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Texts Concerning Zionism: Introduction to "The History of Zionism, 1600-1919"

by Lord Arthur James Balfour (1919)

INTRODUCTION to "The History of Zionism" by Nahum Sokolow Longmans, By the Rt. Hon. A. J. Balfour, M. P.

Whether it be helpful for one who is not a Jew, either by race or religion, to say even the briefest word by way of introduction to a book on Zionism is, in my own opinion, doubtful. But my friend, M. Nahum Sokolow, tells me that I long ago gave him reason to expect that, when the time came, I would render him this small measure of assistance; and if he attaches value to it, I cannot allow my personal doubts as to its value to stand in his way.

The only qualification I possess is that I have always been greatly interested in the Jewish question, and that in the early years of this century, when anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe was in an active stage, I did my best to support a scheme devised by Mr. Chamberlain, then Colonial Secretary, for creating a Jewish settlement in East Africa, under the British flag. There it was hoped that Jews fleeing from persecution might found a community where, in harmony with their own religion, development on traditional lines might (we thought) peacefully proceed without external interruption, and free from any fears of violence.

The scheme was certainly well-intentioned, and had, I think, many merits. But it had one serious defect. It was not Zionism. It attempted to find a home for men of Jewish religion and Jewish race in a region far removed from the country where that race was nurtured and that religion came into being. Conversations I held with Mr. Weizmann in January, 1906, convinced me that history could not thus be ignored, and that if a home was to be found for the Jewish people, homeless now for nearly nineteen hundred years, it was vain to seek it anywhere but in Palestine.

But why, it may be asked, is local sentiment to be more considered in the case of the Jew than (say) in that of the Christian or the Buddhist? All historic religions rouse feelings which cluster round the places made memorable by the words and deeds, the lives and deaths, of those who brought them into being.

Doubtless these feelings should always be treated with respect; but no one suggests that the regions where these venerable sites are to be found should, of set purpose and with much anxious contrivance, be colonized by the spiritual descendants of those who originally made them famous. If the centuries have brought no change of ownership or occupancy we are well content. But if it be otherwise, we make no effort to reverse the course of history. None suggest that we should plant Buddhist colonies in India, the ancient home of Buddhism, or renew in favor of Christendom the crusading adventures of our medieval ancestors. Yet, if this be wisdom when we are dealing with Buddhism and Christianity, why, it may be asked, is it not also wisdom when we are dealing with Judaism and the Jews?

The answer is, that the cases are not parallel. The position of the Jews is unique. For them race, religion and country are inter- related, as they are inter-related in the case of no other race, no other religion, and no other country on earth. In no other case are the believers in one of the greatest religions of the world to be found (speaking broadly) only among the members of a single small people; in the case of no other religion is its past development so intimately bound up with the long political history of a petty territory wedged in between States more powerful far than it could ever be; in the case of no other religion are its aspirations and hopes expressed in language and imagery so utterly dependent for their meaning on the conviction that only from this one land, only through this one history, only by this one people, is full religious knowledge to spread through all the world. By a strange and most unhappy fate it is this people of all others which, retaining the full its racial self-consciousness, has been severed from its home, has wandered into all lands, and has nowhere been able to create for itself an organized social commonwealth. Only Zionism, so at least Zionists believe, can provide some mitigation of this great tragedy.

