His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.
—Arthur Balfour, November 2, 1917
A s Jews in England and around the world prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, let us pause to ponder the respective legacies of Edwin Montagu and Lewis Dembitz. The names of these two Jews are largely unknown today, but they were, each in his own way, central players in the saga of the declaration, and therefore in one of the seminal moments in Jewish history. The former, a dedicated anti-Zionist, did everything he could to prevent this moment from occurring; the latter made his home thousands of miles from Britain and went to his grave surely unaware that the honorable way he lived his life, every day, would one day help bring the Balfour Declaration, and thereby the Jewish State, into existence.
Edwin Montagu was born into the one of the wealthiest Jewish families in England. He was the son of Samuel Montagu, who had been raised to British peerage but was known first and foremost for his zealous observance of Jewish law and for his sympathies to Zionism. Edwin’s life was lived in rebellion against his patrimony; like many members of the Jewish aristocracy known as “The Cousinhood,” he hated Zionism and its notion that Jews all around the world were one people and bound to one another. This, he believed, was not only false, but also raised the specter of dual loyalty for Jews seeking assimilation and aristocratic elevation in Britain. To Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George, Montagu complained, “All my life I have been trying to get out of the ghetto; you want to force me back there.”
In 1917, Montagu received the India portfolio in George’s cabinet; he was known for his sympathy for the nationalist aspirations of the Indians but not for those of other Jews. As the only Jewish member of George’s cabinet, Montagu participated in a public anti-Zionist statement asserting that Zionism “regards all the Jewish communities of the world as constituting one homeless nationality,” a notion that the statement “strongly and energetically protests.” Zionism, argued the statement, “must have the effect of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands.”
There were prominent British Jews favorable to the Zionist project, including Montagu’s cousin Herbert Samuel. Yet as the British writer Chaim Bermant notes, Montagu was a “particularly formidable opponent, arguing both from the standpoint of the assimilated Jew and as Secretary of State for India.” If the efforts of Montagu were ultimately in vain, it was because the most politically powerful Jew in England was foiled by the most politically powerful Jew in America: Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
Brandeis had been raised with no Judaism at all and for much of his life approached Zionism in the same manner as Montagu. In 1905, he informed a Jewish audience that there was no place in the United States for “hyphenated Americans,” adding as late as 1910 that “habits of living or of thought which tend to keep alive differences of origin or classify men according to the religious beliefs are inconsistent with the American ideal of brotherhood, and are disloyal.” Yet he did know of one Jew who clearly saw no contradiction between public Jewishness and patriotic Americanism. That was his mother’s brother, a lawyer by the name of Lewis Dembitz.
Like Brandeis, Dembitz lived in Louisville and was revered there for his achievements in the law and for the way he lived his life. Yet he was also admired by Gentiles for his dedication to Judaism. “Business and pleasure never interfered with the lawyer-scholar’s religious obligations,” a gushing obituary in the Louisville Courier Journal reflected, adding that “Mr. Dembitz’s doctrine prohibited work on the Sabbath day, and he never was known to violate the teaching.” Brandeis very much admired his uncle and changed his middle name from “David” to “Dembitz” in memory of the man who had helped shaped his choice of career.
In 1914, Brandeis was visited by Jacob de Haas, former secretary to Theodore Herzl, ostensibly to be interviewed about insurance law. De Haas offhandedly inquired whether Brandeis was related to a “noble Jew” by the name of Lewis Dembitz, who was an ardent Zionist. As the writer Rick Richman has documented, this meeting alerted Brandeis to the possibility that Zionism was not irreconcilable with Americanism. Thereupon he rose in Zionist leadership in America even as he was elevated by President Wilson to the Supreme Court in 1916. The following year, when Montagu made his opposition to the declaration known, Chaim Weizmann cabled Brandeis to ask “if President Wilson and yourself would support [the] text.” Brandeis, Richman writes,
wired Weizmann that, based on his talks with Wilson, the President was in “entire sympathy” with the draft declaration and in mid-October, Wilson himself passed a private message to the British supporting the declaration. It was issued two weeks later. The message was, Weizmann wrote later, “one of the most important individual factors” in breaking the deadlock. Nahum Goldman, later president of the World Zionist Organization, wrote in his autobiography that without Brandeis’s efforts, the Balfour Declaration “would probably never have been issued.”
Yet issued it was, and Montagu was crushed. “It seems strange,” he reflected, “to be a member of a government which goes out of its way, as I think, for no conceivable purpose that I can see, to deal this blow at a colleague that is doing his best to be loyal to them, despite his opposition. The government has dealt an irreparable blow to Jewish Britons and they have endeavored to set up a people which does not exist.”
The irony—or perhaps the providential nature—of this moment is difficult to miss. One of the most important Jews in England had done all he could to deny Jewish peoplehood, only to be foiled by one of the most important Jews in America, who had only just ceased to think about his own Jewishness in the exact same way.
Montagu died in 1924, at the age of 45, never achieving the apex of political power, and with his assault on Zionism a failure. Yet Montagu’s legacy lives on in the many Jews today who seem concerned for the nationalist aspirations of all other peoples except their own, and who raise the specter of dual loyalty. In this, Montagu brings to mind the criticism of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who once wrote that the “emancipated modern Jew has been trying, for a long time, to do away with this twofold responsibility…the universal and the covenantal, which, in his opinion, are mutually exclusive.” This was true in the age of Edwin Montagu, and, alas, it remains true today.
