Democracy in Palestine

By Louis D. Brandeis

[The Independent; November 22, 1915]

With a spirit like that of the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock the Jewish Pilgrim Fathers turned a generation ago to Palestine, and began to establish those settlements called colonies, thru which Zionism is becoming a reality.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at the outset what Zionism is and particularly what it is not.

First: It is not a movement to transport all the Jews in the world to Palestine. That, indeed, would be impossible, for there are 14,000,000 Jews in the world, and Palestine could not accommodate more than one-fifth of the number.

Second: It is not a movement compulsorily to transport a single Jew to Palestine.

Third: Neither is it a movement to wrest the sovereignty of Palestine from the Turkish Government. Zionism is a movement to give the Jews a home in the land of their fathers, where the Jewish life may be lived normally and naturally, and where the Jews may in time hope to constitute a majority of the population and look forward to what we have come to call Home Rule.

The Jewish Pilgrim Fathers a generation ago took the first active steps to convert the dream of Zion into a reality. They were a small body of Russian and Rumanian Jews. They felt that the longing that had animated the Jews during centuries of exile was a longing of deep significance which represented the struggle for life of an ancient and gifted people, the struggle of a people who could again do for the world things as great and glorious as they had done in the past, when they gave to the world its great religions, and largely its system of morals.

The first years of these Jewish settlers resembled the first few years of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth. They had to fight death and disease. Misgovernment of the country had brought malaria into it. The land appeared to be exhausted, and they knew not how to enrich and till it. Many died; and those who survived lived only to be confronted by obstacle after obstacle; but they succeeded at the end of twenty-five years in establishing the two great propositions upon which practical Zionism rests: (1) that Palestine is fit for the modern Jew, and (2) that the modern Jew is fit for Palestine.

Then came the revival of the Hebrew language. We have long thought of Hebrew as a dead language, like the Greek and Latin; but it has come to life. A great part of the Jews in Palestine speak it today as their ordinary language of intercourse. They have developed this language of the Old Testament so that all conceptions of modern philosophy, economics, politics, science may be exprest in Hebrew. It has become the language of the instruction in the schools, the language of the press and of the platform.

Education has ever been treasured by the Jewish people. Civilization without education is inconceivable to them. And so they have established a school system almost complete. But for this war, it would have been capped with the establishment of the first department of the University of Jerusalem—the medical department. The war interrupted that forward step, and also the opening of the Institute of Technology at Haifa. But before the war there had been established high schools in which were fitted not only Jews of Palestine, but hundreds who came from Russia and Rumania, so thoroly that they could enter on equal terms with the European students any of the great universities of Austria, Germany and France. In their self-governing colonies, over forty in number, ranging in population from a few families to some 2000, these Jews have pure democracy, and since those self-governing colonies were establishing a true democracy, they gave women equal rights with men, without so much as a doubt on the part of any settler. And women contributed, like the men, not only in the toil of that which is narrowly called the home, but in the solution of broader difficult problems.

Among the problems which they undertook to solve is one with which we have been particularly concerned this last year—the problem of unemployment. The prosperity of the Palestine colonies, had depended largely upon its export trade. When the war came, their trade practically ceased, because the export markets were closed to them. It ceased wholly later because, when Turkey entered the war, it prohibited all exports. This stoppage of trade naturally brought on unemployment, The Zionists undertook to find employment for those who had lost their jobs. In part they did this by going on courageously with public works, with road-building and drainage work, with the construction of a public hospital and similar undertakings. That helped some. They suggested that the farmers look ahead and do upon their farms work that would add ultimately to the value of these farms. That took care of a large part of the workmen in the country districts. But there were many unemployed Jewish workmen in the cities, which had been growing incident to the growth of the colonies. They therefore undertook to the extent of their available funds to lend money to the industries which were relatively large employers of labor, to the end that those for whom they held themselves responsible should not be put in the position of takers of charity. To this end those who had steady jobs suffered their salaries to 'be cut one-third, one-fourth, and in some cases even more, and those who had not steady jobs were enabled to work at least part of the time under a fair distribution of that work which it was possible to provide for them.

In other fields likewise Zionists have undertaken functions which governments should assume—but generally do not. Among their institutions is the Palestine office, so-called, an exalted information bureau and intelligence office for the prospective settler, which helps to place him in his new home with the minimum of self-sacrifice and suffering on his part—which acts, in many ways as friend and adviser of the Jewish inhabitants in the land of their fathers.

I was talking not long ago with one of the men who went as a pioneer to Palestine. He referred in discussion to another Palestinian, and as a word of severest censure he said: "Yes, he is a Zionist, but, he thinks of his own interests first. That is all right in other countries, but in Palestine it is all wrong." And as he spoke he made me think of the words which Mazzini uttered when entering Rome in 1849: "In Rome we may not be moral mediocrities." That is the feeling of the Palestinian Pilgrim Fathers. That should be the feeling of their brethren thruout the world, when they think of their great inheritance; of their glorious past—the mirror of the future.

Washington, D. C.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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