Zionism and the Aims of Jewish Democracy

(Transcription of a speech and Q & A given at the Ford Hall Forum on October 17, 1915. Originally published in the October 24, 1915 issue of Ford Hall Folks.)

Zionism and the Aims of Jewish Democracy

By Louis D. Brandeis

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. When 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. Such was the spirit of the Pilgrim Fathers who 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 who turned, a century ago, to Palestine, began settlements there through which they and their descendants and followers are making Zionism a reality.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at the outset what Zionism is and particularly what it is not. It is not a movement to transport all the Jews 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. It is not a movement to compulsorily transport a single Jew to Palestine, for Zionism is pre-eminently a movement of freedom, to give Jews more liberty, the liberty which practically every other people in the world enjoys -- leave to live in the land of their adoption or to go to the land of their fathers. Neither is it a movement to wrest the sovereignty of Palestine from the Turkish government. Zionism is a movement to give the Jews a nationality which can be publicly recognized, a home in the land of their fathers where the Jewish life may be lived naturally, where the Jews can govern themselves, and 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, the Jews have been buoyed up by the hope of it. The prayer of the devout has been "Next year in Jerusalem." For eighteen centuries or more that prayer has been prayed, and now  Zionism has come to make that dream a reality as other dreams of the world have been made realities, through the intelligent devotion and self-sacrifice of those who were true to this ideal. In the same way the dream of Italian unity and independence became a reality. Garibaldi beside Victor Emanuel entered Rome, the capital of a free and united Italy, fifty years after the charcoal burners of the Abruzzi dreamed their dream and Mazzini made the plan of a united nation. And we all know the dream of Irish Home Rule which has recently come true.

The Jewish Pilgrim Fathers

The Jewish Pilgrim Fathers a century ago took the first active step to convert that dream into a reality. They were a small body of Russian and Roumanian Jews who, instead of following their brethren to America for the hospitable welcome that would have awaited them there, 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 largely was this: they felt that the longing that had animated the Jews during the many years of exile was a longing of deep significance which represented the struggle of an ancient and great people for life, the struggle of a people who could again do for the world things as great and glorious as in the past they had done when they gave to the world their great religion and largely their system of morals. That they felt, and particularly at this time in the world's history, that the time had come when the Jews might make a contribution greater than they had ever done before because the world had reached -- we in America had reached -- an identity of idealism with that which the Jew had held for 5200 years. The world had come to see that perfect democracy and social justice were worth striving for, were things which the Jew, under the name of brotherhood and righteousness had striven for during 5200 years. And those Jewish Pilgrim Fathers were filled with that sense and with a deep sense of nationality, a strong desire for self-government, a desire for natural, normal development in the land of their fathers, the inspiration of their great traditions to work out again a great contribution to the world -- a contribution for which they had been particularly fitted by those hardships and persecutions which only those of stout heart and strong faith had been able to survive.

And so these small bands set out for Palestine, and 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 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 misgoverned and suffering from all the evils of misgovernment, but they went prepared for whatever came through their devotion to a great cause. They had been separated from the land for centuries, they knew nothing of the soil which they were to till. They did not know the language. 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 problems and offer a great contribution to the civilization of the world.

Their first years resembled those of the first years of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth. They had death and disease to fight. Misgovernment of the country had brought malaria into it. The land appeared to be exhausted, and they knew little about how to enrich and till it. Many died, and those who survived lived only to meet obstacle after obstacle. Failure followed failure, but they were determined, and every failure meant new effort, every mistake was a teacher, and, plowing as they did in the field of faith and reaping experience, at the end of twenty-five years these men and those who joined them succeeded in establishing the two great propositions upon which practical Zionism rests: (1) that Palestine is fit for the Jews, and (2) that the modern Jew may be fitted to Palestine.

[The first two lines of the previous paragraph were erroneously reprinted here] ... of the present war -- were remarkably prosperous. Malaria had been conquered. They had learned to till the soil. They saw again the possibility of a land flowing with milk and honey and they went about not only the task of settlement but of building a new Jewish civilization.

