One could not read without a thrill the news of the recent advance of the British army in Palestine. The Holy Land thus is gradually passing under the control of the Allies, and its destiny is growing of particular moment to everybody interested in the outcome of the War. To the Jew, however, this becomes a particular occasion for a consideration of the relation of Palestine to the Jews.
In the study of the past of the Jewish people, we come across different countries that have played an important part in Jewish history. In France, in England, in Russia, in Italy, in Spain—in all these countries are imbedded important parts and periods of Jewish history. But no country can compare to Palestine in this respect.
In a way, Israel and Palestine are inseparable. They are synonymous. In the Hebrew tongue, Palestine is called the Land of Israel, the name Palestine having been first used by Philo and Josephus, and by the Romans, and really being derived from the Philistines, who, in ancient times, fought against the Jews for the possession of this fertile and beautiful country.
It is true that after the destruction of the Jewish State by the Romans, in the year 70, and especially after the failure of the last struggle for independence under Rabbi Akiba and Bar Kochba, the number of Jews in Palestine decreased, and their part in it grew less and less significant.
It is true that for centuries Palestine was almost emptied of Jewish inhabitants, and such as were left were reduced to a life of penury and desolation. It is also true that in the course of history Palestine has changed masters frequently, having been in the possession of the various Canaanite tribes before the coming of Israel, and since the fall of the Jewish State passing through the hands of Romans, Christians, and Turks. Yet, on the other hand, it is no less true that the classic period of Jewish history is associated with the name of Palestine, just as the classic period of Palestine is indissolubly bound up with the name of Israel.
Archeologists may unearth in Palestine remnants of a civilization that antedated by centuries, perhaps by thousands of years, the coming of the Hebrews, and historians may trace the fate of Palestine since the banishment of the Jews, from Titus to the Turks; but the most glorious and most important section of the story of Palestine is the period of its occupation by Israel. Similarly, we may relate and rejoice in Israel’s achievements the world over, and in the wonderful capacity the Jew has shown in all countries for growth and grandeur; yet none can deny that the paramount period of Jewish history coincides with the Jew’s life in Palestine—where his character developed, where his prophets taught, and where the consciousness of his unity and eternal purpose took possession of his soul.
“Is there not something,” asks Mr. Watts-Dunton, “in the very soil upon which we are born, in the very atmosphere above it, that aids in molding our characters, if not our destinies?” In the case of Israel this question must be answered in the affirmative. Historians agree that the character of Palestine had much to do with the molding of the character of the Jewish people and directing its destiny. Such diverse scholars as Solomon Judah Rapoport, the celebrated rabbi of Prague, and Miss Ellen Churchill Semple, the eminent American representative of Anthropologic geography, agree in this view. It is for this reason that we have a right to say, with the ancient rabbis, that Palestine and Israel are inseparable.
Moreover, it is an error to assume that when the Jews were forced to leave Palestine, first by the Romans, and then by the various foes of Israel who seized it, it ceased to play a part in their lives. There are those who believe that in the life of human beings two sentiments, or forces, mean a great deal more than the actualities of the moment, namely, memory and hope. How often do not these two—memory and hope—mean more to us than the experience of the present?
This is what happened to the Jew in regard to Palestine after he was driven from its purlieus. He kept on clinging to it, as both his most cherished memory and most precious hope. It was the favorite theme of his meditations. It was the central subject of his prayers. It was the inspiration of his Muse. Never poet wrote more fervid poems of love than those the medieval poets of Israel addressed to Zion.
Throughout the ages Palestine continued to form the heart of Jewish theology and optimism. Time and again Rabbis of piety and prominence sought to make it anew the centre of religious scholarship and spiritual authority, as did Rabbi Joseph Caro in the sixteenth century, and though they failed, they personified the Jews undying love for the Holy Land.
It is this profound and indestructible love that Judah Halevi voiced in that elegy of wondrous beauty and pathos, which burst from his soul when, as an aged man, having left behind him all that was dear to him in his native Spain, he journeyed, in the year 1140, to Zion, to behold her desolated beauty and to kiss the dust of her stones. And this love has been shared by Jews everywhere throughout the ages.
“The cradle of our lives,” says Mr. Watts-Dunton, “draws us to itself wherever we go.” This has certainly been true of Israel. The cradle of his history, Palestine, has drawn him to itself, wherever he went. It remained his dream, the land of mystic love and longing, and as such it was even more beautiful, more precious in his eyes than when his in reality.
It is remarkable, however, that in recent years the dream again has begun to turn into a reality. After a forsaking of hundreds of years, with but scant interruption, Palestine again has become a centre of Jewish habitation and happiness. The story of this renewal is one of the most stirring, and most romantic, in the variegated history of the Jew.
For these many centuries the Jew had dreamed and prayed for Palestine. It had been the theme of his reveries. But it was forty years ago that men arose and decided that the time had come for making the dream come true. In different quarters the plan was advanced for settling Jews on the soil of Palestine, in order thus to restore the ancient land and also to help solve the problem of Jewish persecution and distress. It is noteworthy that among the pioneers of this plan were not only Jews, but also Christians, such as Warder Cresson, the first American consul in Jerusalem, who became a convert to Judaism, and Laurence Oliphant, the English philanthropist, who was unofficially supported by Lord Beaconsfield and Lord Salisbury.
