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19 May 2021

From the NS archive: The future of Palestine

21 November 1914: The hopes of the Zionists have suddenly passed from an ideal into a matter of practical politics.


Palestine has had a turbulent and traumatic history of conquests: it was over many centuries conquered by (not exclusively) the Persians, the Romans, the Muslim ruling dynasties, the Ottomans, Egypt, the Ottomans again. In the late 19th century, anti-Jewish racism was rife across Western Europe, and the Ottoman empire was steadily losing territory. The stars had aligned, it seemed to our correspondent, for the creation of an autonomous Jewish state in Palestine, the idea of the Viennese-Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl that had not yet come to fruition due to the territory’s Ottoman occupation. This article was published a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, and its consideration of Jewish freedom from oppression is poignant. But we now have no choice but to read it in light of a century of bloody violence and ongoing persecution of Arab Palestinians. Can we begin to untangle, in these early reports of Zionist ambitions, the strands of this most polarising of political conflicts?


Mr Asquith has announced that the end of the Turkish empire is at hand; that “the death knell of Ottoman dominion, not only in Europe but in Asia” has been sounded. More than once in the past Turkey has received notice to quit Europe, but this is the first time that the liquidation of Turkey in Asia has become a definite prospect, and with Mr Asquith’s words at the Guildhall the hopes of the Zionists have suddenly passed from an ideal into a matter of practical politics. The hope of the Jews for a restoration of the Jewish state is as old as the diaspora. It sprang into being on the morrow of the first exile. It was momentarily gratified in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and after vicissitudes it was thought to have been finally quenched with the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Within a few years, however, it flamed up again to be drowned in blood in the time of Bar Cochba, and the world probably thought then that with the final expulsion of the survivors of the Jewish rebels from Palestine, the Jewish nationality was destroyed.

In fact the longing for the restoration was but dormant. Time after time it was revived by a succession of self-styled Messiahs, who arose at intervals in all parts of the diaspora, always, however, as a religious movement. Finally the uprising of anti-Semitism in Austria in 1895, followed by the orgy of anti-Jewish prejudice which raged around Alfred Dreyfus in France, turned towards the Jewish question the thoughts of a Viennese Jewish journalist, Theodore Herzl, in whom assimilation had progressed so far as almost to have led him outside of the circle of Judaism. To him the solution lay in the creation of a Jewish autonomous state in Palestine; for nowhere else did it seem possible to combine all the forces necessary to the success of any such movement. In those days the old regime still prevailed in Turkey. The scheme of Herzl was to obtain a charter from the Sultan to safeguard a Jewish settlement of Palestine. Such an aim was by no means impossible of attainment, and the Sultan himself sent an emissary to the leading Jews of England, offering them such a guarantee in return for their influence on his behalf in the critical position in which he found himself as a consequence of the Armenian massacres. But the Jews of England refused to negotiate on any such terms, and with this refusal the possibility of the success of Herzl’s political schemes vanished. Fruitless negotiations continued for some time longer, until in 1902 the British government suggested the El-Arish territory, the borderland between Palestine and Egypt, as the site of a Jewish settlement. The district was, however, found to be uninhabitable by any considerable number of people.

Then came a further offer by the British government, through Mr Chamberlain, of a district in British East Africa. This offer was communicated to the Zionist Congress. The remarkable friendliness displayed by the British government to the Jews was recognised and appreciated by every speaker, but it was felt that much of the forces which were behind a settlement in Palestine would be lacking if the scene were changed to another quarter of the globe. Moreover, a possible Jewish colony in Africa could not be the concern of a movement intended for the restoration of the Jewish people to the Holy Land and the neighbouring regions. The offer of the British government had therefore to be declined, and with the refusal came a secession from the movement of Mr Zangwill and his friends, who, impatient of the slow progress or rather want of progress of the Zionist movement, formed a new organisation, the Jewish Territorial Organisation (ITO), for the creation of a Jewish autonomous settlement in any part of the world. The ITO has considered proposals for such a settlement in Mesopotamia, Cyrenaica, Angola and elsewhere, but in the ten years that have passed since its establishment no appreciable advance whatever has been made towards its goal.

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If the government of Turkey had remained in the hands of Abdul Hamid it is impossible to say whether Herzl’s idea would have been realised or not. With the advent of Young Turkey, however, all possibility of such an event disappeared; with it passed away Zionism as a political movement. It became entirely a movement for the re-creation, after the lapse of two thousand years, of a Jewish centre in Palestine. Jerusalem was to be, not the capital of a Jewish state, but the centre of Jewish culture. Incidentally it would have a considerable Jewish population, and become ultimately a land of refuge, if one were required, for persecuted Jews.

But this belonged to the future. No intelligent Zionist thinks that it is possible to emigrate the bulk of the Jews of Poland or any other region into Palestine today. All that can be done is to prepare the country, which it must be remembered is relatively uninhabited, for a large Jewish population in the future. This work had been well under way since the first Jewish colonies were founded by the refugees from the Russian massacres of 1882. It had been continued every year with greater success until now some 30 Jewish agricultural colonies, practically all self-supporting and prosperous, have been established, and if the country had not been drawn into the vortex of this war it is probable that, in the course of time, a new Jewish race of peasants and farmers would have arisen in Palestine, without any non-Jewish assistance. Practically the whole of the development of Palestine during the past quarter of a century has been effected by these Jewish settlers. Incidentally it may be mentioned that a large portion of the new trade created by them is with the British empire. All the oranges, for instance, produced in the Jewish colonies last year were sent to England, and a large portion or the wine exported annually is consumed in Egypt and Great Britain.

