Recent Jewish Progress in Palestine

[The Nation; September 7, 1916]

The American Jewish Year-Book, 5676. Edited by Joseph Jacobs. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.

The present volume, besides recording the events of the past year, contains a number of tables and articles, the most important of which is a summary of Jewish enterprise in Palestine, by Miss Henrietta Szold. The essay covers some one hundred and twenty-five pages. It is likely to become, next to Kurt Nawratzki's exhaustive "Die judische Kolonisation Palästinas," the most authoritative statement thus far made on the subject in any language. In English it has no peer. Of commentary or analysis it contains little: its matter is a succinct, rather dry, well-ordered record of events, and as such it is an impressive revelation of a unique phenomenon in social history, the phenomenon of the overwhelming influence of the idea of a piece of the earth's geography on the life of a people.

For the essay makes explicit now, from Rome's final crushing of the Jewish hopes of national independence to the present time, Palestine has been the defining element in the spiritual idealism of the Jewish people: in ancient days, through the hope of a political restoration by means of political or military endeavor; during the Middle Ages, through the expectation of a mystical religions restoration at the hands of a Messiah; in modern times, first through a not clearly purposive effort at colonization, motivated by an unreasoning Hibbat Zion, or love of Zion; then through the articulated democratic idealism and humanitarian passion of the Zionist Movement.

It is needless to say that the progress in Palestine as an effect chiefly of the last phase is altogether recent. The "old settlement" in Palestine has a spiritual background of medievalism, and large as it was, it looked to death rather than to life. The newer settlement was, in its pre-Zionistic phase, the effect of the Russian pogroms of 1882. It looked to relief rather than to an affirmative collective life, and the selection of Palestine for this was instinctive. Not, however, on the part of Russian Jews alone; the Jews of Germany, France, England. England, and America also, in reaction to the Russian horrors, exhibited a spontaneous and practical interest in the Jewish settlement of Palestine. They organised societies of which, the Russian, finally crystallized into the "Odessa Committee," was naturally the strongest and most representative. Its first groups of colonists were sent out blindly, on faith. They were without "business or agricultural experience, idealists merely, so that after a time it began to seem as if the Committee had only succeeded in adding to the urban "old settlement" of Jews, who had gone to Palestine to die and had remained to breed and live on the alms of the Halukah, a new agricultural settlement which had gone there to live and could remain only to die or become pauperized in loyalty to a blind ideal. One colony found itself settled, upon a malarial swamp, without knowledge, tools, or means of sustenance. In a short time there were more stones in the graveyard than workmen on the land. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, that great lover of Zion, who had been appealed to for help generally, and had responded with instinctive and unintelligent generosity, offered them other and better land, implements, and cattle. But they would not leave their dead. They conquered their difficulties and became the nucleus of a large and prosperous colony. The interest of Rothschild had not a little to do with this, for the Baron organized a system of maintenance, with indifferent and sometimes antagonistic "administrators," which ultimately made most of the colonists in the early settlements his pensioners.

Not the colonists nor the Odessa Committee, nor the Baron, could endure the status quo so established. The last finally transferred all his interests in the Palestinian colonies to the Jewish Colonization Association, which initiated a programme of reorganization and self-help. The success of the programme was made possible by the change in spirit caused by the organization of the Zionist Movement. This introduced a new ideal and new tools. Its aim was the revival and conservation of Hebraism by means, of obtaining Palestine as "a publicly assured and, legally secured home for the Jewish people." This general programme required a detailed plan of social and economic construction. It required the conversion of the "old settlement" into a self-dependent, modernized community. It required the foundation, of the new settlement upon an economic basis that would assure social justice and individual excellence. It involved a programme of housing, municipal organization, banking, and education.

The tools by means, of which this programme, not very clearly conceived at first, was to be carried out were the Anglo-Palestine Bank, a creation of the Jewish-Colonial Trust, the fiscal organ of the Zionist Movement, and the Jewish National Fund. The former established a credit system which encouraged enterprise and self-help, and which was worked so successfully that it has stood the test of the war. The operations of the latter are particularly significant; intended to purchase land in Palestine as the inalienable possession of the Jewish people, it found itself, compelled by the Turkish law, under which land unworked for three years reverts to the state, to undertake the improvement of its holdings. This required the development of a mechanism of exploitation and control, and the Palästinan Amt of the National Fund, under the able direction of Dr. Arthur Ruppin, became, in the realization of this purpose, a sort of ministry of the interior. It served in the organization and regulation of Jewish immigration to Palestine, in the solution of the economic, social, and educational problems. Independence through coöperation has been the slogan of the Zionist administration, as that of the Jewish Colonial Association and others. As a result, the socialization of economic endeavor, through cooperative loan, purchasing, sales, housing, and farming associations, has gone on apace. The National Fund's most striking enterprises have been the experiments in what might be called individualistic socialism at Merchavia and Dagahiah. These alone, whether successful or not, are fraught with importance for more than the Jewish groups and for other places, than Palestine.

With the economic reorganization came a spontaneous and expressive cultural efflorescence. An item in the change, also helped by the National Fund, was the establishment of the national Arts and Crafts School, Bezalel, under the direction of Boris Schatz, who gave up the directorship of the school at Sofia to do it. Another item was the development of a modern school system from kindergarten to gymnasium, which but for the war would have been capped by a polytechnique and a university. The medium of instruction, as of the daily life, became Hebrew, and in a veritable rebirth of the tongue there arose a general and special journalistic literature, an indigenous pageantry, a drama, and so on. Mr. Nathan Straus contributed to the foundation and maintenance of an International Health Bureau, others to an agricultural experiment station, directed by M. Aaron Aaronson, the discoverer of wild wheat.

All this is but the promise of achievement. The way Jewish endeavor in Palestine has to go on is a hard one. Problems internal and external are of the most pressing sort, and the record is one of beginnings only. Palestine, says Miss Szold, is a land of possibilities. It opens an avenue of relief for masses of Jews in eastern Europe, utterly expropriated and intimidated by the war. But a Jewish settlement in Palestine may become merely another Ghetto or a healthy centre of spiritual life. To become the latter it needs at least municipal privileges, and an economic order that will render as impossible as may be the exploitation of men and as inevitable as may be the liberation and perfection of individuality. There is an admirable-unselfishness in the "assimilated'' Jews' interest in Palestine, and an astounding idealism in the Jewish settlers there. The enterprise as a whole is an adventure in humanism that would be significant for mankind even in failure.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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