LONDON – The dapper 69-year-old, wearing a gray, elegant suit and understated blue patterned tie, sits straight on the couch, clears his throat, adjusts his horn-rimmed glasses and picks up the letter. “Dear Lord Rothschild,” he begins, his accent the poshest of the posh. “I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations...”
- The politics behind the drafting of the Balfour Declaration
- How the Balfour Declaration continues to haunt Britain
- The proposal Balfour rejected: A Jewish state in the Persian Gulf
This letter is, of course, the Balfour Declaration, delivered on November 2, 1917, to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British-Jewish community, and now the subject of renewed interest on its centenary.
It asserted, for the first time, the British government’s support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in British-controlled Palestine, and led to the formation, 31 years later, of the State of Israel.
And the man reading it is none other than Lord Balfour himself.
OK, not the Lord Balfour you might be thinking of.
That one – Arthur James Balfour, or AJB as he was known at the time of the declaration (he wasn’t made a Lord until a few years later) – was born in Scotland in July 1848 and served in the British government for 28 years, including a term as prime minister (1902-1905). It was during his four-year stint as foreign minister (1916-1919) that Balfour penned the Balfour Declaration. He passed away at 81 in 1930.
So who is this Lord Balfour, sitting in the London suburb of Chelsea in the fall of 2017?
“I’m Arthur Balfour’s great-great nephew,” says Roderick Francis Arthur Balfour, the fifth Lord Balfour. His friends call him Roddy, but, officially, his title is “The 5th Earl of Balfour.”
Balfour admits that he’s used to having his title mangled. The Israeli Embassy in London, for example, rarely gets it right. “They write all sorts of things when they send invitations: Rodrick Balfour, Lord Rodrick, Francis Arthur Balfour – things like that,” he sighs. Setting the record straight, Balfour says an envelope addressed to him should read “The Right Hon. Earl of Balfour”; and a letter should not be addressed “Dear Earl,” but rather “Dear Lord Balfour.”
This title passed down to the current Lord Balfour via a second cousin once removed, Gerald Arthur James Balfour (the 4th Earl of Balfour), who in turn received it from another cousin, and so on – going all the way back, through a somewhat complicated chain of primogeniture rules, to AJB, the first Lord Balfour, who never married or had children.
“I’ve got the present mantle of being Lord Balfour. In many ways it’s a great honor, and on certain occasions ... I get all the blame,” says Balfour, with a chuckle.
Tax returns, not Jewish homelands
Like Israel, the current Lord Balfour was born in 1948. He works as an international tax adviser to wealthy families who have residences in different countries. In a historical irony of sorts, one of his biggest clients is billionaire financier Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, on whose behalf Balfour has made several business trips to Israel over the years. Alas, they talk tax returns, not Jewish homelands. The Balfour Declaration “never really comes up,” says the present Lord Balfour.
As Balfour speaks, his wife, Tessa – or Lady Balfour – walks in from a back room and reminisces briefly about her first trip to Jerusalem. “People came up to Rod and said ‘Can I shake your hand?’ It was an amazing experience for me,” she says, before heading out to do some errands.
An aristocrat in her own right – she is the daughter of the late 17th Duke of Norfolk – Lady Balfour works in the fashion industry and lives, with her husband, between their apartment in London and the family estate in Sussex, on the grounds of the 1,000-year-old Arundel Castle. A large portrait of AJB hangs in the main stairwell there.
“In the family, Arthur Balfour is like a superhero, we absolutely love him. He’s a dude,” says Lady Kinvara Clare Rachel Balfour, one of Lord and Lady Balfour’s four daughters. Kinvara, 41, is English, of course, but recently moved to Los Angeles, where she works as a writer, producer and public speaker.
Even there, the connection with the Rothschilds continues. “Weirdly, they all seem to be in LA,” Kinvara says. “Jacob’s son, Nat, for example – I see him a lot,” she says, referring to the current Lord Jacob Rothschild. “And Evelyn’s children, too. They all live in LA. We bump into each other and kind of say hi.” But no, she laughs, there are no Balfour Declaration inside jokes.
Back in London for a short break, Kinvara sits down to talk about her famous relative. “I’d love to sit with him,” she says, “and ask questions like, ‘Why didn’t you get married? What love affairs did you have?’ and ‘Who loved you?’ I find all that really interesting.”
Besides ruminations on his love life, the family tales told about AJB usually center on his public career – he had one of the longest ministerial careers in modern British politics, second only to Winston Churchill.