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Side by side with this material revival has been an intellectual revival, first in the establishment of Hebrew educational institutions ranging from elementary schools and culminating in the project, with which some definite advance has been made, of a university in Jerusalem. The erection and endowment of a technical college at Haifa had practically been completed when a conflict arose early this year between the German and the other trustees regarding the language of instruction. The German trustees demanded the use of German as a condition of their support, whereas their colleagues – English, Russian and American – contended for Hebrew. The deadlock had not been released when all minor quarrels became merged in the great one which now embraces civilisation. It is, perhaps, more than a coincidence that the beginning of the struggle against Germanism should have arisen with the advocates of Hebrew as a living language, in whose ranks the great bulk of the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine are included. The revival of the Hebrew language is the second feature in the new Jewish cultural movement of which Palestine is the centre and the hope. It may be said that of the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine there are now none under the age of 25 who do not speak Hebrew as their mother tongue. 

Left alone the future of the Jews in Palestine would have been secure. But the country is now in the melting-pot and the crisis has come too soon for the Jews to be able to cope with it unaided. The crisis, however, is not one for the Jews of Palestine alone, but for the Jews of many other lands. An era of nationalism is again arising, and it has always been at such times that in those states which are not in the forefront of civilisation the Jewish element in the population has been considered an intruder. Unfortunately quite three-quarters of the Jews of the world live in these countries, and there are already presages of the coming trouble. In Poland not even the terror of the common enemy has induced the Poles to relax the severity of the persecution of their Jewish neighbours, which in its present phase has been going on for some years. The Jewish difficulty of Poland under the promised new regime has been recognised even by an onlooker such as Mr Stephen Graham, who, in the Times a few weeks ago, referring to the hindrance which he considered the Jews would be to the revival of the Polish nationality, urged that, in the interests of the Poles, they should all voluntarily emigrate. The present is not the occasion to discuss whether the Jews are likely to be more harmful to the Polish nationality in the future than they were before the country was absorbed by the three empires. In those days the Jews proved a valuable element in the population, and at the end stood shoulder to shoulder with their neighbours to withstand the invaders. In making his suggestion, however, Mr Graham apparently overlooked the fact that there are 2.6 million Jews in the lands out of which the ancient kingdom of Poland is to be reconstituted. It is obviously not possible for such a huge mass to emigrate, but even if it were there is no known land that would receive them. Nevertheless Mr Graham’s suggestion shows the necessity for some land in which Jews would be able to find a home, where they would not be considered intruders. For such a purpose Palestine, together with Syria, is the only possible region.

Today we are told is the day of small nationalities. Their interests are to be considered when peace is concluded. It should not be overlooked that the Jews of Palestine – let us call them the Hebrews after their language – are also a small nationality. But they are the weakest of the nationalities and they cannot stand alone. For many years, perhaps for centuries, they will need a protecting power while they grow into a nation. To give Palestine self-government today would be a blunder and a crime.

Several powers profess to have “interests” in Palestine and Syria, but in no case is the claim overwhelming. As for England it has sentimental, educational and archeological interests in Palestine. It has besides in point of fact commercial interests which overshadow those of all other powers. The commerce between the British empire (including Egypt) and the ports of Jafia and Gaza amount to twice as much as that of the second empire on the list (Turkey) and six times as much as that of either France or Russia. At Beyrout the total of imports to and exports from the United Kingdom and India amounted last year to £1,098,000; Egypt, £68,000; France, £692 000; and Russia, £104,000. But still more weighty is the consideration that if the inhabitants of Palestine were consulted as to the state to which they would prefer to give their allegiance in the future, it is almost certain that the overwhelming majority of the non-Jewish population would choose Great Britain. As for the Jewish inhabitants, with exceptions that one could almost count on the fingers of one’s hands, they would certainly vote for Britain. Britain is in fact almost the only power that has ever shown any sympathy with the Jewish people. English political writers have repeatedly advocated a British protectorate of Palestine for the benefit of the Jews. Palmerston brought all the influence of British diplomacy to bear at Cairo and at Damascus on the occasion of the persecutions that followed the Blood Accusation of 1840, instructed the British Consul at Jerusalem to extend his protection to the Jews and himself made representations on their behalf to the Porte. At a later date both Beaconsfield and Salisbury supported Laurence Oliphant in his negotiations with the Porte for a concession which was to pave the way to an autonomous Jewish state in the Holy Land.

The Jews of Palestine have thus every reason to be grateful to Britain and they are not unmindful of their obligation. Christendom owes a debt to Jewry for the persecutions of the past 1,900 years. It would seem that she has now the opportunity of commencing to pay it. Since the Roman occupation there has been no such opportunity as the present. If it is allowed to pass, who knows how many more centuries may have to elapse before a similar opportunity recurs? Let Britain remember her past and think of her future and secure to the Jews under her protection the possibility of building up a new Palestine on the ruins of their ancient home.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)