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England's Clash of Values: Jewish Universalism Confronts Jewish Nationalism

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Summer 2001

This is Part I of a two-part article about the clash of values between the advocates of Jewish universalism and Jewish nationalism in England during the first half of the twentieth century.  

In the early years of the twentieth century — from the period prior to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish community of Great Britain was sharply divided between those who advocated Jewish universalism, and argued that British Jews were fully English by nationality and that Judaism was their religion, and the advocates of Jewish nationalism who urged the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and conceived of Judaism as more than a religion, as a "national" identity.  

The history of this period has often tended to ignore those Jewish organizations and individuals who rejected the nationalist impulse. They were not large in number, but they constituted some of the most prominent families and distinguished men and women in Britain and their influence was widespread.  

The Anglo-Jewish community supported two significant such groups: the League of British Jews (1917-1931) and the Jewish Fellowship (1942-1948). Both organizations stressed that Judaism was a religion, not a nationality. The League enjoyed wider support, including most of the leading families in the English Jewish community. Neither organization appealed to the majority of British Jews, although each served an important role by showing that the Jewish community was sharply divided on the subject of Zionism. By stressing English patriotism, belief in a certain role for Judaism, and opposition to anti-Semitism, these organizations made clear that there was a movement in Britain's Jewish community opposed to Jewish nationalism.  

Prophetic Values  

Rabbi Israel Mattuck served as the religious head of the Liberal movement in England, the equivalent of the Reform Jewish movement in the United States. He was a leading proponent of prophetic and universal Judaism, and was opposed to the philosophy of Jewish nationalism.  

His views are set forth in the book What Are The Jews, first published in 1939. He points out that if Jewish history dates from Abraham, it is 4,000 years old and that less than half of it took place in Palestine, and even then but partly. While Jews may have been a nation in the early years of their history, he writes that, "The political nationalist aspect of that history was not important. The writers of the Bible show an obvious lack of interest in the political events with an equally obvious deep interest in the religious interpretation. The writers of the Books of Samuel and Kings, for example, cared less about the behavior of the Jews toward their Kings than about their behavior toward God ... They were not interested in politics but in religion ... The early nationalism of the Jews was not, however, pure nationalism. It was quite different from many things that pass under that name now ... it was itself subsidiary to another and much more important element — religion. The Jewish nation of antiquity was primarily not a political but a religious unit."  

Religious Contribution  

The great Jewish contribution to civilization, Mattuck points out, was a religious one: "The significance of the Jews' collective existence in the past has been in their religion and in their contribution to the religious life of humanity. The justification of that interpretation of the collective life of the Jews is written large over Jewish history. The great men in that history have been religious teachers; the great events in that history owe their greatness to their outstanding religious significance and the great contribution of that history to the world has been what it gave to the world's religion. The life of the Jews in Palestine was insignificant and unimportant politically, and it produced nothing enduring in art, science or philosophy. They showed great originality in another field, many would say a vastly more important field. Though they produced no Plato, Pindar or Alexander they produced a Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul. But the productiveness they lacked and the productiveness they possessed together reveal their essential genius. It was in religion. And a people has its surest hope in seeking a destiny in line with its genius."  

Rabbi Mattuck rejected the idea that Jews were, in some sense, "homeless." English, American, French, Dutch and other Jews in free, Western countries were, he argued, very much at home and shared an equal citizenship with men and women of other faiths.  

Rise of Nazism  

With regard to the advent of Nazism in Germany, he wrote: "If the German Jews were wrong in considering and feeling themselves an integral part of the German nation, then the same must be true of English and other Jews in respect to their respective nations ... It implies that Hitler is right, not in persecuting the German Jews, but in separating them nationally from other Germans, in denying them a share in German national life. The whole Nazi attitude to the Jews is based on the view that Jews cannot be Germans ... It is surprising to find any Jews ready to base a judgment about the Jews on Hitler's attitude to them ... The successful use of force against the Jews does not prove the validity of the idea behind it ... The Jews of the world can learn nothing from Nazi thought. If the Jewish nationalists are right in arguing that the persecution of the Jews in Germany supplies an argument for their ideas, the fact must make suspicious of those ideas ... In the countries of freedom where the Jew have been given the status of full citizenship, they share completely in national life. There is no national difference between them and others. That is the answer to the anti-Semite. It is also the refutation of the Jewish nationalist's thesis."  

