Littell's Living Age/Volume 144/Issue 1861/The Restoration of the Jews

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Originally reported in the Spectator.

We were told, a few days ago, that an old project had recently been revived at Constantinople, and that the Porte, despairing of raising money in any ordinary way, had offered to sell Palestine to the Jewish Alliance, of course for cash down, and to allow the restoration of the Jews as a people to their own land. The country would be declared a principality, with a Jewish prince or president, guaranteed against interference so long as a fixed tribute was regularly paid. We did not, and do not, believe the story, which would be most unacceptable to the religious party among Mahommedans, and probably owes its origin to the hopefulness of some students of prophecy among ourselves; but it is constantly revived, and most Englishmen seem unaware of the immense difficulties in the way of any such project. The Jews, it is said, are very rich; they have more than enough people for so small a country; and they would, of course, be most delighted to recover their nationality, and recommence in a revived temple the antique ritual of their worship. Why should they not buy Palestine? We rather doubt, we may remark, en passant, whether the Jews, as a people, are exceptionally rich; whether their six millions, as compared with any other small nation of six millions or less—say, even the Irish or the Belgians—are not exceptionally poor. They own no country, to begin with, and the fee-simple of a country is worth many millions a year. Take that away from the English rich, and what proportion of wealth would remain? Half? Then, though the Western Jews are well off and in many families of quite exceptional wealth, the Jewish millions in Poland, Hungary, Russia, and south-eastern Europe are very poor, own in purely agricultural countries scarcely any land, and are not allowed to exercise their remarkable gifts for the smaller commerce, for shopkeeping, and for money-dealing, with anything like sufficient freedom. There is hunger in Jewish Poland very often. The average income of the Jews of the world must be very small, and their savings wholly incommensurate with the popular notion in England and France of their abounding wealth. We may, however, let that pass. The richer Jews could, we doubt not, capitalize any revenue the Porte receives from Palestine, and guarantee a yearly backsheesh besides, but it may be strongly doubted whether they would be willing to do anything of the kind. Their leaders are the Jews of the West, and the Jews of the West are not very enthusiastic about anything but their own social claims, and perhaps art, and would, we believe, agree that the possession of their own country would be a great burden to them. They would at once become Judeans as we1I as Jews,—that is, would be aliens in every other country in the world, an immense loss to them, politically and socially. At present, though still singularly separate in many of their feelings and ideas, they are regarded as citizens by the country in which they happen to be born, and can and do rise high in all departments of life: but with a separate nationality they would be regarded as foreigners, and would in no long time be treated as such. There is little prejudice in England and France against foreigners, Fermans rising in the one country and Italians in the other. But it would be difficult in England for a foreigner to enter the government, as Sir G. Jessel might now do; or to become a minister in France, as M. Crémieux or M. Fould did; or to lead a great party in the State, as Herr Lasker has done for many years in Germany. The Jews would not be trusted as they are now, and their professions of patriotism, quite true in many countries, more especially in France and Germany, instead of being reckoned in their favor, would be accounted slightly discreditable, as indicating want of proper feeling towards their own land, with its unique history. People do not admire the Greeks very much, but a Greek who hated Greece would be detestable. The Jews even now feel the annoyance of their separateness, and always make it their first claim in any country to be treated as citizens of that country, even submitting to the conscription and accepting commissions without any obvious, or it may be any real, reluctance. To lose this position would be a serious loss, especially in eastern Europe, for it might involve the loss of civil status altogether. The position of the race in eastern Europe, broadly stated, is this,—that while the peoples are decidedly disposed to persecute the Jews, and the governments are more or less unfriendly, both are reluctant, owing to the intellectual influence of the West, to seem to persecute on religious grounds: They prefer to say that the Jews would absorb all national wealth. They could, however, and would, disable the Jews from sitting in the national assemblies, from holding many offices, and from entering some employments, on the ground that they were foreigners; and the West, which still keeps up the exclusion of foreigners in theory, though in practice, no doubt, the principle is waived, could not even seriously remonstrate. No country, it would be said, could be expected to allow a third of its representation, or of its military commissions, or of its magistracy, or even of its public houses, to be occupied by foreigners, belonging to a State which possibly might be at war with them, or actively hostile to their policy. No doubt the anti-Jewish feeling might die away, but it also might not, and it is exceedingly probable that it would not. There are signs abroad which suggest that the Jews are by no means altogether safe. In America, society has quite recently displayed a sort of loathing for them. Eastern Europe bitterly resents their adhesion to the Mussulman, or rather the Asiatic, cause, and is inclined to rank them rather with the oppressors who are falling, than with the liberated classes who are rising into power. Their success in commerce creates jealousy, and their habit in the East of acting on certain occasions as corporations arouses both dislike and dread, which, in some places, such as Salonica, are not entirely unreasonable. To become aliens — citizens of a State quite separate, yet not European, and not strong enough to extort redress by fleets and armies—would decidedly not improve their position in the world.

