Revolutionizing Experiences Part II

Letter by Henrietta Szold. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel.

Part II: Entering the Holy Land

Miss the beginning? Start here.

Henrietta and Sophie Szold with two unidentified women in Jerusalem during their 1909 trip. JMM 1992.242.7.19
Henrietta and Sophie Szold with two unidentified women in Jerusalem during their 1909 trip. JMM 1992.242.7.19

I confess that as I approached Palestine I trembled more and more in anticipation of what I should find, especially in the colonies. The black gipsy tents in the Hauran, the tolerant mixture of races, languages, and religions on the bridge of Galata at Constantinople, the fierce mien of the Bedouin on all the highways, the disregard of what the Occident looks upon as elementary conventions in social life, the unspeakable filth and disease that meet the eye at every turn in the cities, the riot of costumes, color, and jewels that fills the courts and byways and mountain sides – they are all picturesque and interesting – but would I care to find the Jews, my own people, Arabicized to this degree, become an indistinguishable part of the variegated Eastern, Turco-Arabic world? As I went along, I said again and again, if only the colonies are not like this! The Jewish city communities were sad enough, I warrant you. As communities they have no dignity, no independence, indeed, no life. And if I have a criticism of the Alliance to make, it is this, that after nearly fifty years of work in the East, she has not made as much as a dent in the Jewish mass. The reproach that she is not Jewish does not touch the core. She is philanthropic, but aristocratically philanthropic –the Occidental Lady Bountiful going to the East End. Therefore she carries away from the East every fine talent she discerns, instead of educating it to be an organizer of the people from which it has sprung. But that is a long chapter, to which the Hilfeverein is adding a few German touches that are more than literary in their effect, and far from innocuous.

But if Damascus had no Jewish Kehillah, I wept and consoled myself. I had not set my hopes upon Hasskeuy or the Jewish quarter in Smyrna. The colonies, they were the thing, upon them depends my “new Jerusalem,” and  you will have guessed by this time, from the way I am working up to a climax, that in the fourteen which I visited there was much to hearten the Zionist. The new spirit is abroad among them. After my first Sabbath in a colony, at Zichron Yaakob, the originally Rumanian colony, and after a service at the respectable and not-little synagogue there, and after seeing the zest with which exegetical points were debated by the worshippers on their way home, my fears were allayed that a superior civilization, strengthened as the Jew is by his two thousand Wanderjahre in the West, would be crushed and strangled by an inferior civilization. I was not jubilant even then, for as the colonists issued from the synagogue they were met on the outside by the very large number of fellaheen that work their fields and live in their villages, lowering the standard of living before the eyes of Jewish children. That was my purest disappointment in the colonies, the small number of Jewish workmen, the large number of fellaheen. I can talk as wisely as the rest in America and Palestine about laws of economic necessity, and supply and demand, and all the other well known and easily acquired jargon. The truth of the matter is that Palestine colonization, as well as all Jewish colonization, wherever it may be, is an artificial process. Indeed, I maintain that in the twentieth century all colonization, even of Germans, the most colonizable of peoples, is factitious. If then, I criticize the presence, the excessive presence I mean, of Arab workmen as compared with Jewish workmen, I cannot be met with arguments from political economy.

And this is the point at which I pass from the colonidt to the administration – once upon a time all heart and no brain, and now, as far as I could seem, no heart and no brain. The absence of Jewish workmen is but a single illustration of how a petty policy spoils a magnificent colonist. This letter is growing too long, as it is, I cannot tax your patience by telling you more in detail, and much of it would be unaesthetic detail, how the JCA are despotic and not benevolently despotic – how from the country-Halukah system of the poor dear deluded Baron they have passed to a high-handed business policy in which, Has-ve-shalom [Heaven forbid!], there shall not be noticeable a streak of Jewish feeling. If my former criticism will be met by the political economist, my present one will be met by the wiseacres who remind me that I was in the country only six weeks. That, too, is cheap; I speak by the book, I can address chapter and verse. For instance, I might tell you, and I will on my return if you care to listen, how the homes are built without the least regard to sanitary science not to mention the demands of taste. Of course, I am prepared for the wiseacres here, too, I have already met them, who shrug their shoulders in pity of my limitations, and spread out their palms deprecatingly, and talk learnedly of the Palestinian climate, of which they know nothing definite. And when one reaches rock-bottom, isn’t this whole scheme of Palestinian colonization so small and restricted that it is absurd for it not to be perfect?

Group of tourists with indigenous people in cemetery outside walls of Jerusalem, c. 1860-1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Group of tourists with indigenous people in cemetery outside walls of Jerusalem, c. 1860-1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

However, I can understand a tourist’s returning from Palestine with an opinion different from mine as to the value of colonization there for the regeneration of the Jewish people. What I cannot understand is any one’s doubting the fertility and beauty of the land. I listened to a colonist – One? A dozen colonists! – a tale of thirty years war and tragedy, and then he wound up with saying, “Aber die Levonot in dem Land!” [But the moons in this land!] And that must be the refrain. It is not only the moon, the sky, the mountains, the caves, the air, that are beautiful with an indescribably beauty. I have been in Egypt since, and I was left untouched by all these climatic beauties. It is a sentiment, as indescribable as the physical beauty. Both are real assets, if intangible, and both are doubly valuable when they are consciously enjoyed by a sentient and enthusiastic colonist.

I promise you I’ll not start a fresh sheet. There is enough space left here for me to complete my picture of Palestine by adding a word about the cities. I will tell you only this – my mother wept in Tiberias, she wept in Haifa, she wept in Jaffa, and she wept in Jerusalem. She wept because she saw so many eyes that had no function left but weeping, for they were blind from trachoma, and they belonged to owners whose lives were only worth weeping for. But even she learned to do more than weep on account of the physical misery everywhere. We went to the Ibrit-be-Ibrit schools and went to the Bet-Am with its books, newspapers, and lectures, and we spoke to scores of men of light and learning, the builders of wide streets, the founders of institutions of culture, the believers in the possibility of a new life. And I personally had a wee bit of insight into the life of the Halukah Jews, and I am convinced there, too, over and above the ugly war of factions, there is a font of spiritual fervor that can be utilized in the new life. I beg you to believe that what I tell you I saw with my own eyes not through a [illegible]. I did not [illegible] like the Baron, nor like Paul Nathan, nor even an American rabbi. – I beg you to give my kindest greetings to the members of the Publication Committee. I hope I have been missed at the meetings.

Sincerely yours,

Henrietta Szold

Continue to Part III: Epilogue

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