In conclusion, Mattuck makes this point: "The chief argument against Zionism is that the nationalization of Jewish life would interfere with the religious function and value of the Jews. When the Zionist answers `But it will save the Jews,' the non-Zionist asks: `Save them from what?' To be a small nation in a small corner of the world: Is that to be the issue of Jewish history, its struggles and achievements, its sufferings and glories? How small, insignificantly, pathetically small, is the result compared to the process: But will a Jewish nation save the Jews? It may save a small number of them, it may well destroy all the rest. Most of the Jews will remain dispersed. Their position will not be helped, but hindered by the existence of a Jewish nation. Similarly, their attachment to Judaism will be subjected to a new strain, which may well break it. The practical advantages of Jewish nationalism are very doubtful, its dangers to the position of the Jews are obvious. But its greatest danger is in its threat to the universal religious value in the existence of the Jews. Those who consider a Jewish nation the supreme Jewish good do not mind that danger; those, however, who consider the religious life of the Jews their chief treasure, and religious service their purpose, will be deterred by it, for to them it means a danger to the soul of the Jews."  

Summary of Values  

Mattuck provides a good summary of the values of both of these anti-nationalist movements. The British groups did not originate these arguments. Such positions had already been fully developed in the United States, Central Europe and elsewhere. What the British organizations did was take these arguments and apply them to the specific circumstances in the United Kingdom.  

Zionism was not a major issue in Britain at the turn of the century. British Jews faced little discrimination and were largely content. Although there were recognizably anti-Zionist movements on the European Continent and in the United States, this was not the case yet in Britain. A British organization was not formed until May 1917, with the foundation of the League of British Jews.  

However, if opposition to Zionism did not have a wide appeal, neither did Zionism. Even according to the statistics of the English Zionist Federation, just 6 percent of the Jewish population of Britain supported Zionism. One typical editorial in the Jewish Chronicle of August 17, 1900, summed up the state of the Zionist movement in Britain: "English Jews decline to associate themselves with a movement which, in however remote a degree, might seem to call into question — not their loyalty, for that could never be questioned — but the absoluteness of their English citizenship and nationhood." Most Jews neither supported nor opposed Zionism. There was, however, a widespread opposition to Jewish nationalism among the leading families of Anglo-Jewry. While the question of Zionism did not dominate the Jewish press, from the turn of the century until World War I, it increasingly became a divisive issue in the Jewish community.  

Critic of Zionism  

Israel Abrahams was a major critic of Zionism. In 1896 he proclaimed that it was a conception "which has no roots in the past and no fruits to offer for the future ... The Jewish state is more likely to harm Judaism than to destroy anti-Semitism." In 1897 he stated that the entire idea "will once more create or rather strengthen a modern Hellenising movement similar to the one fostered by the Maccabean nationalists in the past."  

Native English Orthodox Jews were also generally opposed to Zionist ideas, along with many of the leaders of the Jewish community. One such leader, Claude Montefiore, publicly criticized the "fantastic schemes" of the Zionists, and urged the congregants of Berkely Street Synagogue, London, to "set against the political idea of Jewish nationalism the religious idea of Jewish universalism, which shall solve the Jewish question according to the prophetic aspirations of the 87th Psalm." Montefiore warned that the Zionist movement constituted "a blow and an injury to the development of Judaism as a religion ... in the long run, (it) will be prejudicial and deleterious to the best interests and truest welfare of the Jews themselves."  

These leading voices were echoed by many prominent figures in the Jewish community. While critics of Zionism may have been a minority, they were among the leaders of Anglo-Jewry. Among these critics were Rev. Morris Joseph of the West London (Reform) Congregation of British Jews; the members of the Magnus family (Sir Philip, Lady Kate and Laurie), who held administrative positions in that community; Oswald J. Simon and Lily Montagu, who were both instrumental in founding the Jewish Religious Union. All described Zionism, variously, as a "travesty of Judaism," "a mistake," "a peril" and "a restoration of primitiveness." They stressed that while there was the existence of a Jewish religion, and Jewish customs, there was most assuredly no Jewish nationality.  

