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.

Clay’s brand of hostility to Zionism found no echo in a 1927 article by Henry Nevinson, who admitted to a certain narrow-mindedness about Jews before becoming a witness to their national project in Palestine.

Like most Englishmen, I certainly had no prejudice in favor of the Jews. Rather the reverse, though I have always admired their exceptional intelligence, their patriotic mutual aid, and their marvelous persistence in the face of the cruelest persecution. But as I surveyed the work of the Zionist cause in tangible or visible form I was filled with a sympathetic exhilaration at the sight of so many young men and young women released from the perpetual fear under which their fathers had suffered for so many centuries.

The dominant theme in The Atlantic’s early writings on Zionism was unfriendliness.

In the July 1930 number of The Atlantic, William Ernest Hocking made the case against political Zionism, and asserted an exclusive Arab right to the territory of Palestine. In many ways, he presaged the modern Left’s critique of Israel, as an enterprise of a people who are fundamentally foreign to the land: “Arabia will not be reconciled to Jewish dominance in Palestine. For thirteen hundred years Moslem Arabs have lived here, tilling the soil, caring for their herds, raising their fruits and olives, practicing their trades and crafts.” In making his case, Hocking elided some of the more unpleasant aspects of Arab Palestine: in particular, its leadership. He defended Haj Amin al Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, as an open-minded moderate. Husseini would later become an ally of Hitler, and lead a Bosnian Muslim SS detachment that murdered Jews.

A few months later, in the October 1930 issue, Owen Tweedy, took a similarly jaundiced view of the Zionist enterprise, though he did acknowledge that

it would be most ungenerous to fail to emphasize that Jewish penetration, while it has far from realized the earliest Zionist hopes, has in many senses benefited the Arab inhabitants of the country.… Zionism has undoubtedly changed the exterior of Arab life. It gave the Arab new and more hygienic conceptions of well-being.

Such observations now fall well outside the realm of the politically palatable, as does his analysis of Jewish land-buying practices in Palestine: “They bought partly from Arabs, in whom it is a national failing never to be able to resist the sight of money.”

There is something repulsive in Tweedy’s high-handed generalizing. But his cold distaste for both Jews and Arabs did not subvert his ability to analyze correctly, even prophetically, the difficulty of returning Jews to a land that, in their absence, had been settled by people very much unlike themselves. “Zionist immigration is out to establish itself in Palestine on lines of its own choosing,” he wrote.

On the other hand, those lines are foreign, unintelligible and antipathetic to the mentalities of the Arab communites that represent the large majority in the country. If no bridge is built, how can these two existing, and mutually repellent, social states grow side by side without endless friction.

We are still waiting for that bridge.