Commentary Magazine

The Emergence of the Jewish Problem: 1878-1939, by James Parkes

The Limitations of Fairness
The Emergence of the Jewish Problem: 1878-1939.
by James Parkes.
London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1946. 259 pp. $5.00.


Dr. Parkes’ writings present an interesting problem in the theory of scholarly objectivity. His first major work, The Conflict of the Church and Synagogue: A Study in the Origins of Antisemitism, was published in 1934 and immediately established his reputation as a historian and social scientist. In the intervening years he has given repeated proof of his ability to discern clearly the true political basis of modern anti-Semitism—the fact that it is only incidentally concerned with Jews, that its real object is to overthrow the free society created in the Western world by the political and intellectual revolutions of the past few centuries.

The present work is but the latest illustration of Dr. Parkes’ scholarly gifts and political acuteness: yet its merits are appreciably diminished by a mechanically even-handed assessment of fact and motive, of a kind that too many social scientists regard as true objectivity. His Antisemitism: An Enemy of the People (1945) erred similarly, as Marie Jahoda has shown (Commentary, January 1947), in conceding and apologizing for certain alleged Jewish characteristics, for the existence of which there is no valid evidence at all.



The purpose and scope of the volume under review, originally undertaken early in the war as a project in postwar planning, are thus described in the preface: “Three problems have been chosen which will certainly need international planning and international action for their solution—Palestine, the Jewish minorities [in Europe], and anti-Semitism as a political weapon. . . .On these three subjects the world has to make a fresh start.” The book’s limiting dates, 1878 and 1939, mark the Congress of Berlin, at the one end, and the White Paper and the beginning of World War II, at the other. .(The Congress of Berlin, which met to consider Turkish and Balkan affairs, coupled recognition of full Rumanian independence with a demand by the great powers that Rumania grant citizenship and equality of rights to her Jewish inhabitants.) Anti-Semitism is rightly treated as not essentially a Jewish problem, but still one that it would have been artificial to exclude from this book. The Jewish minority in Eastern Europe is examined in two case studies: Rumania from the Congress of Berlin to the treaties of 1919, and Poland between the two world wars; in neither country, despite treaties and constitutions, were the Jews able to enjoy anything approaching full citizenship or actual equality. The Palestine discussion requires separate consideration.

For Dr. Parkes impartiality seems to mean presenting a balanced picture. A true picture, however, is not necessarily a balanced picture; and the aim of objectivity should surely be truth, not balance. In The Emergence of the Jewish Problem, Dr. Parkes’ misleading conception of objectivity expresses itself not so much in attributing non-existent defects to Jews, as in an equal distribution of blame between Jews and anti-Semites. Two illustrations from the section on Poland are particularly illuminating.

1. “The demand for a numerus clausus in some professions was made already in 1923. It was rejected. But apart from some agreement with the Jewish bodies that the peculiar distribution of the Jewish population could not be used to place this or that aspect of Polish life in Jewish hands, no solution of the problem was possible. On this issue the Jewish bodies absolutely refused to compromise and, to the end, maintained their demand for their interpretation of ‘equality.’ . . . Academically, it is equally possible to ‘blame’ both sides, to blame the Polish majority for not having put forward a programme in which Jews and Poles could collaborate in positive work for the prosperity of Poland, and to blame the Jews for concentrating all their efforts on clinging to a principle even though it could assure them no practical advantage. In terms of political realities, it is fairer to say that both sides were the victims of circumstances which they did not create and which they lacked the political maturity to overcome.” (On the face of it, Dr. Parkes is trying hard not to be academic, but his “political realities” are very academic indeed.)

2. “They [the Polish governments] as much as the Jews are entitled to the charitable verdict of humanum est errare.“ (Dr. Parkes is a theologian, and it is especially easy for theologians to insist that in the sight of heaven all men are miserable sinners; in this instance, Jews and anti-Semites alike.)



Noting that The Emergence of the Jewish Problem was published under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a reader might reasonably expect the book to be anti-Zionist. This expectation would be likely to be strengthened by the passage in the preface in which Dr. Parkes expresses his warm “thanks to Mr. Harold Beeley for the advantage I have gained from innumerable discussions with him.” Both Richard H. S. .Crossman and Bartley C. Crum have described Mr. Beeley as a passionate supporter of the Arab cause and a thoroughgoing opponent of Zionism; at present in the Foreign Office, he is said to be Mr. Bevin’s adviser on Palestine, and the author of the decision to send the immigrants on the “Exodus, 1947” to Germany.

In his treatment of the diplomatic and legal aspects of the Palestine question, the author has allowed himself to be unduly influenced by Mr. Beeley. Beeley and his associates lay great stress on the McMahon letters and the Hogarth message, interpreting both in the sense long since made familiar by Antonius and all the other spokesmen of Arab anti-Zionism. Their interpretation has been proved false not only by the Jewish Agency and such Jewish scholars as Professor Namier, but also by the Peel Commission and McMahon himself.

In his conclusions and in his recommendations for the future, however, Dr. Parkes is not anti-Zionist. He emphasizes the criterion of need, and therefore makes proposals favorable to Jewish settlement. This conclusion is handsome proof of his ultimate preference for a humanitarian solution over his loyalty to purely British interests, as he has been led to see them.

Dr. Parkes writes well, saying what he has to say clearly and economically. His book contains excellent sections, concise and well informed, in which the reader will find good economic, social, and political history. On the other hand, some of the detail is wrong, like the statement that the United States denounced the Russian-American treaty of commerce during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt; Taft was president at the time. The bibliographical apparatus is a bit shaky, and the index could be better. Lastly, neither the size nor the character of this volume warrants a price of five dollars.



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