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    Rabbi Cohen & the Balfour Declaration

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 October, 2017.

    While Jews worldwide now celebrate the Balfour Declaration, it actually received a very mixed reaction when originally publicised.

    Portrait of Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen by Joseph Wolinski, 1921

    November 1917 electrified the Jewish world – but not in Sydney.

    On Friday, 2 November, the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration viewing with favour the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish national home in Palestine. At the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen took no notice. He didn’t even mention the Declaration from his pulpit for three years.

    In London the writer Joseph Leftwich came into the offices of Zeit, the Yiddish daily, to be greeted by an ecstatic editor, Morris Myer, who said, “Leftwich, come dance! Mashi’ach has come! We have the Jewish State!”

    In Sydney Rabbi Cohen would have been aghast to witness Leftwich and the editor dancing. The rabbi was the consummate British patriot and the leader of the local anti-Zionists.

    Don’t imagine that he was unaware of the Declaration. In a sermon two weeks after the event he rather snootily hinted at it by saying, “We have heard much, in connection with the British advance in Palestine, about a restoration of that Land to an autonomous Jewish nationality. But we have heard too little about the revival or restoration of the Jews themselves”.

    Cohen was the Australian echo of the influential group in England who feared that Zionism would encourage the gentiles to accuse the Jews of dual loyalty. In the British Cabinet the Jew Rufus Isaacs (Lord Reading) held out as long as he could against the proposed Declaration and as a last-ditch effort made sure it was whittled down.

    The final wording was rather ambiguous and over the years Britain tried to wriggle out of even the limited undertaking that Arthur James Balfour gave, though Balfour himself never abandoned his belief that the Jews deserved a national home.

    Despite everything, the British people supported the notion. A massive meeting in London heard a member of the Government, Lord Cecil state that the Britain believed in “Judea for the Jews”.

    There was a feeling of embarrassment, shock and betrayal when the heads of the British Board of Deputies and Anglo-Jewish Association publicly opposed the Declaration, fearing that the plan “would stamp the Jews as strangers in their native lands and undermine their hard-won position as citizens and nationals in those lands”.

    Chief Rabbi JH Hertz published in the Times a stinging rebuke to the Jewish lay leadership, declaring that they did “not represent in the least the views held either by Anglo-Jewry as a whole or by the Jews in the overseas dominions”.

    The community rose up in favour of the Zionist cause and repudiated the lay leadership. Rav Kook, who had been stranded in England by the First World War and was now interim rabbi of the Machzikei HaDath Synagogue, told a communal rally that Britain merited a Mazal Tov. For Rabbi Cohen, there was no dancing or Mazal Tovs.

    Even Rev. (later Rabbi) Jacob Danglow in Melbourne, who later joined Sir Isaac Isaacs in his opposition to political Zionism, said, “The Balfour Declaration is a demonstration by Britain of its breadth of view and its real solicitude for the welfare of the smaller and weaker peoples and this has intensified still more the gratitude and devotion of British Jews towards England”.

    When Balfour died, Danglow paid tribute to what Balfour had termed a “great imaginative act”.

    The Australian Jewish Chronicle, the pro-Zionist rival to the Hebrew Standard which toed the Cohen line and was under the thumb of the Great Synagogue board, attacked pointed out the anomaly that it was the same British Empire which the “anti-Zionist clergymen” loved so much which had issued the Declaration.

    As far as Rabbi Cohen was concerned, the problem was not just dual loyalty but the nature of the community. How were recently arrived “foreigners” to be seen as the typical Australian Jews, representative of the patriotic Australian Jewish community? How would the Australian people react towards Jews of that kind? In a British country like Australia, were “foreigners” and Zionists to govern communal counsels?

    At the Great Synagogue the Cohen faction did not have the last word. A new assistant minister, Rev. (later Rabbi) LA Falk was appointed precisely because he was “a red-hot Zionist”. Cohen and Falk had different views but they respected each other. In time Cohen even made donations towards Zionist appeals, though he would never have conceded that political Zionism, or the Balfour Declaration, deserved support.

    Within the Great Synagogue the tide had turned with the appointment as Cohen’s successor of Rabbi EM Levy, a full-throated Zionist. It is said (though probably untrue) that it was his Zionism that caused him to be removed from office after a three-year incumbency. The real problem was the nature of his relationship with his board and their conflicting view expectations of the rabbi’s role.

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