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British Jewish attitudes to Zionism before the Balfour Declaration

The community was very divided, with many concerned that creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine would weaken the rights of Jews in Britain and Europe.


Presented 30 January 2024. Posted 12 May 2024

Founded in 1893, the Jewish Historical Society of England ("JHSE") is the oldest historical and learned society of its kind in Europe.

On 30 January in Loughton Synagogue I gave JHSE a presentation on how divided British Jews were about Zionism in the years before the Balfour Declaration of 1917. As well as the live audience, it was also watched online internationally. I recorded what I said, so you can watch it below.

The presentation is based on the book "The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict" by Jonathan Schneer. [This is an advertising link.] When I read it, I was struck by how divided the British Jewish community was about Zionism in the years before the Balfour Declaration.

The reason the presentation came about is that I have known the chair of JHSE's Essex Branch since 2011 and have previously spoken for his Rotary Club. We met again in March 2023 at the Park Theatre in London when the charity Oasis of Peace organised an event at a performance of the play "Winner Curse" and I agreed to do a talk for him, suggesting this topic.


Presentation outline

Video of my presentation


How the presentation was recorded

My first presentation recording was done on the spur of the moment, just putting my iPhone 6 on the table and relying on its built in microphone. See my page Lecture: One Muslim’s Perspective on Religious Freedom.

Once I found recording presentations worthwhile, I purchased a high quality Sennheiser digital lapel microphone which plugs into the lightning port of my iPhone. That produces a much better recording.

The slides

I am happy to share the original PowerPoint slide presentation.

The question and answer session

The question and answer session was also recorded. However, I am not publishing the full audio recording for two main reasons:

  1. While the sound quality of my responses is very clear, the questioners were some distance from the microphone. Accordingly, in many cases their questions are almost inaudible.
  2. I respect the privacy of those asking the questions. I do not have their written consent to publish their recordings. In many cases, I do not even know who they were, so cannot seek permission.

Instead, I have listened to the Q&A session and, where I regard a question as worth sharing, have written down a condensed version of the question. I have then published the audio of my answer.

1. Where do you think the emphasis lies today between “British Jews” and “Jewish Britons”?

I answered this mainly by talking about how I see my own identity, and the relative weights I put on different parts of my identity.

Recording of my 2-minute answer

2. Given the history you have covered, is it fair for some of the IHRA antisemitism definition examples to mention Israel?

I explained how the IHRA definition is constructed and how it should be used in practice. See my article "The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Antisemitism."

Recording of my 2½-minute answer

3. Where did the word Zionist come from? Did all Jews at that time think of themselves as Zionists?

As part of my answer, I quoted part of Psalm 137 from memory, obviously with some errors. I have reproduced below the first six verses from the King James Version of the Bible.

  1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
  2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
  3. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
  4. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?
  5. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
  6. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Recording of my 2½-minute answer

4. What proportion of Jews today are not Zionists?

As part of my answer, I talked about the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and the way it depends upon how you define anti-Zionism.

See also my page "The definition of antisemitism and when does anti-Zionism become antisemitism."

Recording of my 3-minute answer

5. You spoke in your presentation about the upper levels of British Jewish society and their attitudes to Zionism. What were the attitudes of the Jewish working class?

The questioner commented that when Theodor Herzl visited the UK, he got enthusiastic support from the Jewish working class.

Recording of my 1½-minute answer

6. You have spoken about Jewish attitudes to Zionism in the UK. What were Jewish attitudes in continental Europe?

While answering this question, I shared Schneer’s view that the British were willing to promise Palestine to anybody and everybody if they thought that would help Britain’s war effort.

Schneer also mentions the widespread belief amongst non-Jewish British politicians at that time about Jewish international power.

Recording of my 2-minute answer

7. What is your perception of the level of alignment with Israel of Jews in different countries in the world?

The questioner was confident that British Jews aligned strongly with Israel, but less certain of the attitudes of American Jews or Jews elsewhere.

In my answer I mentioned my family’s experience of the horrors of Partition in India and explained why I support the existence of the state of Israel.

Recording of my 3-minute answer

8. Could you tell us more about the work of the Muslim Jewish Council in Manchester of which you are Deputy Chair, and whether that is something you would like to export to London?

Recording of my 4-minute answer

9. Is there any fear in the Muslim community that if they are seen to be having rapport with Jews that they may be targeted?

Recording of my 21-second answer

10. In response, the questioner considered that the danger of personal attacks had increased.

Recording of my 30-second answer

11. After the 7 October 2023 attack on Israel, were some British Muslim politicians unwilling to condemn the Hamas attacks because they feared for their personal safety?

Recording of my 30-second answer

12. Given your long study of the issues, do you think a two-state solution is possible?

I begin by explaining why a one-state solution is not possible and also explain Israel’s “trilemma.”

Recording of my 3½-minute answer

See also the diagram below, taken from "My 27-minute presentation on the Israel / Palestine dispute."


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