Commentary Magazine


Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel, by Simon Schama

The Appeal of Zion

Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel.
by Simon Schama.
Knopf. 399 pp. $15.95.

Nothing is better for one’s peace of mind about Israel than to turn from the current political and military headlines to the passionate dramas of years gone by, when the issues at stake were the acquisition of a few dunams of land, the provision of a well or a gasoline pump, experimenting with a new crop, building a schoolroom. Suddenly, everything is in perspective.

There could hardly be a better illustration of the merits of this approach than that offered by this new study of the role of the great Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934) in the early development of what has become the state of Israel. Formally, the book embraces also the work of his son James and the institution—the Palestine Jewish Colonial Association (PICA)—into which the Rothschild projects were ultimately absorbed; but “the Baron” is the true focus, not only for the detailed story of what he accomplished at this primitive stage when almost everything trembled on the edge of collapse, but even more for the chance it gives us to see the mysterious appeal of Zion transforming a man’s life to his own surprise and even, it might be said, against his will.

This is, indeed, the central paradox in the Baron’s work. When the book opens he is unknown, a junior member of the unimaginably rich Rothschild dynasty in Paris, willing enough to participate in his family’s formal leadership of the small community of French Jews but totally remote in sentiment from the harried Jewish masses—five or six million in number—in Eastern Europe. By the time the book ends, his work in Palestine has given him unique status among the Jews of the world. On his final visit in 1925 at the age of eighty, his “spiritual testament” is read in his presence in the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, “with swarms of Jews pressing against the door and windows.” He has become a legend, and is quite conscious that the transmutation is double-edged. “Without me,” he had said to Chaim Weizmann in 1914, “the Zionists could have done nothing; without the Zionists, my work would have been dead.”

He had started by believing that “the Zionists,” in all their forms, were impractical dreamers. The political Zionism that Herzl offered looked to Jewish independence through a massively financed deal with the Turks. The Labor Zionists believed fanatically that the magic ingredient was the brotherhood of work. All this ideology was alien to the Baron. He had entered the field through charity, having been asked in 1882 (through the mediation of the Grand Rabbi of France) to help a few “Lovers of Zion” stranded in Palestine. He agreed on condition that they operate under his direction, and subject to the advice of French agricultural experts. From this tiny base, the help he offered grew into the foundation (or rescue) of settlements all over Palestine, with millions poured out to promote scientific experiment in new crops, supported where necessary by industry, and all run strictly by agents responsible to him in Paris. It was a formula tailor-made for conflict; but at the end of the day it had created an understructure for all future practical progress, and a generation of trained people who would carry the work forward.

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In outline, the story is familiar enough; but in detail, as presented in this new book drawing on unpublished archives and family papers, one gets a fresh understanding of the two distinct phases of the story—the experimental struggles to build up a Jewish community engrossed in new types of agriculture from the 1880′s to about 1914, and the bold but hard-headed economic programs launched after World War I harnessing international Jewish support in the PICA framework.

But the pleasure in reading the book goes deeper. In the first phase, the detail provided is often hilariously funny, now that one is free to enjoy it as nostalgia. (A good example is the Baron’s forlorn conviction that Palestine wine had to match, at any cost, the great crus of France. This particular story ended with a sickly wine produced for the kiddush markets of Poland.) In the second phase, one sees how the Zionist idea asserted its validity in Jewish hearts hitherto indifferent or hostile, as if attuned in advance to the somber forces due to explode in the world at large.

Nowhere is this clearer than with the Baron himself. His outlook at the beginning had been dominated by a sense of exasperation that the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe refused, somehow, to conform to his ideal of the virtuous, uncomplicated bourgeois peasant-farmer so familiar in France. He had no thought in 1882 of rescuing or transforming Jewry as a whole; but for his own peace of mind as a Jew he wanted to show the world that a few settlers in the Holy Land could be molded under his direction and through French expertise into self-supporting and self-respecting farmers. At no stage did he personally look for an economic return from the millions he poured out; but the Jewish peasants themselves had to feel the financial whip, nursing their way to independence as French peasants did. To this end, he developed a brood of agents who ruled the settlements like minor Rothschilds, brooking no resistance to the orders laid down covering social life as fiercely as they did agricultural or industrial activities.

