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Balfour, Rothschild, and the Ostrich
A re-post, to mark the Centennial of the Balfour Declaration, exactly one hundred years ago.
The following essay was published in The Jerusalem Post and cross-posted at The Biblical Museum of Natural History website.
In July 2016, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki spoke at an Arab League summit in Mauritania, and called to sue the British government for issuing the Balfour Declaration. On October 25 of 2016, the Palestinian Return Center held a symposium in the House of Lords to launch the “Balfour Apology Campaign.” This seeks an apology from the British government for the Balfour Declaration, which is claimed to reflect Britain’s “brutal colonial practices” in Palestine that went against “the rights and needs of the indigenous people.”
The Balfour Declaration was a letter issued by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in November 1917 in support of the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people. The letter itself was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community at the time. Although he was a scion of the legendary Rothschild family, which led to his important societal position, Walter did not share his family’s interests and aptitudes. He despised banking, had little interest in politics, was unaffiliated to Judaism, and until 1916 evinced no enthusiasm for Zionism. Walter was passionate about one thing only: animals.
Lord Walter Rothschild riding a giant tortoise
It is hard to overstate the eccentric Lord Walter Rothschild’s obsessive fervor for zoology. At his estate in Tring, he collected more specimens than anyone else in recorded history. Rothschild discovered and catalogued countless new species, over two hundred of which are named in his honor. Amongst his collection of live animals was a tame wolf, 144 giant tortoises, and flocks of cassowaries and kiwis, and he trained zebras to pull his carriage to Buckingham Palace.
Yet despite his lack of interest in his Jewish heritage, Rothschild knew something of it. For example, he once addressed a meeting of the British Ornithologist’s Club about the ostrich of the Bible. The background to this was that when Weizmann led the Zionist Commission to Palestine to implement the Balfour Declaration, Rothschild also charged him with another commission: “to find out what has become of two ostriches.” Israel Aharoni, the zoologist who pioneered the scientific study of the wildlife of the Holy Land and restored their Biblical Hebrew names, had sent Rothschild several eggs from ostriches found in the Middle East, and also told Rothschild that he was raising two chicks. Since the eggs looked somewhat different from the eggs of the ostriches known from Africa, Rothschild was eager to see the birds. Weizmann located Aharoni and managed to send the young ostriches to Rothschild, who observed several subtle ways in which they differed from African ostriches. Subsequently, Rothschild informed the British Ornithologist’s Club that this was a different subspecies, and designated it as Struthio camelus syriacus, the Syrian ostrich. In Rothschild’s address, he noted that there are several passages in the Bible relating to the ostrich.
Rothschild’s statement about biblical ornithology was correct. The Book of Lamentations refers to the ostriches (ye’enim) of the wilderness, and there are a variety of other verses in the Bible which have been understood as referring to ostriches (albeit that some argue them to refer to different species). The ostrich was also part of the culture of the Jews living in the Land of Israel in post-Biblical times. The Mishnah refers to vessels made from ostrich eggs. A later compilation from the Land of Israel, the Tosefta, notes that ostriches are classified as birds (presumably this was necessary to point out due to their inability to fly). The Jerusalem Talmud makes reference to ostriches eating gold, and the Midrash states that Noah brought shards of broken glass onto the Ark for the ostriches to eat; these seemingly strange statements are explicable in light of the fact that ostriches are required to eat rocks and other sharp items in order to break down the food that they consume, and will happily (and essentially) eat pieces of metal and glass to this end.
An ostrich at the Hai-Bar
nature reserve in IsraelAt the turn of the twentieth century, the Syrian ostrich lived in the Negev and Sinai deserts; in 1929, an ostrich was caught near Be’er Sheva. Earlier in history there were also ostriches in the coastal regions of Israel, and ostrich eggs are still discovered there today. But the ostrich was having a hard time coexisting with the human inhabitants of the region. The soldier and ornithologist Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen recorded that Arabs prized ostrich eggs for food and hunted the adults for sport; the advent of guns, and cars from which to fire them, quickly caused the demise of the Syrian ostrich. The last known Syrian ostrich was washed up in a flood in the Arava in 1966.
Many species that were formerly indigenous to the region were hunted to extinction by the German Templers and Arabs in the early twentieth century. Some of them have since been reintroduced to the wild by Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority. Mesopotamian fallow deer (the ayal of the Bible), bred from two pairs that were evacuated during the Iranian revolution from the animals being massacred at the Shah’s menagerie, have been reintroduced to the Judean hills and the Carmel. Onagers (the “wild asses” of the Bible) have also been successfully bred at the Hai-Bar nature reserve and reintroduced to the Negev. The beautiful white oryx (the Biblical dishon) became entirely extinct in the wild in the twentieth century, with just a few individuals remaining in private collections of Arab royalty, and political factors preventing efforts by British conservation groups to bring them to Israeli wildlife reserves; eventually, they were sent to American zoos, and their descendants have now been returned to their Biblical homeland. Attempts have also been made to release ostriches to the Negev, but these efforts have so far failed; it appears that the captive-born ostriches lacked the necessary survival skills. But Israel is not giving up. Ostriches are part of our natural and national history.
Every nation has its national animals—the animals that are part of its history, heritage and culture. For the Aboriginal tribespeople of Australia, their national animals are kangaroos and koalas. For the Eskimos of Alaska, it’s seals and whales. But what about the Jewish people? What are the animals of our history, heritage and culture? It’s not the gefilte fish and the chicken – Scripture makes no references at all to chickens, which had not yet been domesticated from their wild ancestors in India. The animals of our sacred writings are the lion and the leopard, the ibex and the hyrax, the hippopotamus and the hyena, the griffin vulture and the ostrich. These are not animals from New York or London or even the European shtetl. They are the animals that lived in the Land of Israel in the Biblical, Mishnaic and Talmudic period.
The Palestinians dispute the very raison d’être of the Jewish State. In the Balfour Apology Campaign and elsewhere, they portray the Jewish People as European colonialists. They reject the historical facts of the ancient Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. They deny the existence of the Temple and work at destroying archeological remains.
All of this is a denial of basic truths. Balfour rejected the Uganda Plan after Weitzman pointed out to him that the Jewish People have a connection to the Land of Israel spanning millennia – from long before Islam, and certainly long before the Palestinian national identity emerged in the twentieth century. We only left it when we were exiled, and we always dreamed of returning. The animals of our culture were not the eagles and rabbits of Europe; they were the griffin vultures, hyraxes and ostriches of the Land of Israel.
There can be no hope of a peaceful and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while the Palestinians are denying the fundamental historical truths that lie at the core of the dispute. Anyone pretending otherwise is sticking their head in the sand—just like ostriches don’t.