Each year, over the ages, at Passover time—which begins today—religious Jews have concluded their observance with the prayer, L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim!—”Next year in Jerusalem!”
Until the 20th century, though, few really believed in the notion of return to Jerusalem any more than most Christians truly believe in the Second Coming. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, the Jews were thrust into the outer world—many into Arab countries (later to become Muslim countries) where they were largely extended protection and tolerance, as well as into the Roman and then Christian world, where they were accepted for many centuries. There were outbursts of truly virulent anti Semitism, but these came centuries apart.
Over two millennia, many big tribal groups have been dispersed: the Slavs, the Moguls, the Bantu, the Tamils, the Celts. The list is a long one, but only the Jews possess so clear an idea of where they want to go back to.
During the last thousand years, while the Jews were in the diaspora, the Arabs reinforced their settlements on the same land that some Jews yearned for, just as pre-Arab tribes had settled it in the time before Moses. When in 1897 the rabbis of Vienna sent a fact-finding mission to Palestine they reported back that the bride “was beautiful but married to another man.” Likewise, Theodore Herzl, the convenor of the first Zionist Conference in the same year, was not obsessed by a return to Palestine. Almost anywhere would do. Argentina was the first choice with its empty fertile spaces. The Uasin Gishu plateau near Nairobi, Kenya, was another.
But the Zionist conference overruled him. And the course of the First World War and the likely break up of the Ottoman empire led the British to think that Jewish control of Palestine would be more secure for British interests than Arab. In 1917 came the Balfour Declaration whereby the British cabinet declared that they viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The East was to be Westernised; this, at least, was how London saw it.
The only Jewish member of the cabinet demurred. Edwin Samuel Montague denounced the whole project as the reconstruction of the Tower of Babel. Lord Curzon, the former Indian…