But they would depart for their own land? We do not know why they should. They seem to like every country they enter, very rarely abandoning it, except under compulsion, and they are apparently independent of climate. It is probable that during the ages which the race has passed in Ghettos, Jewries, Jew quarters, and the obscure parts of cities and villages, certain liabilities to disease have been eliminated from the Jews, only the exceptionally strong families surviving chronic malaria. It is said they do not die of cholera, and though that is an illusion, they do live under circumstances in which healthy Yorkshire laborers would die like flies. At all events, they are more independent of climate than any other people, and can live and flourish in the villages on the great Russian plain, which Scotchmen find cold, and in the marshes of Bengal, which many Asiatics pronounce unendurable from the heat. In the most wind-swept provinces of Russia there are Jews by thousands apparently quite acclimatized, while Jewish families of Calcutta have resided there, that is, under extreme conditions of heat, for a hundred years, and remain not only among the healthiest of the community, but exceptionally fair, far more fair than the Jews of western Europe, who have grown darker and more sallow, in the narrow and squalid quarters to which persecution confined them.

They would have little motive in going to Judea, where there are no cities, no business, and no attraction of climate for them, and even if a strong religious or historic impulse drew them there, they would find endless difficulties. We suppose a government could be organized, though it is remarkable that the nation has no great family in its midst universally accepted as its representative house; and no aristocracy, except the reputed descendants of the active section of the Levites. The two great houses of the Jews, in the political sense, the house of David and the Asmoneans, have perished utterly, the last prince of the Captivity, who was by universal tradition Hebrew, and we think, by evidence of the royal line, dying at Cadiz in the sixteenth century; and persecution to a great extent wore down all distinctions of grade, though Jewish families once great in Spain do, we believe, exist. Still, a government could be formed, but the difficulty would be a people. Judea is a country which might be prosperous, beautiful, and fertile, if it were "improved" for half a century,—that is, if the hills were replanted, if the water-supply were renewed, and if the soil were resolutely cultivated and manured; but that is not work to which the modern Jews are adapted. They must number in out-of-the-way places many tillers of the soil, but they are not voluntarily peasants anywhere. We do not know that their writers have ever explained this remarkable change in the habits of a purely agricultural people, but they acknowledge and lament it; and we suppose the truth to be this, that having no special aptitude for agriculture, and having a special aptitude for other occupations, they have by degrees come to dislike and abandon the one which, whatever we may say of its attractions, has in every country and every age fallen to the least intellectual and ambitious of the community. It is most honorable to plough, but all are more comfortable than the ploughman. Be that as it may, the Jews would find the greatest difficulty in becoming a nation of cultivators, and would, we conceive, employ other hands, possibly under some system of semi-slavery, under which there would, in Palestine, be only room for a very small portion of their numbers, not so many, probably, as there are Greeks in the present Greece. Even they would find maintenance very difficult, and the development of independent political strength nearly impossible. They might obtain Arab help, and gradually extend themselves, but in the existing circumstances of the world, a Jewish kingdom or republic on the south-eastern shore of the Mediterranean, with the desert behind it, and no carrying-trade,—for that trade will go by sea, if the Duke of Sutherland builds railways from now till A.D. 2000,—would be a rather feeble and poverty-stricken affair, not half so attractive to the community as the great cities which the northern barbarians, who were savages when the Maccabees were encouraging learning, have built up in the West. We fear the Jews of England will prefer London, even in this weather, to the delicious sky of Syria; and that it will not be given to this age, which has seen so many nations rise and fall, to witness the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, and the renewal of the daily sacrifice on Mount Moriah.