Hebrew Made a Living Language

First and among the most important things came the reviving 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. Those who have come from many different lands, speaking as many different tongues as those spoken on the tower of Babel, have joined in learning the Hebrew tongue -- not Yiddish, but the Hebrew language of old. They have developed this language of the Old Testament so that all modern philosophy, economics, politics, science may be expressed in Hebrew, which is the language of the instruction in school, of the press, and of the platform.

I say in school, because those pioneers are building a civilization. Education has ever been one of the treasures of 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 and the opening of the institute of technology, 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 Roumania so that they could enter equally with the European students in the great universities of Austria, Germany and France. And so their civilization was developed. But it was not merely materially, not merely intellectually, that the Zionists undertook to carry on the great work of the Jewish spirit. Carlyle says that there are only two classes of people -- the man who tills the soil and the man with spiritual aspirations. Had Carlyle lived, he would have sent greetings to those settlers of Palestine, for they combine those two qualities to which Carlyle refers. They have tilled the soil, and have sought to establish in their settlements the wise principles of democracy and social justice for which we strive. In their self-governing colonies, over forty in number, ranging from those of but a few families to those of some 2,000, they have democracy, and since those self-governing colonies were established a democracy in one aspect such as that for which we are striving now. Without question, without so much as a doubt on the part of any settler, women were given equal rights with the men. And women contributed, like the men, not only in the toil of that which is narrowly called the home, but in the solution of their own 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 Bedoiuns taking place of the Indians. Their farms and settlements needed protection. The Turkish government does not among its functions assume that of the protection of its citizens. The Jews, therefore, hired Arabs to guard their colonies, and mounted Arabs protected their land. But a woman after a number of years -- 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, the Guild of Honor among the Jewish youth of the land.

How They Coped With Unemployment

The Jews, however, carried out other principles of democracy, and among the problems which they undertook to solve was one with which we have been particularly concerned this last year -- the problem of unemployment. The prosperity of Palestine colonies had depended largely upon its export trade. The orange crop, the wine, the olives, the almonds are the crops from which the money has been brought into Palestine, Even wheat has been exported in considerable quantities, and sold primarily to Italy, because it is particularly suited to the manufacture of macaroni.

When the war came, their trade practically ceased, because the markets were closed to them. It ceased wholly later because when Turkey went to war it prohibited all export. This stoppage of trade naturally brought on unemployment. The industries dependent on the export business closed down. More than that, there had been almost a boom in building in the communities just before the war, because the immigration had increased largely, the last year before the war being the most prosperous the colony had ever had.

But when the war began, the Zionists found themselves confronted with this situation. Large manufacturers employing comparatively large numbers of Jewish workmen, were forced to shut down and the workmen were thrown out of employment. The colonists 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 it by going on courageously with public works, with road-building and drainage work, with the construction of the public hospital. That went some way. They suggested that the farmers look ahead and do upon their farms work that would add to the ultimate value of these farms. That took care of a large part of the workmen in the country districts. But there were many Jewish workmen in the cities, which had been growing incident to the growth of the colonies. What to do there? The Zionists studied the problem, and found that the reason many of the industries closed down was not that they wished to close down but that they could not get the money to continue to carry on their business. They therefore undertook to the extent of their available funds to lend money to these 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 that 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. Thus in this emergency did this struggling people, fighting against the hardships of the war, without the ability to call upon a government to aid them, dependent only upon themselves for help, undertake to do what social justice demands. And what they did in this emergency they have been doing through their institutions or attempting to do in various fields of public life. 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 its property would be the property of the Jewish people, remaining national domain and leased to the settlers at a rate on which there should be no unearned increment. That Jewish National Fund, besides being used for acquiring land, has been used to provide, so far as lay in its power, proper housing conditions for Jewish working men. Funds have been lent to the colonies for the purchase of erecting proper workingmen's dwellings.

Jews Pawn Their Coats to Help Movement

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 which presents an instance of the most unique bank in the world, the Jewish Colonial Trust, which is the leading bank of Palestine. To purchase shares of that bank hundreds of thousands of people have contributed, and I have been told that in Russia and Galicia, where for centuries poverty has been so deep, there are people who have pawned their coats to raise money to buy shares in the Jewish Colonial Trust, in order to help carry out the national ideal. That bank, founded on strictly business principles, is managed on equally strict humanitarian and social principles. Through that bank the Jewish colonists have established cooperative societies dealing with almost every activity of Jewish life. Through that bank these colonists have been aided in a thousand ways. Through that bank communities have been able to avoid the heavy burdens of taxed farming, and industries have been aided. And throughout all those principles have been heeded which made it a safe bank for deposits and the leading financial institution of Palestine before the war.