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There are many signs throughout the book of how the tone of the Baron’s plans became infused, as time went on, with the kind of Jewish ideology that he had originally resisted when deployed by Zionists, most particularly when Herzl himself had come to him in Paris in 1896 to set out his grandiose plans. To take one striking example, he fought vociferously before World War I to make Hebrew the language of instruction at the Haifa Technion, and not simply out of French antipathy to the influence of the German Hilfsverein.

If, when he met Weizmann for the first time in 1914, he was still distancing himself technically from “the Zionists,” he was already taking a historic view of the meaning of Jewish life. The support he promised Weizmann for the founding of a scientific research institute in Palestine as the first stage toward a university was not motivated solely by practical reasons. A university, he told Weizmann, would be “a center of Jewish culture in the best sense of the word.” To attract a great scientist like Paul Ehrlich would be of the deepest significance:

If Ehrlich works in Frankfurt he is of no value to us; he will be eaten up by the Germans. If he were to work in Jerusalem it would be one of the greatest things for Judaism.

The Zionist ideology, which he had seen as fantasy in earlier years, had somehow begun to prove itself in practical terms by its obvious power to liberate untold resources of will and devotion. The millionaire, free to command in any way he chose, had come to recognize that there were issues at stake beyond the scope of an autocratic paternalism. Weizmann, who had entered the legendary presence in awe, conveyed his astonishment in a letter to his wife. The Baron, he wrote, was doing everything for “Jewish national” reasons. He was to be equally astonished later in the same year when James, picking up his father’s work, criticized the Zionist program as too timid. The demands they were making to British politicians for encouraging colonization, he told Weizmann, were not enough: “One should ask for something which tends toward the formation of a Jewish state.”

It is only against this sort of background that one can understand the spirit in which, when the right moment came, the Baron’s son James set out, shortly before his own death in 1957, to hand over to the state of Israel the huge properties and assets of the Rothschild benefactions as enshrined in PICA, accompanied by a gift of 6 million Israeli pounds (a vast sum at the time) for the building of the Knesset.

If the winding-up of PICA this way was generous, it was also realistic. Even by the time of the Baron’s death in 1934, the economic balance within Palestine had shifted irrevocably. In 1900, the Rothschild settlements had covered 67 per cent of Jewish land in Palestine; by 1930, the area had nearly tripled but was now only 34 per cent of the total. Even in the first year of the state, the Jewish National Fund budget for settlement was nearly twelve times that of PICA. Within a few years, the Jewish Agency was paying nearly 80 per cent of PICA’s new colonization budgets. PICA, as its last general manager put it, had become “a junior partner in its own colonies.”

Not that one would move on from this to play down the scale of the Baron’s legacy to Israel. Over three-quarters of a century, as the author says in summation, the work had yielded

fertile farms, gushing wells, plantations, factories, cities—the cornucopia of a living organic Jewish society where once there had been sandy, fetid waste and the timeless confrontation of merchant and schnorrer.

Granting this, one is free to assess the work by additional criteria. In day-to-day detail, as the book shows, it was a story of paternalism run riot, with a built-in conflict between a bureaucracy that could seem heartless and a Zionist idealism that could be as irresponsible as it was inspiriting. If the Baron’s memory is now sanctified, the authority which he exercised directly or through his agents could be rough and contemptuous. This was often matched on the Zionist side by opportunism and subterfuge. One has to get beyond the detail (so ably marshaled in this book) to acclaim the miracle which always seems to allow the Jewish people to be greater than the sum of its parts.

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