Herbert Bentwich (1856-1932)

(Herbert Bentwich (1856-1932

   In my capacity as researcher I’ve come across the following document. It was in the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem, in the Herbert Bentwich file no. A100\46 (Herbert Bentwich, I am happy to note, was my great grandfather).

   Bentwich was one of the members on the Zionist Executive, a Zionist body to whom the British government applied to in 1916, after deciding it wanted to come out with some kind of declaration allowing the Jews a homeland in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration came out on Nov. 2nd 1917 and was only a paragraph long, but there was much discussion and preparation preceding it.

   I first found a letter written by Herbert to one of his many son-in-laws (he had nine daughters) where he says:

“I had a great find the other day in looking through some of the papers in Jerusalem; for I came across the bundle of documents of the Zionist Executive in England for 1916 in there was my original draft proposals for what afterwards became the Balfour Declaration, with letters from the other members (including Sokolow and Weitzmann) containing their observations on the proposals…” [letter from 1929, file no. A100\70 – 34, 35]. 

   The story goes that the British applied to the various Jewish bodies and were surprised to find that the Jews were not unanimous regarding Zionism, that some of them were basically against it. The preparations involved some back and forthing between the Zionists and anti-Zionists, and following is the document I believe Herbert Bentwich wrote (it was in his file but doesn’t have his signature) on behalf of the Zionist Executive to the Conjoint Committee.

   I would like to note also that Herbert was a lawyer, and his services as a lawyer were often used in his capacity as Zionist activist and member of various groups, associations, etc. Here it is:

Our reply to The Conjoint Committee (draft)

      At our first interview we already explained that it was not our intention just now to enter into the question of principle with you, but that it was our endeavour to pave the way for the possibility of coming to an understanding with you and to obtain your support, if possible. We shall therefore not only enter into the assertions regarding principle contained in your statement in so far as it is necessary to define our position in relation to yours.

  1. We fully recognize the necessity for efforts in the direction of achieving civil and political emancipation and […] ourselves contribute our quota to them. But, apart from the fact that a full emancipation cannot for a long time yet be attained, and anyhow cannot be made use of for practical purposes, we are convinced that thereby the social side of the Jewish problem can by no means be solved. The Jewish problem has besides that a national aspect which can completely be solved only in the manner pointed out by Zionists.
  2. The main evil of the Jewish status quo which leads to anti-semitism and persecution, lies in the want of a home on the part of the Jewish people. The creation of a “Public – legally secured home for the Jewish People in Palestine” will uproot this main evil. At the same time Palestine will gradually give shelter to millions of Jews. If the hinterland (Mesopotamia) were taken into account there would be ample room for all the oppressed.
  3. The special rights for the returning Jews, which we demand, are by no means to be understood in such a way that the interests of the other sections of the population would thereby be curtailed. What we want is that the Jews who for the present form a minority there, should not be hindered through the stagnant condition of the majority in their work and development and that certain special facilities for purposes of colonization be guaranteed to them, perhaps in the form of a chartered company.
  4. It is incomprehensible to us why the plain and open recognition on our part of the fact, which cannot by doubted, that we Jews form a nation and claim the right to a free national development like all other nations of the world, might stimulate anti-semitism and endanger the legal standing of the Jews in other countries. On the contrary we are firmly convinced that such an effort would raise the status of the Jews and the esteem for them in all countries and would establish for them normal sound relations to their fellow-citizens.

      All these are our convictions which have been given concrete form in the “Bâle Program”. From this we cannot and will not of course recede under any circumstances, even not ad hoc, that is to say, not for the sake of coming to an understanding with other Jewish organizations, however much we may consider such an understanding to be in the interest of the Jewish cause and its dignity. We are, however, of the opinion that opposition in principles does not exclude a practical mutual understanding, at least no to a certain […] and that is what we are concerned with.

     What you proposed in your statement – Local Self-Government, recognition of the Hebrew language and special rights in respect of cultural matters – belongs to the most important conditions that are necessary for success during the coming period of our work. Should greater possibilities not arise we should be satisfied with your proposals. What is more, we actually posses these […] opportunities in Turkish Palestine. But what we are concerned about at the present historical moment is to ensure the basis for a great and rapid development of the country through the labour and energy of the Jews, who are also to become its actual owners. It is not merely a question of another place for immigration – although this is of great importance – but of the realization of the effort for thousands of years by the Jewish people that enjoys the sympathies of the British nation and Government. The great war opens up for the first time the possibility of their realization. It is our sacred duty and our good fortune to assist with all our power for the realization of the needs and ideals of the people.

      Only the future will show whether this possibility will become an accomplished fact or whether the Jews will have to continue their work in Palestine at the old pace for which your proposals are suited. We shall, as we have already explained suit our demands and wishes to the political possibilities; these will then also prescribe the chances and limitations of your support. For the present we desire to state with satisfaction that our discussions for mutual information have led us to the opinion that this support on your part does not altogether appear to be unlikely.

   I am putting up this document here because it seems to foreshadow the great Zionism vs. anti-Zionism schism we are living through right now. I like the way Herbert negates the idea that setting up a Jewish national home would worsen anti-semitism. “We are firmly convinced that such an effort would raise the status of the Jews… and would establish for them normal sound relations to their fellow-citizens,” he wrote. Herbert was concerned with the status of Jews in non-Jewish societies and I don’t know whether the existence of Israel had raised Jewish status. I think it has decreased anti-Semitism and simultaneously increased anti-Zionism.

   What I am certain of though, is that the existence of Israel has enabled the development of normality in Israel itself. That is, that unlike Herbert I don’t have to worry so much about what non-Jewish societies think of me. (:-))!!#@!{(