In another field Zionists have undertaken to deal with governmental problems, through the Palestinian Office, which acts as a sort of exalted information bureau and intelligence office for the prospective settler, and helps to place him in his new home with the minimum of self-sacrifice and suffering on his part.

And thus in the light of their past experience and sufferings and their great hopes and belief that all the world will be benefitted and the Jews in all parts of the world will be helped, have the Zionists established their new colonies in Palestine. 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 now. But from Palestine came the spirit that inspired the Jews in 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 known world now. Today they are scattered farther in mind, if not in distance, and we may hope that the spirit of that land will touch us here and inspire us with the spirit of nobleness which is in these few 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 Palestine Pilgrim Fathers, and that should be the faith of their brothers throughout the world when they think of all that their people have done and the inheritance of the past which affords promise of the achievements of the future.

The Questions

Q: Does the speaker advocate that the Jewish people should become citizens of the United States, and vote here?

A: I certainly think that every one of them ought to be naturalized and vote as soon as he can. As American citizens they owe it to the country which has adopted them.

Q: Isn't it true that the present conflict in Europe is due to the fact that everybody wants to defend his fatherland, and therefore in establishing another fatherland in Palestine are we not aiding the same old wrong?

A: I think the present war in Europe may be due to the fact that a good many people are trying to get somebody else's fatherland away from them.

Q (Mr. Margolis): We who are firm believers in social, American, universal democracy -- how can we reconcile that belief to a Jewish democracy?

A: By the same reasoning that a man may be an enthusiastic citizen of Boston, of Massachusetts, and of the United States at one time.

Q ( Mrs. Sonnemann): If Jewish employers in Boston exploit their employees, how can we hope that Jewish employers in Palestine should deal any better with their employees?

A: I do not know that a mere transfer from Boston to Palestine would change the character of an employer. Still, environment sometimes can do a great deal.

Q (Mr. Marple): What assurance, if any, have the Jewish people in Palestine that they are not likely to meet the same fate as that being visited upon the Armenians?

A: None. And there is no safety in this life.

Q: The movement for Zionism is supposed to be a movement for unity among the Jewish people. In view of the fact that only a small part of the Jewish people could be accommodated in Palestine, would it not rather make for division among them?

A: We expect those who do not now agree with the Zionist movement to be converted. It makes for unity because it gives them a common interest. The fact that all Jews cannot live in Palestine does not prevent Jewish unity, because unity means unity of spirit, not physical juxtaposition.

Q (Mr. Meltzer, Jr.): In view of the fact that the government of the Palestine colony lent money to individual business enterprises to set them on their feet in the early days of the colony, is it not a possibility that when Palestine becomes a thoroughly established nation the government will take over the industries?

A: I think I would leave that up to the Parliament of Palestine to determine.

Q: What has the speaker to offer in answer to the problem presented by the Jews in England who are organizing army corps to help secure Palestine for the Jews, and the Jews in Palestine who are organizing to help Turkey to defend Turkey in Asia?

A: That is the inevitable result of the fact that Jews are scattered over many countries and have none of their own, and that they are loyal to whatever country they may be in.

Q: To how great an extent is Zionism purely a religious movement?

A: It is not essentially a religious movement. It is a nationalistic movement. Zionism embraces all Jews, no matter what their shade of belief may be.

Q: Do not the Arabs already constitute the majority; and do you justify the Jews in forcing out the Arabs from Palestine since they were there first?

A: Certainly not. The Jews in Palestine do not propose to deny to others what they themselves have asked of many countries. It is true that the Arabs are in the majority now, but that is because only a small part of Palestine has been cultivated. There are only six or seven hundred thousand people in Palestine now, and under proper agricultural development there is room for at least three million.

Q: What methods do you pursue if the owners of the land in Palestine are not disposed to sell?

A: That difficulty has never presented itself.

Q: How long would it take the Jews to develop Palestine to as high a state of civilization as Belgium, which was destroyed in two weeks by the German government?

A: That would involve some arithmetical calculation in which the factors are not given.