Meanwhile, Dembitz may be as unknown as Montagu, if not more so. But one can rightly say that millions of Jews enjoy the fruits of his labor and his life, every day, in a vibrant and miraculous Jewish state. It is important that his legacy inspire Jewish Americans, that we be known for our dedication to this country and simultaneously for exercising our freedoms in defense of Jews, and in dedicated observance of the faith of our fathers. If we do so with integrity, we cannot fully imagine the extraordinary fruits that our lives, like that of Dembitz, might bear. May the memory of Lewis Dembitz be a blessing. On November 2, may we honor the full legacy of the man as we mark the hundredth anniversary of a day that his life helped bring about.
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The Zionist Uncle Who Changed the World
Must-Reads from Magazine
The final frontier.
In 1957, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago named Eugene Parker submitted a paper to The Astrophysical Journal, the most prestigious journal in that field. In it, he predicted the existence of the solar wind, a stream of charged particles, streaming out from the sun in all directions. The idea was considered so ridiculous that two reviewers rejected the article. But the editor of the Astrophysical Journal, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, (one of the giants of 20th-century astrophysics, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1983) couldn’t find any flaws in the math, so he overrode the reviewers and published it. Within four years, the paper had been vindicated by the earliest space probes, and our understanding of the sun and its dynamics took a quantum leap forward
On Sunday, a Delta IV heavy-lift rocket took off from Cape Canaveral carrying the Parker Solar Probe (the first time a NASA mission has been named for a living person) to explore the sun and its outer atmosphere, the corona, close up. Very close up. The Parker space mission will get within 3.83 million miles of the sun’s photosphere (the “surface” that you see when you look at the sun, which you should do only with proper eye protection).
How close is that? Well, since sunlight is subject to an inverse square law, just like gravity, when you get twice as close to the sun, you are getting four times as much sunlight per unit of area. At 3.83 million miles the Parker space probe will be getting about 590 times as much sunlight per square inch as we get on earth. In other words, the sunburn you would get in one hour of a bright sunny day on the equator, you would get in about six seconds if you were 3.83 million miles from the sun. In one hour, you would be, well, long since toast.
The Parker mission will (we hope) be able to withstand such an enormous energy flux thanks to some very fancy engineering. According to Space.com, “To deal with heat, the solar-powered probe is equipped with a 7.5-foot-wide (2.3 meters), 4.5-inch-thick (11.4 centimeters) shield made of an advanced carbon-composite material, which will keep most of the spacecraft’s scientific instruments at a comfortable 85 degrees F (29 degrees C).”
The probe, at times, will accelerate to about 430,000 miles an hour over the course of its seven-year mission, by far the fastest man-made object in history. (A high-powered bullet has a muzzle velocity of about 4000 feet a second, or 2,700 miles an hour, not even one percent the speed that the Parker space mission will achieve).
If all goes well, within a decade, our knowledge of the sun will have taken another quantum leap forward.
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Response to 'The Rise of Black Anti-Semitism' from the June issue
An appeal for sanity.
Can a right-wing American writer help spark a resistance movement inside the U.K. Labour party? Probably not. But these aren’t ordinary times. There is a great danger looming inside Labour. Its shadow extends from the British Isles across the West, including the United States. That danger has a name, Jeremy Corbyn, and there is a duty to prevent his ever coming to lead Her Majesty’s Government.
The latest revelation about the Labour leader—that in 2014 he laid a wreath at the graves of several Palestinian terrorists, including the masterminds of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre—underscores the urgency of the task. As the Daily Mail reported on Friday, Corbyn was photographed honoring the burial site of members of Black September, the terror group that murdered 11 Israeli athletes in Munich.
“One picture places Mr. Corbyn close to the grave of another terrorist, Atef Bseiso, intelligence chief of the Palestine Liberation Organisation,” per the Mail. “Another image shows the Labour leader apparently joining in an Islamic prayer while by the graves.”
His Labour handlers claimed Corbyn was there to commemorate some four-dozen Palestinian militants killed in an Israeli air strike against a Tunisian PLO base. But hang on: “On a visit to the cemetery this week, the Daily Mail discovered that the monument to the air strike victims is 15 yards from where Mr. Corbyn is pictured—and in a different part of the complex. Instead, he was in front of a plaque that lies beside the graves of Black September members.”
Corbyn himself has described the conference as one “searching for peace,” but the Daily Mail on Monday debunked that apologia, as well. The gabfest—titled the “International Conference on Monitoring the Palestinian Political and Legal Situation in the Light of Israeli Aggression”—featured leading members and ideologues for the Gaza-based terror outfit Hamas. One such leader, Oussama Hamdan, offered a “four-point vision to fight against Israel” and hailed Hamas’ “great success on the military and national levels.”
This comes on top of everything else we know about Corbyn’s Labour: the unreconstructed Stalinist party spokesman, the anti-Semitic outrages from local councilors and top MPs alike, the Labour leader’s stints as a broadcaster for state-run Iranian television, his invitations to Hamas and Hezbollah, which he has called “our friends.” And on and on and on. The noxious ideological fumes wafting from a once-honorable party of the center-left are suffocating.
There was a time when conservatives, including Americans like yours truly, took a certain pleasure in Labour’s Corbynite woes. Corbyn was so extreme, the thinking went, that his hostile takeover of Labour would ensure Tory ascendance for a generation. The man’s goofy manners—his tweed jackets and bad ties, his bicycling and gardening—only added to the fun. But the joke stopped being funny long ago. The Tories under Prime Minister Theresa May are in a shambolic state, Brexit has stalled, the pound sterling is in a downward spiral, and the electorate is deeply polarized. He really could pull it off.
To avert that dreadful prospect, Britons of good will should set aside quotidian policy differences and rally around the “Never Corbyn” standard. The outcome of Brexit, taxes and welfare, immigration and the National Health Service—none of these questions is more important than ensuring that the Jew-baiting, Black September-honoring, Hamas-befriending crank from the People’s Republic of Islington gets nowhere near No. 10 Downing Street.
For the love of all that is good and just.