Palestine and the Jewish Democracy

By Louis F. Brandeis
(Chairman Executive Committee For General Zionist Affairs)

[The Outlook, January 5, 1916]

Three centuries ago Elder Brewster, reviewing the first year after the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, said: "It is not with us as with men whom small things can discourage or small discontents make them wish themselves home again." Small discontents! Out of the hundred who came in the Mayflower fifty-one had died before the close of the year, and at times out of the forty-nine survivors only seven were fit to work. Yet the spirit of the Pilgrim Fathers did not falter. To that spirit we owe in large part the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and that which we prize most in American life.

With a like spirit the Jewish Pilgrim Fathers turned a generation ago to Palestine, and began to establish those settlements called colonies, through 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 Palestine is only about the size of Massachusetts. 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 to transport compulsorily a single Jew to Palestine. For Zionism is pre-eminently a movement of freedom, to give the Jews more liberty, not less—the liberty which practically every other people in the world enjoys—the liberty to live in the land of their birth or adoption or to go to the land of their fathers.

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.

For nearly two thousand years, since the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, the Jews have longed for a return to Palestine. They have been buoyed up by this hope. The prayer of the devout has been, "Next year in Jerusalem." For more than eighteen centuries that prayer has been repeated in all parts of the world; and now Zionism has come to make that dream a reality in the same way that other dreams of the world have been made realities—through the intelligent devotion and self-sacrifice of those who were true to their ideal. It was thus that the dream of Italian unity and independence became a reality. Garibaldi at the side of Victor Emmanuel entered Rome, the capital of a free and united Italy, half a century after the charcoal-burners of the Abruzzi dreamed their dream of freedom and Mazzini framed the plan of a united nation. And we all know well the dream of Irish Home Rule, which has recently come true.


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. Instead of following their brethren to America, where a hospitable welcome would have awaited them, they turned to the East, to the land of their fathers. They came from countries where they had been persecuted and oppressed, but it was not only persecution and oppression that led them to Palestine. They would have found freedom from that in America. They were deeply devout, but it was not the desire to practice their religion untrammeled that led them to Palestine. They would have been free to practice it elsewhere. What led them to Palestine was largely this: They felt that the longing that had animated the Jews during the many 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. They felt that, particularly at this time, the Jews might make a contribution greater than ever before, because the world, or at least America, had set for its aim democracy and social justice—ideals for which the Jew had been striving, under the name of brotherhood and righteousness, for twenty-five hundred years. And those Jewish Pilgrim Fathers were filled with a deep sense of nationality, a strong desire for self-government, a desire for natural, normal development, as well as a longing to live in the land of their fathers, where there was the inspiration of their noble traditions to work out again a great contribution to the world's civilization. And for this work they had been particularly fitted by those hardships and persecutions which only men of stout heart and strong faith are able to survive.

So these small bands set out from Russia and Rumania for Palestine. The worldly-wise among the Jews shook their heads. They spoke of Palestine gloomily. Palestine the abused, the misgoverned, where neither life nor property was safe; Palestine, believed by them to be sterile, offering nothing comparable with the riches held out by the New World which beckoned a welcome to the Jews. The worldly-wise had much to support their forebodings, because the Jews who went, went to a land they knew not, to a land long suffering from all the evils of a long-continued misgovernment; but they went prepared for whatever sacrifices might be demanded by their great cause. They had been separated from the land for many centuries, for by law in Russia and Rumania Jews were forbidden to own land. They knew nothing of the soil which they were to till. They did not know the language of the people among whom they were to live. They knew nothing save that this was the country for which their fathers and their fathers' fathers had longed, the country which they hoped and believed would solve the Jewish problem and enable their people to make other great contributions to the civilization of the world.

The first years of these Jewish settlers resembled the first 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. Failure followed failure; but they were determined, and every failure meant new effort; every mistake was a teacher. Plowing as they did in the field of faith and reaping experience, these men and those who joined them 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.

Malaria was conquered. The settlers learned to till the soil and saw the possibility of a land again flowing with milk and honey. They went about the task not only of settlement but of building a new Jewish civilization.


