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When it comes to Jewish history, the number seven reigns supreme

(RNS) 1897, 1917, 1947, 1967 … Will 2017, another year that ends in a seven, finally bring peace to Israel and its neighbors?

Israeli troops examine a destroyed Egyptian aircraft in June 1967. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) This year marks the anniversaries of four historical events that changed world history and continue to affect millions of people today.

By coincidence, all four events took place in years that end with the number seven: 1897, 1917, 1947, 1967.

The number seven, while lucky for gamblers, also plays a major role in Jewish life.

The ancient seven-branched menorah or candelabrum is the official symbol of the modern State of Israel. Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, signifies the completed work of creation. Seven blessings are recited at Jewish weddings, and there are seven biblical matriarchs and patriarchs. 

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So maybe it’s no accident that some important historical events have taken place in the years ending with the number seven. 

Although the idea of the Jewish people physically returning to their ancient homeland and regaining national sovereignty originated in biblical times, it was kept alive for thousands of years despite dispersions and persecutions. But it was not until 1897 that Zionism, the Jewish national movement, became active on the world stage.

The delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Photo courtesy of the Creative Commons

In that year, a charismatic 37-year-old Viennese Jewish journalist, Theodor Herzl, convened the first Zionist Congress. Like many other national movements, the congress was forced to meet outside the homeland.

The ruling Ottoman Empire would never have permitted such a threatening gathering inside the land of Israel, but Herzl’s dramatic and visionary call for political action — he recognized the recitation of ardent prayers and biblical verses, while necessary, were not sufficient to achieve Jewish sovereignty — primarily energized the persecuted Eastern European Jewish masses, including my grandparents, who faced fierce anti-Semitism.

Herzl’s congress met in neutral Basel, Switzerland, where it called for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine “secured by public law.”

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Well-acculturated Jewish leaders in Western Europe and the United States attacked his “foolish dream.” Indeed, Herzl was personally ridiculed by many Jews of his day.

But 20 years later, in 1917, the British government issued a brief statement that would be known forever as the Balfour Declaration, named for British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour.

Despite its nuanced words and cautious tone, the declaration continues to echo throughout the world a century later: “His Majesty’s Government views with favour 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.”

Portrait of British Foreign Secretary Arthur J. Balfour, along with his famous declaration. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

It marked the first official diplomatic endorsement of Zionist aspirations by a major government in modern times.

Recently, the Palestinian Authority announced plans to file a lawsuit against Great Britain in an international court. According to the PA, the Balfour Declaration and its support for what eventually became the State of Israel made Great Britain responsible for “Israeli crimes.”

But in December, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May expressed “pride” in the Balfour Declaration in “creating a homeland for the Jewish people.” She promised to take the UK-Israel relationship “to the next level.”

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The prime minister also announced Britain was adopting the formal definition of anti-Semitism as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an organization of 31 countries. It is unlikely the PA’s lawsuit will succeed.

The decades following the issuance of the Balfour Declaration were tumultuous. After World War I, the League of Nations designated formerly Ottoman-ruled Palestine a British “Mandate.”

The United Nations Palestine Partition Plan in 1947. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

As a result, the U.K. was the ruling power in the Holy Land during the Holocaust and World War II. But Britain failed to solve the conflicting nationalistic claims of Jews and Arabs. In 1947, a weary London government tossed the conflict to the United Nations, the League of Nations’ successor.

Fifty years after the Zionist Congress first met in Switzerland, the U.N. General Assembly voted on November 29, 1947 to approve a partition plan, with 33 in favor, 13 against and 10 abstentions. The plan called for a Jewish and an Arab state within Palestine, the original “two-state solution.”

Both the United States and the Soviet Union supported the majority, and most of the negative votes came from Arab and/or Muslim countries. Great Britain abstained. On May 14, 1948 British forces left Palestine and, after a bitter war, modern Israel, Herzl’s dream, achieved its independence.

But in 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took belligerent acts against Israel, including an illegal naval blockade. A Cairo radio broadcast that year promised: “The Arab people is firmly resolved to wipe Israel off the map and to restore the honor of the Arabs of Palestine.” When diplomats failed to stop Nasser, Israel, in self-defense, won a sweeping military victory: the June 1967 “Six Day War.”

An Israeli gun boat passing through the Straits of Tiran near Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, during the Six Day War on June 8, 1967. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/YAACOV AGOR

The threat of national destruction was removed. Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip (it has since withdrawn from both areas), the Golan Heights, the West Bank of the Jordan River, and the Old City of Jerusalem.

1897, 1917, 1947, 1967 …

Will 2017, another year that ends in a seven, finally bring peace to Israel and its neighbors? We can hope.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book is “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at

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