Ire of Zionists  

As might be expected, these comments drew the ire of Zionists. Zionists criticized those who opposed them as a comfortable elite. They had succeeded financially and socially in England, and were dissociated from the religion. There was little they would gain from a move to a Jewish state. They disregarded the fact that the masses of Jewry would gain much. Because wealthy English Jews lived in comfort did not mean that they could, or should, ignore the plight of their co-religionists in Eastern Europe.  

Critics also seized on the notion that these critics of Zionism were not "really" Jews anymore. Chaim Weizmann wrote to Balfour: opposition to Zionism was the preserve of "those Jews who by education and social connection have lost touch with the real spirit activating Jewish people as a whole ... Zionism was never meant for people who have cut themselves adrift from Judaism, it is meant for the masses who have a will to have a life of their own." Such critics of Zionism were simply a bunch of "assimilated cosmopolitan Jews, mostly belonging to the Haute finance, who have lost contact with the development of Jewish life and ideas."  

This type of criticism was not unusual from Zionist circles. Rabbi Moses Gaster, principal minister of the Sephardi congregation admitted that "the great names of so-called English Jews" were opposed to Zionism, but he claimed that this was "not because they are against the principle but because they are not at the head of the movement and because they imagine nothing can be done, and for that matter ought to be done, which has not first obtained their sanction. The weapons which are used are therefore not of argument, they cannot offer any real argument but the usual ones here I am sorry to say, of open or covert intimidation, slander and denunciation." Gaster's accusations seem colored by class bias rather than a genuine philosophical disagreement with those who were critical of Jewish nationalism.  

Zionists attacked their critics by frequently saying that their opinions derived from their social standing. This was unfair. Their ideas should have been judged on the basis of intellectual merit. The opponents of Jewish nationalism argued that the establishment of a Jewish state could endanger their status in England. They also believed that it could aid anti-Semitism, as well as betraying the true mission of Judaism.  

Not Have It Both Ways  

Abraham wrote in The Future Of Palestine, "Jews could not have it both ways. They could not have their status in Palestine on one theory of Nationality, and then claim equality in the world on an altogether inconsistent theory." Montefiore and B.L.Q. Henriques advance a similar argument in their harsh criticism of Zionism in The English Jew and His Religion. They write that Zionism is a breach of the emancipation contract made with England: "What, then, does this loyalty to England demand of us? It demands service ... it demands the sharing of its ideals and the readiness to give of one's utmost towards their realization ... This loyalty is owed to England by the Jews. It is the just recompense of even-handed justice. England has given to the Jews liberty, equality, fraternity. One's blood boils if these great gifts are not answered by a single, an undivided and a complete allegiance, if the loyalty paid towards England is other than profound and pure." The authors exhibit English patriotism, clearly defining Britain, the country that treated them well, as their nation, not some Jewish state.  

Zionism received some support from anti-Semites, who believed it was a solution to their Jewish problem. For this very reason — because Zionism meant allying with anti-Semites, some British Jews found it distasteful. In an article entitled "The Zionist Peril," in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Lucien Wolf wrote: "The characteristic peril of Zionism is that it is the natural and abiding ally of anti-Semitism and its most powerful justification. It is an attempt to turn back the course of modern Jewish history, which hitherto, on its political side, has had for its main object to secure for the Jewish people an equal place with their fellow citizens of other creeds in the countries in which they dwell, and a common lot with them in the main stream of human progress."  

Briefly A Nation  

Jews had only briefly possessed a nation, and this was about two thousand years ago. Since that time, Judaism was a religion, and it was on this basis that Jews were differentiated from others. However, this would change with the nationalist movements of the 19th century. These were largely chauvinistic and in some nations there were claims that Jews belonged to a different nationality. "At first all Jews denied it," writes Rabbi Mattuck, "but after a time some Jews, chiefly those coming from Eastern Europe, accepted the idea of a differentiated Jewish nationality. That attitude created the modern Zionist movement."  

Beyond the issues of English patriotism and anti-Semitism, some believed that Zionism went against the Jewish mission. Some Jewish leaders claimed that support for Zionism meant abandoning the true purpose of Judaism, and relegated its importance to the mere status of another small state. Laurie Magnus wrote that political Zionism was a betrayal of the true mission of Judaism. He wrote: "The sphere of the Jew is the universe, the birthright of the Jew is his religion, his message is the moral law, and his secular instrument is the right — a right imposing obligations — to live with his neighbors on equal terms. To exchange our religious heritage for a dubious political status, which only a tenth part of Israel's host could embrace, seems to me a degradation of the ideal, a mockery of revealed Judaism, and a surrender to temporary passions, inflamed by this terrible war, of the noble, permanent and abiding principles, the truth of which we live to spread."  