He is also frequently referenced, both in the family and out, in connection with that very English turn of phrase “Bob’s your uncle!” – which means something like “You’re all set!” The phrase, Kinvara explains, goes back to 1887, when the young and inexperienced AJB was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle, then-Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, whom Balfour called Bob. The family is quick to note that Balfour’s impressive leadership skills subsequently dispelled any reputation as a lightweight, but the phrase still caught on.
One major flaw
AJB played a good game of tennis, almost until the end, relays Balfour, and was the first prime minister to own his own car – which he liked to use when driving out of Downing Street.
He was an intellectual, philosopher and reportedly a brilliant public speaker. One thing he was not so good at, though, according to his heir, was business, losing a vast inherited fortune during his lifetime. “He was an appalling investor,” admits Balfour.
It would be fair to say that most of the Balfours grew up without thinking too much about their forefather’s role in the creation of the State of Israel. Neither Kinvara nor her father have, for example, ever seen the original Balfour Declaration letter that sits in the British Library. Lord Balfour does, he gamely points out, have a facsimile of it hung in the room where many upper-class Brits seem to put their most showy items: the bathroom.
“The original is in the British Library?” asks Kinvara. “I never knew!”
But both Lord Balfour and his daughter say a point arrived at which they came to appreciate the declaration was, and remains, a very big deal to some people.
In L.A., for example, Kinvara is probably the only person who gets name recognition based on a short, century-old letter. Several years ago, she says, when a small dinner was being organized for Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres, she was summoned to attend. Panicked about her lack of knowledge about the Balfour Declaration, she set up a Skype call with the father of one of her close Jewish friends – in order, she says, to cram in some “Birth of a Nation” information, lest she be seated near the president.
As it turns out, she needn’t have worried. There were some heavyweight Hollywood types there, she remembers, and several women in glitzy dresses, one of whom grabbed a lot of the attention when she stood up to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” – even thought it wasn’t Peres’ birthday. “No one really knew what to do. We all carried on. It was so LA,” Kinvara recalls.
Sometimes, but not often, reactions to the family name are less warm. The current Lord Balfour, for example, frequently finds himself in the Arab world on business. Once, he recounts, when staying over with one of his wealthy Arab clients, he heard someone ask the client, only half-jokingly: “Are you so short on friends that you have to have someone named Balfour staying in your house?”
In his defense, he says, he usually trots out another Balfour – his grandfather, Francis Cecil Campbell Balfour – who was AJB’s nephew. “He was a tremendous Arabist and a friend of T.E. Lawrence,” says Balfour, referring to the man better known as Lawrence of Arabia. “It wasn’t as if the family said, ‘We are all pro-Chaim Weizmann [the first Israeli president], pro-Theodor Herzl, and no one can go off helping the Arabs!’”
More seriously, Balfour stresses that it’s important to see the declaration in its historical and geopolitical context: There were war priorities, colonial priorities and, of course, the Christian-religious sensibilities of the time.
While he says he has sympathy with Palestinian demands for a halt on settlements and for their own state alongside Israel – issues he has spoken and written about in the past – Balfour can’t understand the demands being made by certain groups for the British government to apologize for the original document.
“I find it sort of ... I find it very odd,” says Balfour. “It has to be remembered that [then-Prime Minister David] Lloyd George, Balfour, all that generation, they went to church on Sundays – often twice. I went to church twice every Sunday while I was at school, too. And what did we hear? We heard the Old Testament. We heard about the covenant with Abraham. We heard about Moses. We read Exodus and, you know, sang the [Psalms] of David. I mean, it’s seemed perfectly natural for the Jews to live in Palestine. In fact, I think I was brought up sort of assuming that Palestine was already full of Jewish people.”
In conclusion, Balfour tells a tale of one of his first trips to Israel, some two decade ago. “It was a quick trip. I was doing some work for the Rothschilds,” he recalls. “And I got a very nice letter from President [Ezer] Weizman inviting me for tea.”
It was a “Where are they now?” footnote to history not lost on anyone. Well, not lost on anyone except for airport security.
Returning to Ben Gurion Airport the following afternoon, Balfour was grilled about what he had been doing in the country and he proudly produced the letter of invitation from the president – made out, quite correctly, to the 5th Earl of Balfour.
The security man took the invitation, studied it for a while and walked away to show it to his superior. When he returned, says Balfour, the man shook his head and said: “Interesting. But what were you doing the other 48 hours?”