Doubtless there are difficulties, doubtless there are objections -- great difficulties, very real objections. And it is, I suspect, among the Jews themselves that these are most acutely felt. Yet no one can reasonably doubt that if, as I believe, Zionism can be developed into a working scheme, the benefit it would bring to the Jewish people, especially perhaps to that section of it which most deserves our pity, would be great and lasting. It is not merely that large numbers of them would thus find a refuge from religious and social persecution; but that they would bear corporate responsibilities, and enjoy corporate opportunities of a kind which, from the nature of the case, they can never possess as citizens of any non-Jewish state. It is charged against them by their critics that they now employ their great gifts to exploit for personal ends a civilization which they have not created, in communities they do little to maintain. The accusation thus formulated is manifestly false. But it is no doubt true that in large parts of Europe their loyalty to the State in which they dwell is (to put it mildly) feeble compared with their loyalty to their religion and their race. How indeed could it be otherwise? In none of the regions of which I speak have they been given the advantage of equal citizenship, in some they have been given no right of citizenship at all. Great suffering is the inevitable result; but not suffering alone. Other evils follow which aggravate the original mischief. Constant oppression with occasional outbursts of violent persecution, are apt either to crush their victims, or to develop in them self-protecting qualities which do not always assume an attractive shape. The Jews have never been crushed. Neither cruelty nor contempt, neither unequal laws nor illegal oppression, have ever broken their spirit, or shattered their unconquerable hopes. But it may well be true that, where they have been compelled to live among their neighbors as if these were their enemies, they have obtain obtained, and sometimes deserved, the reputation of being undesirable citizens. Nor is this surprising. If you oblige many men to be money-lenders, some will assuredly be usurers. If you treat an important section of the community as outcasts, they will hardly shine as patriots. Thus does intolerance blindly labor to create the justification for its own excesses.

It seems evident that, for these and other reasons, Zionism will mitigate the lot and elevate the status of no negligible fraction of the Jewish race. Those who go to Palestine will not be like those who now migrate to London or New York. They will not be animated merely by the desire to lead in happier surroundings the kind of life they formerly led in Eastern Europe. They will go in order to join a civil community which completely harmonizes with their historical and religious sentiments; a community bound to be land it inhabits by something deeper even than custom; a community, whose members will suffer from no divided loyalty, nor any temptation to hate the laws under which they are forced to live. To them the material gain should be great; but surely the spiritual gain will be greater still.

But these, it will be said, are not the only Jews whose welfare we have to consider. Granting, if only for argument’s sake, that Zionism will confer a benefit on them, will it not inflict an injury upon others who, though Jews by descent, and often by religion, desire wholly to identify themselves with the life of the country wherein they have made their home. Among these are to be found some of the most gifted members of a gifted race. Their ranks contain (at least, so I think) more than their proportionate share of the world’s supply of men distinguished in science and philosophy, literature and art, medicine, politics and laws. (Of finance and business I need say nothing.)

Now there is no doubt that many of this class look with a certain measure of suspicion and even dislike upon the Zionist movement. They fear that it will adversely affect their position in the country of their adoption. The great majority of them have no desire to settle in Palestine. Even supposing a Zionist community were established, they would not join it. But they seem to think (if I understand them rightly) that so soon as such a community came into being, men of Jewish blood, still more men of Jewish religion, would be regarded by unkindly critics as out of place elsewhere. Their ancient hoe having been restored to them, they would be expected to reside there.

I cannot share these fears. I do not deny that, in some countries where legal equality is firmly established, Jews may still be regarded with a certain measure of prejudice. But this prejudice, where it exists, is not due to Zionism, nor will Zionism embitter it. The tendency should surely be the other way. Everything which assimilates the national and international status of the Jews to that of other races ought to mitigate what remains of ancient antipathies; and evidently this assimilation would be promoted by giving them that which all other nations possess: a local habitation and a national home.

On this aspect of the subject I need perhaps say no more. The future of Zionism depends on deeper causes than these. That it will settle the “Jewish questions” I dare not hope. But that it will tend to promote that mutual sympathy and comprehension which is the only sure basis of toleration I firmly believe. Few, I think, of M. Sokolow’s readers, be they Jew or be they Christian, will rise from the perusal of the impressive story which he has told so fully and so well, without feeling that Zionism differs in kind from ordinary philanthropic efforts and that it appeals to different motives. If it succeeds, it will do a great spiritual and material work for the Jews, but not for them alone. For as I read its meaning it is, among other things, a serious endeavor to mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb. Surely, for this if for no other reason, it should receive our support

Sources: Scholars For Peace in the Middle East