Zionism And The Russian Revolution

[The Nation; May 17, 1917]

Lord Robert Cecil's refusal in the House of Commons to say whether Great Britain had entered into any agreement with the allies with regard to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, must have been dictated by considerations other than those of intra-Entente diplomacy. It would not help matters to supply Germany with another instance of Allied plans for the dismemberment of the territory of the Central Powers. "It would have been premature to discuss the disposal of Palestine while Gen. Murray was only over the threshold of the Holy Land. Finally, it would have been premature to commit The Allies to the realisation of the Zionist ideal, while events directly affecting the Zionists propaganda were working themselves out in Russia. The anomaly is presented that just at the moment when the progress of the Allied arms in Asia Minor makes the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine a possibility, the one great factor which brought the Zionist movement into being and which has supplied its principal impetus, namely, the position of the Jews in eastern Europe and particularly in Russia, is in a fair way of being profoundly modified.

The unhappy economic and cultural conditions of the Russian Jews which impelled the late Theodor Herzl to bring forward his solution of a separate home for his people could not have continued after the war even if Czarism survived. Jewish poverty was primarily the result of segregation within the provinces of the Pale in Poland and Lithuania and restrictions to the urban districts within that territory. The Pale no longer exists. It was destroyed by the invading Teutonic armies. The Jews of the Western provinces were among the millions of refugees scattered throughout the empire in Asia as well as in Europe. The old régime was compelled to recognize an accomplished fact by removing the restrictions on Jewish domicile, and while such action was only for the duration of the war, it would have been an enormously difficult task to shepherd back the refugees to their old prison walls. The Revolution has brought with it complete emancipation for the Jews. To what extent the new régime is prepare to go is indicated by the appointment of a Jewish lawyer of Petrograd to the post of Vice-Governor of the territory in Galicia and Bukowina. Given full freedom of residence and of occupation, the Jews of Russia are sure to find in the vast spaces of Russia an outlet for their energies. The old economic misery can never return under a democratic régime.

The second factor that entered into Zionism was the cultural aspirations of the Jewish people. The principle of nationality which the Allies are now defending has been recognized by the makers of the Russian revolution. To Poland has been granted independence. To Finland has been conceded a degree of autonomy which is almost independence. To the other nationalities within the state which cannot hope for political self-government in the fullest sense the way is open to that cultural autonomy for which they fought so eagerly long before the present war. If the revolution in Russia succeeds in maintaining itself, we may regard it as almost certain that along with the Ukrainians or Little Russians, the Letts, and the Armenians in the Caucasus, the Jews will receive the privilege of establishing and managing their own schools in those sections where they form a sufficiently large element in the population, their own tribunals and communal forms of government, and the recognition of their own popular tongue, the Yiddish, as the official language. In other words, one of the main aspirations of Zionism, the shaping of Jewish life in accordance with its own genius, and traditions, may very well be realized under the broad federalism which seems destined to be the future organization of the Russian state.

But the change in Russia has by no means emptied Zionism of its meaning. There can be no absolute guarantee of the permanence of the new conditions, and so long as uncertainty exists, the Jewish people, after a millennial experience of suffering under all sorts of régimes, must continue to some extent to regard a country of its own as the ultimate solution, It is not certain, for example, what conditions will be in independent Poland, which still contains the bulk of the former Jewish subjects of the Czar. The indications are that Poland, where racial feeling has run high, will not escape the contagion of the Russian revolution, and in common with all Europe will recognize the principle of national rights for which the Continent has been drenched with blood. Nevertheless there must be sufficient doubt of so happy an outcome to keep alive the vision of a people seeking in its historic home the fullest opportunity for self-realization.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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