My friend, Yousef Munayyer unearthed this remarkably prescient letter from 1919, ahead of the post-WWI peace conference. It was published in full by the Times, in the wake of its having been presented to President Woodrow Wilson. It was brought to Wilson by Julius Kahn, a Jewish Congressman from San Francisco.
The objections raised to the Zionist enterprise and the disagreement with the recently presented Balfour Declaration are interesting. They are, primarily, rooted in concern for the welfare of Jewish people around the globe, although due consideration is given to the Palestinian population. The case they made was a pretty powerful one, though it did not sway Wilson or the other world leaders of the day, who, as history has well noted, were tantalized by the ideas of fulfilling biblical prophecy with the Jewish return to Zion, having a permanent European presence in what was quickly becoming the most important region of the “oriental” world, and ridding their own countries of Jews.
It is worth speculating on what these men (remember, this is 1919, and despite Kahn’s own rather formidable wife who would take over his seat in Congress and hold it for 12 years, men still dominated leadership) might have made of the ensuing years. No doubt, as fascism rose in Europe, a lot of them would have thought quite differently. In 1943, and for the years after the war, many Jews who had not supported the creation of a Jewish state changed their minds, quite understandably.
But it’s also not unreasonable to think that at least a few of these guys would have seen the rise of fascist anti-Semitism as fulfilling their argument that those Jews who remained in Europe during the Zionist state building enterprise would be at greater peril. That is a major argument put forth in this letter. Another is that such an entity is inherently undemocratic and cannot be otherwise and that a state would “…serve the more violent rulers of that and other lands as a new justification for additional repressive legislation.”
However much the authors’ views might have changed in the wake of the Holocaust, it’s hard not to see those views coming full circle in light of Israel’s behavior today. Yousef, always a font of great material, had earlier shared with me a quote from Hannah Arendt: “The foundations of Zionism were laid during a time when nobody could imagine any other solution of minority or nationality problems than the autonomous national state with a homogeneous population; Zionists are afraid the whole building might crack if they abandon their old ideas. The contrary is true: the building will collapse if we don’t adapt our minds and our ideas to new facts and new developments.”
I think the authors would have found common cause with Arendt and all of them would be depressed to see how right they were in their warnings. Here is the letter, in pdf format, as printed in the New York Times almost 95 years ago.