Flashbacks May 2008

Prophesying Palestine

Jeffrey Goldberg looks back at a mixed bag of Atlantic predictions from the 1920s and '30s about prospects for a Jewish homeland.

It’s usually best for journalists to stay out of the prophecy business. There’s just no percentage in it. It’s particularly important to suppress the prophetic impulse in matters concerning the Middle East (see: Iraq, Iran, etc.). It has often been said that the only constant in the Middle East is abrupt and dramatic change, a phenomenon that makes prediction even more difficult than usual. In any case, the Middle East (Israel Division, at least) has been the home to professional prophets of high reputation. It’s wise to be humble before the reputations of such men as Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah.

And yet, on exceptional occasions, prophecy about the Middle East—accurate prophecy—manifests itself in journalism, at least in the pages of The Atlantic. Take this statement, from an article in the July 1919 issue of the magazine:

The Jewish people do not expect that all the Jews of the world will ever be gathered in Palestine. The country is too small to hold them all, and there is no universal desire to go there. In the fullness of time, there will be several million Jews in Palestine, but in all human probability the majority of Jews will still live outside its borders.

This is from an article by Harry Sacher, who wrote as a partisan of the Zionist cause. The statement is remarkable for its optimism; in 1919, there were perhaps 150,000 Jews in Palestine, and masses of Jews—particularly those in America—were plainly hostile to the Zionist idea. Sacher foresaw a seemingly implausible future, in which Zion would once again become the heart of Jewish life.

Sacher’s article is one of the first in The Atlantic to mention the phenomenon of political Zionism, which was already twenty-two years old by 1919. One could deduce that The Atlantic scanted Zionism until then because it was so thoroughly marginal a movement, even within the Jewish universe. The magazine became alert to the issue after the British conquered Palestine in 1917, and issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised to the Jews a “national home” in Palestine. Even with that promise, the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine seemed insurmountably difficult, in particular to The Atlantic’s subsequent correspondents. In July 1920, Anstruther Mackay reported from Palestine on Zionist aspirations. Mackay’s report is rampant with insupportable assertions, such as this one: “[T]he Jews of Southeastern Europe are, almost to a man, Bolsheviki. Europe and America cannot allow the possibility of a homogenous Bolshevist state in Palestine.” No prophet, this Anstruther Mackay.

On the other hand, Mackay saw no easy road to Jewish independence. He predicted catastrophe if the Jews were to assert their independence in Palestine:

It will be seen that, to fulfill their aspirations, the Zionists must obtain the armed assistance of one of the European powers, presumably Great Britain, or of the United States of America. To keep the peace in such a scattered and mountainous country the garrison would have to be a large one…. Without such armed protection, the scheme of a Jewish state, or settlement, is bound to end in failure and disaster.

Mackay underestimated Jewish determination and fighting skill (or, alternatively, overestimated Arab unity and purpose), though it is possible today to argue that Israel would succumb without the qualitative edge provided it by American weaponry and support.

An echo of Mackay’s antagonism to Jewish nationalism could be found in Albert T. Clay’s February 1921 report titled “Political Zionism.” Clay wrote with bracing hostility about the Zionist movement, and he failed to hide his suspicions about Jews generally. The founders of modern Zionism, Clay wrote,

have claimed that the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth would become an active force, by bringing diplomatic pressure to bear upon the nations, to secure protection for Jews in all lands. A clannish sense of pride in the Jewish race, however, seems to be uppermost in their minds. They apparently think that their status in society will be enhanced everywhere if a Jewish nation exists in Palestine.

While I would distance myself, for reasons of taste and accuracy, from Clay’s diagnosis of Jewish clannishness, I would also say that what he feared did indeed come to pass: the success of Israel as a national Jewish project enhanced the status of Jews even in places like the Soviet Union, to say nothing of the United States.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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