First 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 to-day as their ordinary language of intercourse. Those who have come from many different lands, speaking as many different tongues as those spoken at the Tower of Babel, have joined in learning and speaking the Hebrew tongue—not Yiddish, but the Hebrew language of old. They have developed this language of the Old Testament so that all conceptions of modern philosophy, economics, politics, science, may be expressed 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 thoroughly that they could enter, on equal terms with the European students, any of the great universities of Austria, Germany, and France. But it is not only in things material and intellectual that the Zionists undertook to develop civilization in Palestine. They sought otherwise to carry forward the work of the Jewish spirit. Carlyle has said: "Two men he honors and no third. The toil-worn craftsman who conquers the earth; and him who is seen striving for the spiritually indispensable." Had Carlyle lived he would have sent greetings to those Jewish settlers of Palestine; for they have both tilled the soil and have sought to establish the principles of democracy and social justice for which we of America are now striving. In their self-governing colonies, over forty in number, ranging in population from a few families to some two thousand, they 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. One of these problems was law and order. For the Jewish settlers in Palestine had in some respects problems similar to those of our own early settlers—the Bedouins taking the place of the Indians. Their farms and settlements needed protection. The Turkish Government does not, among its functions, assume that of policing. The Jews therefore hired Arabs to guard their colonies, and mounted Arabs protected their land. But after a number of years a woman—one of the women voters—said: "We must protect ourselves. We must establish our own mounted police." And the Jewish young men, largely sons of the original immigrants, responded; and out of the suggestion of a woman came the great Palestine institution, a Guild of Honor among the Jewish youth of the land.


The Jews carried out otherwise principles of democracy. 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. The orange crop, grapes, the olives, the almonds, are the crops from which money had been brought into Palestine. Even wheat has been exported in considerable quantities, and sold principally to Italy, because it is well suited to the manufacture of macaroni.

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 industries dependent on the export business closed down. Moreover, there had been almost a boom in building in Palestine just before the war, because the immigration had increased largely, the last year before the war being the most prosperous the colonies had ever had.

But when the war began the Zionists found themselves confronted with this situation: Builders, planters, and manufacturers, employing comparatively large numbers of Jewish workmen, were forced to close or curtail operations and the workmen were thrown out of employment. The Zionists recognized that the burdens consequent on this common disaster ought not to fall on that part of the Jewish population alone, but should be borne by the entire Jewish people. They 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. What could be done there? The Zionists studied the problem, and found that the reason many of the industries closed down was not that the owners wished to do so, but that they were unable to get the money to continue to carry on their business. They therefore undertook to the extent of their available funds to lend money to those 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-fourth, one-third, 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. Thus did this people, struggling against the hardships of the war, without the ability to call upon a government to aid them, dependent largely only upon themselves for help, undertake to do what social justice demands. And what they did in this emergency they have long been doing, or attempting to do, through their institutions in various fields of public activity.

Notable among the Zionist institutions is the Jewish National Fund, formed to purchase land as the inalienable property of the Jewish people in Palestine. A large part of the settlers own individual property, but the Zionist organization determined that the land it acquired should be the property of the Jewish people, remaining national domain and leased to the settlers at a rent which would not allow of unearned increment. That Jewish National Fund, besides being used for acquiring land, has been devoted to afforestation and to securing proper housing conditions for Jewish working people. Funds have thus been lent for the purpose of erecting proper workingmen's dwellings in the colonies and cities.


This Jewish National Fund, used thus for the Jewish people, is, in the most exact sense, a fund of the people. Hundreds of thousands of persons have contributed to that fund. They have contributed also to another fund—the Jewish Colonial Trust, of which the Anglo-Palestine Company is the leading bank of Palestine. To purchase the shares of that bank hundreds of thousands of people have contributed. I have been told that in Russia and Galicia, where for centuries poverty has been so deep, there are people who pawned their coats to raise money to buy a share in the Jewish Colonial Trust, in order to help carry out the national ideal. The bank, founded on strictly business principles, is managed also on strictly humanitarian and social principles. Through that bank the Jewish colonists have been aided in many ways, ft has enabled them to establish cooperative societies dealing with almost every activity of Jewish life. It has enabled communities to avoid the heavy burdens of tax farming. It has enabled villages to establish a system of irrigation and water supply. And, while thus serving the public welfare, it became the leading bank of deposits and financial institution of Palestine.

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, and which acts in many ways as friend and adviser of the Jewish inhabitants in the land of their fathers.

In the glorious times of the past only a small fraction of the Jews actually lived in Palestine, and it is expected that only a small fraction of them will live there even after the longed-for "home" shall have been re-established. But from Palestine came then the spirit which inspired the Jews throughout the Mediterranean countries in Asia Minor, along the Black Sea, in the Euphrates Valley, scattered all over the then known world as they are scattered over the world now. And we may hope that the spirit of that land will touch us here as it did the scattered Jews of old and inspire us with the spirit of nobleness which is in these settlers.

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 throughout the world when they think of their great inheritance, of their glorious past—the mirror of the future.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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