by Harold Ticktin
I recently plucked a yellowed 95-cent paperback from my burgeoning backlog–one called The Jews Among the Nations, published in 1967 by Erich Kahler, a 20th-century European-American literary scholar. It was not the volume itself that proved valuable, but its appendix, a stunning documentation of an event about which I never had the remotest information. The author attached the details of a debate before the House Committee on Foreign Relations in February 1944, known as the Wright-Compton Resolution for “the reconstitution of Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish Commonwealth.” The debaters for the proposal were Albert Einstein and Kahler himself; arguing against was Philip Hitti, professor of Semitic Literature at Princeton University.
After Hitti’s leadoff summarizing the “Arab point of view,” which saw political Zionism as artificial, internationally stimulated, exotic and with no hope of “ultimate or permanent success,” Hitti adds his concurrence to the proposition that such a proposed state is an anachronism because the Arabs are the descendants “of the Canaanites who were in the land long before the Hebrews entered Palestine.” But he was only starting.
After visualizing such an anachronism, produced solely “by British and American arms,” he opines, “what chance of survival has such an alien state amidst a camp of…hostile Arabic and unsympathetic Islamic world?” From there Hitti expands on a mainstay of Arabic extremism: that because of Jerusalem’s holy standing for Islam, relinquishing it would be a betrayal of faith. His denial of Arab anti-Semitism is accompanied by sympathy with Jewish affliction, which cannot be solved by the Resolution.
Sly allusions abound in Hitti’s discourse. He refers to lifting the bars of American immigration to admit Jewish refugees, “millions of whom could be settled on the unoccupied plains of Arizona or Texas.” But far more insidious, for his time and ours, is an older refrain, loaded with classic anti-Semitism: “They [Arabs] realize they have no spokesmen in America, no high-pressure groups, no machinery for influencing American public opinion or legislation…” Hitti asserts that if the Resolution passed, Hitler would propagandize that “Zionist control of Palestine is but the prelude to the Jewish control of Trans-Jordan, Syria, Lebanon.”
What is most striking about Hitti’s testimony (and that of Einstein and Kahler to follow) is how little the basics have changed in 70 years.
Citing the closeness of the three monotheistic religions and Arabic sympathy for Jewish suffering, Hitti launches into a series of objections that could be today’s: In addition to “Arabs as Canaanites”; Jerusalem as the third holiest Muslim site, given by Allah; and the presence of 275 million Arabs in the Middle East, Hitti invokes the potential effect of the Resolution on the war effort, arguing that Zionist control of Palestine would alienate allies and could be “the camel’s head intruding into the tent…Will the people of the United States be willing to send their navy to protect such a commonwealth if established?” He relies heavily on Britain’s 1922 White Paper , separating what is now Jordan from the original grant, plus other British directives in response to the rise of Nazi Germany.
Einstein and Kahler rise to Hitti’s testimony in no uncertain terms. As to the inevitable “holy” argument: “If, finally the Arab conquest of Palestine is considered holy, it would be only fair to admit the corresponding holiness of the peaceful claim and the peaceful reclamation of the country by the Jews.” Going further they assert: “To refer to the legitimacy of a ‘holy’ war sounds rather queer for a people which denounces peaceful immigration as a violation of their rights.”
Einstein and Kahler describe Hitti’s stance as “exactly [that] which all peoples of the world are taking,” particularly apt in 1944. Pointing to the vast territories of the Arab nation, they respond, “This tiny Palestinian country…is the only place in the world legitimately and most deeply connected with the Jewish people, its religious foundation and its historic tradition as an independent people..”, a people who “in fact, are the most powerless people on earth.” They deplore the “whittling down” by the British of the promise enshrined in the Balfour Declaration, bitterly denounced by Churchill, of course only “before he became Prime Minister” and assert the value that England would find in a Jewish state, one necessarily “a dependable ally.”
As to the usual reference to “Jewish power,” Einstein and Kahler soberly note: “If they had any power they should have been able to prevent the annihilation of millions of their people and the closing of the last door to the helpless victims of the Nazis.” Sadly, at a moment when the fury of Nazi genocide was peaking (the reference to “millions” of victims was not news), they appeal to “an elementary sense of justice and humanity. We know how weak such a position is, but we also know if the arguments of threats of power, of sacred egoisms and holy wars continue to prevail in the future world order, not only the Jews but the whole of humanity will be doomed.” More than two generations later, this statement could fit any number of national or international bodies seeking to right–as Kant put it–the crooked timber of humanity.
Hitti breezily shunts aside Einstein and Kahler in his reply: “The Hebrews came and went. The natives remained.” He cites the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and disposes all subsequent history with, “all flickers of national life were extinguished by later rulers,” neatly omitting the Maccabees and the Romans. In a sarcastic aside, Hitti remarks, “Dr. Einstein’s acquaintance with the antecedents and setting of the Arab-Zionist problem does not far surpass my acquaintance with his theory of relativity.”
Hitti affirms that the Resolution being considered should not “exclude persons other than Jews…” and accuses American politicians (“Dewey included”) of hypocrisy for not inviting the Jews to America. Oblivious to what was then widely known of the fate of European Jewry, Hitti avers the desire of these non-existing Jews “to return to their old homelands of which (N.B.) they were citizens first and Jews second.” His last argument is the oldest at hand, that approval of the Resolution is “such stuff…that anti-Semitism feeds.”
Summing up, Einstein and Kahler fill in the gap left by Hitti regarding the actual history of Jews in Palestine, asserting first that “racial genealogies” are of little use, while the living presence of Jews in the land include a 10th-century C.E. Arab complaint about “the predominance of the Jewish population in Jerusalem.” They rely for economic proof on the benefits of Zionist efforts, on the British Royal Commission of 1936-7 that “the large import of Jewish capital into Palestine had a fructifying effect on the economic life of the country,” producing a large influx of Arabs into the land from their native countries, where the standard of living was far below those in Palestine. In a master stroke of finality, they quote none other than Lawrence of Arabia, “one of the most ardent friends the Arabs ever had” to the following effect: “Palestine was a decent country [in ancient times] and could so easily be made so again. The sooner the Jews farm it all the better: their colonies are a bright spot in the desert.”
Seventy years after this remarkable exchange, that bright spot still shines.
Harold Ticktin is a retired lawyer and writer whose work has appeared in a wide range of Jewish and popular publications.