The persecutions in Russia and Rumania emphasized the need of some radical measure for the improvement of the Jewish situation. Thus, in 1870, we see the beginning of a new Jewish colonization in Palestine by the founding of an agricultural school, Mikweh Israel, which is followed in 1878 by the founding of the colony Petah Tikwa, and in 1882 by the colony Rishon Le-Zion.
The men who founded these colonies were real pioneers; they had the ideals and the courage and the self-sacrifice of real pioneers, and no one can read their story without marveling at their endurance and achievements. It was their valiant struggle that led to the organization of the Hoveve Zion Societies in Russia and England and other countries. It also gained for them the support of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, and particularly the devoted and generous assistance of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, whose munificence saved the movement in its most critical period. As a result, numerous sections of the Holy Land have been reclaimed from the waste of centuries, and there were before the War prosperous Jewish colonies in Judea, in Galilee, and beyond the Jordan, noted for the bounty and variety of their products, as well as for the health and happiness of their inhabitants.
It is customary nowadays to give credit for all this renewal of Palestine to the Zionists. Nor does it matter particularly as to who gets the credit. But it is an historic fact that Dr. Herzl conceived the idea of a Jewish State some twenty-five years after the first Jewish Agricultural School had been founded in Palestine and Jewish colonization had begun. And it is further an historic fact that Dr. Herzl and his followers for years opposed the continuation of the colonizing activity, seeing that their plan was political and they insisted that unless the Jews first got a Charter to Palestine, they must not go on with the reclamation and improvement of the land.
However, it would lead us too far afield to pursue this phase of the subject. Suffice to say that it was the political emphasis of the Zionists, coupled with the anti-religious attitude of some of their leaders, that served to create friction in Israel and to alienate for the time being from the movement for the reclamation of Palestine some of the most devoted lovers of the Holy Land.
Latterly, however, the practical work was taken up anew, and it is thanks to this work, promoted partly by some prominent men both here and in Europe who are not at all votaries of political Zionism, that Palestine has witnessed such a physical and spiritual renewal at the hands of the Jewish people.
What the War, with its ravages, has done to the new life of Palestine, we do not know as yet. But it is natural to ask what the future of Palestine shall be. The British army is now going forward in Palestine, thus bringing to an end the Turkish rule which began just four hundred years ago, when Selim I conquered Egypt and Syria. It is impossible to ignore the important rôle that Palestine is destined to play in the future. Its industrial and commercial possibilities are enormous. Now, as ever, it is on the highway connecting Europe with Asia and Africa. With the increasing importance of the East, the value of Palestine is bound to grow.
But there is one essential condition: Palestine needs a population. And there can be no doubt that none would form so fitting a population for Palestine as Jews eager to go there and eager to restore the sacred soil.
It is in this light that we ought to view Mr. Balfour’s recent declaration. If it proves possible, under solemn guarantees of the nations, to permit Jews to settle in Palestine, and to live there in security, we may be sure that many Jews will flock thither, and that they will consecrate all their energies to the restoration of the land so dear to every true Jewish heart. And thus Palestine would not only become again an important factor in Jewish life; it would become again a centre of material and spiritual riches, a land flowing as of old with milk and honey, and a stronghold of Justice and Righteousness, which are the core of Democracy.
For that end, however, we ought to put a stop to disputes about Zionism and anti-Zionism. Particularly, ought we to put a stop to such controversies carried on in the name of Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism is not bound up with anti-Zionism, or anti-Palestinism. Certainly Reform Judaism is not, and never can be, opposed to the restoration of Palestine. Some prominent Reform rabbis have been sincere believers in even the restoration of the Jewish State in Palestine, as, for instance, Samuel Hirsch, one of the most radical of Reform rabbis, who as far back as 1842, in his addresses on “The Messianic Doctrine of the Jews,” dwelt on that belief as an essential part of Jewish conviction and hope.
Some others have refrained from engaging in controversy with the Zionists, though whenever necessary they have not failed to maintain against them these three essential propositions: first, that we dare not mortgage the Jewish future to a Jewish State in Palestine; secondly, that there is no such thing possible as a Jewish people without Judaism; and, thirdly, that it is wrong to assume that Judaism cannot flourish outside of Palestine. But all this has nothing to do with the restoration of Palestine and making it a centre for Israel and humanity, if we can do it.
Let us, therefore, for once realize that Israel is greater than Zionism, and Palestine more important than parties. Let us unite for the common good! It is because of divisions and disputations, the rabbis tell us, Jerusalem was lost; let us not permit a similar cause to keep us from restoring it—I don’t mean as the capital of a Jewish State, but as a centre of Jewish energy and revival. Let us work toward Jewish unification, which, the rabbis believe, must precede redemption. And thus let us help secure for Palestine also the benefits of that democracy, that rule of liberty and justice, that cause of human liberation and opportunity, to the triumph of which America has pledged so nobly her life and her strength.