In 1912, when Zionists pressed for the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration, it was a Jewish opponent who spoke out against the concept of an exclusively Jewish state within the British Cabinet. Edwin S. Montagu, Secretary of State for India in Lloyd George's World War I cabinet, said he would accept the declaration calling for a Jewish national home in Palestine only conditionally as "a military expedient" (the Allied Powers were not doing well in World War I against the central Powers at the time), and only after the wording of the policy statement had been rephrased. Montagu informed the chief that he had "striven all his life to escape the ghetto," to which he now faced possible relegation as a result of the proposed policy paper.  

Hard-Won Status  

Montagu, not wishing to endanger the hard-won status of Jews as an integrated religious community enjoying equal rights and obligations in the countries in which they lived, resented the Zionist effort to convince Jews that they were an "ethnic-racial" group. He believed, as well, that there was an injustice involved in turning over control of a land to those who then constituted only 7 percent of the population.  

Montagu went so far as to accuse those in the British Government who sought to create a Jewish state in Palestine of anti-Semitism. In a document entitled "The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government" dated August 23, 1917, marked "Secret" and made public by the British Government only in 1970, he writes: "I have chosen the above title for this memorandum, not in any hostile sense, not by any means of quarreling with anti-Semitic views, which may be held by my colleagues, not with a desire to deny that anti-Semitism can be held by rational men, but I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty's Government is anti-Semitic in result and will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country of the world."  

He continued to write that, "The war has indeed justified patriotism as the prime motive of political thought. It is in this atmosphere that the Government proposes to endorse the formation of a new nation with a new home in Palestine. This nation will presumably be formed of Jewish Russians, Jewish Englishmen, Jewish Roumanians, Jewish Bulgarians and Jewish citizens of all nations — survivors or relations of those who have fought and laid down their lives for the different countries which I have mentioned at a time when the three years that they have lived through have united their outlook and thought more closely than ever with the countries of which they are citizens. Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain or to be treated as an Englishman."  

"National Home"  

What would a "national home for the Jewish people" really mean? "I do not know what this involves," wrote Montagu, "but I assume that it means that Mohammedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews, and that the Jews would be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mohammedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners ... I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire, with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or lesser degree the same religion. It is no more to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation ..."  

Placing the question of Palestine in a larger perspective, Montagu states: "I deny that Palestine is today associated with the Jews. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mohammedan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history. The Temple may have been in Palestine, but so was the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonization with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be only admitted by those who take a narrow view of one particular epoch in the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled."  

World War I  

During World War I, Zionism gained strength in England — with the British occupation of Palestine, Jews began to see a real possibility for a Jewish state. Zionism also found more followers because of the wartime rise in anti-Semitism. Jews were accused of being shirkers, although they served in higher numbers than others. There was a rise in anti-German actions in Britain, and often there was no distinction between anti-German and anti-Jewish actions. The position of Jews in Britain looked more precarious.  

Despite these difficulties, critics of Zionism continued to boldly proclaim their stance. Claude Montefiore, then president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, in November 1916 asked: "How can a man belong to two nations at once? ... No wonder that all anti-Semites are enthusiastic Zionists."  

When the British Expeditionary Force began the invasion of Palestine in March 1917, Montefiore and Lindo Alexander, as leaders of the movement opposed to Zionism, felt that they needed to make a statement. In a letter to The Times of London of May 24, they pleaded that "emancipated Jews in this country ... have no separate aspirations in a political sense," that the Jews were not "a homeless people," that they had "no separate national aspirations," and that they were simply a "religious community." This letter purported to speak for the entire Anglo-Jewish community, but was repudiated by other Jewish leaders such as Weizmann, Chief Rabbi Hertz, and even Lord Rothschild, who was not a supporter of Zionism.  