Q: In what way do the Jewish workmen benefit economically in Palestine?

A: I presume the first benefit is that they are living in a land and under conditions in which they have long desired to live and under which they are happy. I have already spoken of the social institutions designed to benefit them.

Q: Will the Zionist movement create a new literature, art and music?

A: That can be answered positively because it has already begun to do so. The revival of the Hebrew language, the arts and craft school in Jerusalem and other evidences show the trend in this direction already.

Q: Granted the fact that the golden era of a national literature and art usually been brought about a period of strife and war, how can Palestine, advocating peace, bring such an era about?

A: I do not know that I agree with your preamble. If you substitute "struggle" for "strife" I should agree with you more nearly. Remember, the two nations which have given most to the world have been small nations -- the Jews and the Greeks.

Q: If, when the war is over, every government should sign a treaty giving Palestine to the Jews, and if Palestine is able only to support 3,000,000 people, how would that solve the problem of the remainder of the Jewish people?

A: I think a large part of them will stay in America. Undoubtedly the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine, no matter what its form may be, would not of itself draw to Palestine all of the Jews in the world. But it would very materially tend to change the status of the Jew. That treatment which he has found in other parts of the world is, in my opinion, very largely due to the fact that the Jew has no country which he can call his own.

Q: Is there not an injunction from the prophets to the Jews to preach their gospel to all peoples, and will this not be limited if all the Jewish people settle in Palestine?

A: I see no reason to expect it.

Q (Miss Rogolsky): All the warring countries today are promising many things to the Jews. How much truth is there really in the promises they are making about Palestine?

A: I am not aware of the specific promises to which you refer. There have been rumors of promises, but no accurate information.

Q: Would it not be ridiculous for Americans to call England their fatherland because their forefathers lived there; and is it not equally ridiculous for the Jews  to call Palestine their fatherland?

A: The Jews are a little more accurate than that. They do not call it their fatherland. When they speak of Palestine they call it the land of their fathers, which I think is correct.

Q (Mr. Gallup): Recognizing the idealism of the Jew and also his practical nature, I would like to ask the speaker if he thinks the Palestinians will take advantage of modern knowledge in planning their cities and towns.

A: The most beautiful of their villages is planned in accordance with modern thought.

Q (Miss Crawford): In what occupations outside of the home are the women of Palestine engaged, and what are the conditions under which they work?

A: The chief occupation of the colonies is agriculture. In cities such as Jerusalem there are some industries in which women are employed. The conditions are much the same as elsewhere in similar industries.

Q: Isn't land speculation possible in Palestine?

A: Yes. Privately owned land may be bought and sold as elsewhere, but not government-owned land.

Q: Under what law is the Jewish Colonial trust operated?

A: Under the British law.

Q: Does not the speaker think that other countries afford better protection to Jewish life, property and happiness than Palestine will ever be able to afford?

A: Ever is a long time. America certainly affords better security now, but I am sure that there are some people who are happier in Palestine than anywhere else.

Q: What is the percentage of area of Palestine controlled by the Jews, and what proportion of villages and colonies is there?

A: The percentage of land owned is very small. The percentage of cultivated land is larger. There are something like over forty villages and colonies, mostly in clusters in Judea, Samaria and Galilea. The distances between villages is small. About Jaffa and Haifa the orange plantations are largely developed.

Q: Why did King Solomon's thecratic government issue an order against polygamy, and how is that consistent with the high moral standards of the Jew?

A: All nations grow in righteousness. The Jews have shown that growth. That in the Middle Ages Jews all over the world accepted the arguments of a rabbi of Mayence against polygamy and discontinued the practice is conclusive of their moral quality.

Q: Zionism is not a religious movement, so why is it that most of the Zionists are opposed to the establishment of a colony in Africa as proposed by Israel Zangwill?

A: Because the Jew has longed for the land of his fathers and wished to reestablish the Jewish nation there.

Q: What effect will the war have on the future of Zionism?

A: Impossible to tell.

Q: What body of the Jewish religion, the orthodox or the reformed Jews, is now stronger in Palestine, and is there likely to be a conflict there in the future?

A: In the Jewish colonies there is absolute religious liberty. I am not aware that there are any great number of reformed Jews.

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