouval30.html)
Jews throughout history were committed to the Jewish homeland and its residents, allocating financial, moral, and other resources. How many nations across the globe grant automatic citizenship and offer financial and social aid for distant members of their nationality who decide to immigrate and become citizens? How many members of different nationalities raise funds and political awareness in favor for their homeland? How many nationalities across the globe grant a free birthright trip to the homeland for each member of their nation and how many governments around the world pay for teens and college students to visit their homeland and spend time getting to know it?
Jews, wherever they may be, pray three times a day, facing home, the land of Israel. Jews across the world pray- “L’eshana Haba’ah B’yerushalyim- for next year in Jerusalem.” Jews from distant countries pray for rain, fruitful crops and peace in Israel and choose to celebrate bar/bat mitzvah, birthdays and other significant dates in Israel, their homeland.
The term Jewish may mean different things to different people, as Touval argues. The beauty lays in our shared understanding; it means being part of something greater, eternal and rooted in history. Something that connects me to a shared past, present and future. A common destiny for all Jews. Being a Jew means that I may choose to live anywhere across the world, but I still learn about, feel for, and care about the safety, wellbeing, and prosperity of a piece of land that I may never visit.
Cheshvan is also Jewish Social Action Month (JSAM), an annual global initiative. Its goal is to transform Cheshvan from a month without Jewish holidays into a month celebrating volunteerism; tikkun olam, repairing the world; and service learning. When Lord Balfour granted the Zionist movement the Balfour declaration, he gave the Jewish world a reason to establish the characteristics and expectations of the new state. The Jewish values of Chesed should be part of the definition of a Jewish state, of who we are, throughout the year.
Israel’s and Israelis’ relationship with the Jewish world is so unique, so beautiful and precious because we follow Lord Balfour’s term. We are all “residents” of our Jewish Home. It is not the homeland for Israelis only and it’s much more than a state- it’s a family and the safe haven of all family members.
I’m not sure if Lord Balfour realized that his term would be as loaded as it is, but we are obligated to keep these words filled with meaning.