Division In Community  

The division in the Jewish community had been one of polemics, not action. This, however, was to change with the meeting of the Conjoint Foreign Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Board served as an umbrella organization, which encompassed much of Anglo-Jewry. On May 17, 1917, Montefiore summoned a meeting of the Conjoint Foreign Committee and asked them to approve a "Statement on Palestine," which had been prepared in advance. The manifesto claimed that the signatories were not "a homeless nationality;" in fact, they could not be described as a nationality in the political sense. They had "no separate national aspirations;" as members of nothing more distinct than a "religious community ... they hold Judaism to be a religious system" and maintain that "as citizens of the country in which they live, they are fully and sincerely identified with the national spirit and interests of those countries." The establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine would turn Jews everywhere into "strangers in their native lands." Fifteen of the 21 members were present, and it passed by a vote of 12 to 2, with one abstention. This manifesto provoked angry and immediate responses from Zionist leaders. It caused debates among congregations, the B'nai B'rith and the United Council of Jewish Friendly Societies.  

The opponents of Jewish nationalism were not, however, to enjoy their success for too long. The Board of Deputies voted to censure the Conjoint Foreign Committee's manifesto by an extremely close vote. Fifty six voted for censure, 51 against, with 6 abstentions.  

Despite the close vote, the Zionists could claim supremacy. And they did. This vote was interpreted very radically as a major victory for Zionism. When critics such as Lucien Wolf pointed out that the two sides were "evenly balanced" he was ignored in all official circles.  

After the vote, pro-Zionist measures were passed and those who were opposed were increasingly isolated. The critics of Zionism did not retract their statement and, with control of the Board of Deputies, the Zionists felt that the road to success was paved. They now had control of the leading Jewish organization in Britain.  

Draft Declaration  

In October, 1917, the government asked eight Jewish leaders, including three opponents of Zionism, to comment on its draft "Declaration on Palestine." In a letter addressed to Sir Maurice Hankey, Claude Montefiore wrote his comment on October 12, 1917: "For the true well-being of the Jewish race, emancipation and liberty in the countries of the world are a thousand times more important." If the Government decided that a statement on Palestine was necessary, he counseled eliminating the phrase "national home" and substituting an innocuous reference to "free and unimpeded Jewish immigration into Palestine," to promise "such municipal and local autonomy for the Jews as may be possible," and to stress that most Jews "have no desire to relinquish their existing nationality and citizenship."  

Despite Milner's efforts to accommodate some of Montefiore's ideas, to the delight of the Zionists, the Balfour Declaration was announced. This greatly worried Montefiore and his allies. With the Balfour Declaration, Geoffrey Alderman writes, "what was at stake was nothing less than the public status of Jews in Britain, not so much in a legal sense (though the issue had legal implications) as in relation to the public perception of the British Jew."  

League of British Jews  

Less than a week after the Balfour Declaration, Montefiore and his colleagues organized a group of their sympathizers at New Court, the headquarters of the Rothschild concerns. The assembly agreed to establish a "League of British Jews." A provisional committee was elected, office space was obtained and a campaign plan was agreed upon. In its announcement to the press, the League proclaimed its determination to combat the Zionist caveat that "the Jew is an alien in the land of his birth." It called upon all Jewish Britons, regardless of their place of birth, to support its platforms:  

To uphold the status of British subjects professing the Jewish religion. To resist the allegation that Jews constitute a separate Political Nationality. To facilitate the settlement of Palestine of such Jews as may desire to make Palestine their home. Those policies were formally adopted at the inaugural General Meeting of the League of British Jews held in London in March 1918, which was attended by over 400 members.  

Battle over Nationalism  

Despite the creation of this organization, and the formation of seemingly more solidified camps, little had changed in the battle over Jewish nationalism. Cohen writes: "Relatively small groups of inveterate antagonists continued to struggle for the support of a larger number of nonpartisans, and the latter remained persistently and overwhelmingly apathetic." Zionism was not a primary concern in the Jewish community. Other issues had greater priority. These included the inefficiency of community management and the alleged inequalities of institutional representation.  

The supporters of Zionism during this period were somewhat disorganized, and were torn by internal squabbling. Their opponents were likewise disorganized, broken into three major groups: the Agudah, the Reform movement, and, at a later stage, the Communist Party. Despite these divisions, their combined and continued opposition concerned the Zionists. The debate was far from ended.

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