In Delmore Schwartz’s famous short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” a young man sits in a movie theater and realizes he is watching a film of his parents’ courtship. “Don’t do it,” he yells at the screen. “It’s not too late to change your minds….”
I feel a similar impulse whenever I read about or see images of prestate Israel. Not the “Don’t do it” part, God forbid, but a strong desire to stop the movie, to go back in time and, with the benefit of hindsight, warn everybody about the dangers and challenges ahead.
The impulse was nearly overwhelming as I flipped the pages of Palestine Book, a souvenir program created for the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. A colleague found the thick paperback volume at an antique store over the summer. It’s in perfect shape, as if someone just brought it home after a day shlepping around Flushing Meadows.
The book is heart-warming and heart-breaking. It celebrates the yishuv’s achievements in industry, in reclaiming the land, in agriculture and resettlement. A recurring motif is aerial shots of carefully planned kibbutzim and cities, in sharp contrast to the makeshift sprawl of a “typical Arab village.” An essay extols the “new social pattern” of the kibbutz and other “cooperative” enterprises, although nervous American readers may have been relieved to see the program’s dozens of advertisements for capitalist mainstays like Maidenform bras, Royal typewriters, and Seagram’s whiskey.
Its tone is idealistic and forward-looking. What’s heartbreaking is the context. Just past the cheesecake ad for Old Gold cigarettes is a letter from Fiorello LaGuardia, who writes that the “the problem of a refuge for Jews persecuted by totalitarian governments is growing more acute from day to day.” In a long essay, Chaim Weizmann writes of the “overnight destruction” of German Jewry, and declares that “nearly three and a half million Jews in Poland are scarcely in better case.” Note the present tense.
The Jewish Palestine Pavilion was a political argument to the West, and Weizmann understands the stakes. “It may be said that as far as the Jews are concerned,” he writes, “the world is divided into two parts: countries in which they cannot live, and countries which they cannot enter.”
Such “homelessness” anchors Weizmann’s case for a Jewish homeland. But he also stakes the claim on the “unbroken and unbreakable” bond of “sentiment” that ties the Jewish people to the Land. There is “not a single century in which the Jews did not attempt to come back,” he writes.
(Weizmann includes an argument central to the Zionist enterprise, but which falls uncomfortably on modern Jewish ears: The Jewish homeland is transforming “frustrated city dwellers,” often accused of being “parasitic,” into self-sufficient “pioneers,” able to “clear themselves of the stigma which history had forced upon them.”)
What would Weizmann have made of the unfathomable irony that 70 years later, when the Jewish homeland has succeeded beyond his wildest imagining, nearly all the claims he makes for its legitimacy are again being called into doubt? How would he have responded to the charge by European intellectuals and leftist academics that the Jews’ historical claims to the Holy Land are artificial, or that its farmers and pioneers were mere colonialists, or that the whole notion of Jewish nationhood is so hopelessly 19th century?
Or maybe he wouldn’t have been surprised. Weizmann and the book’s other essayists are aware of the “Arab situation,” and in writing about it suggest that the seeds of the current conflict were sown from the beginning.
Weizmann is careful to respond to those who say the Jews are displacing Arabs, explaining that there are “enormous” areas under “Jewish cultivation” that have never been worked by Arabs. Besides, he writes, the Jews had brought “prosperity to tens of thousands of Arabs” — true enough, although it seriously misreads how one nationalism would give birth to another.
That understanding falls to another writer, a British officer named Frederick Kisch, who contributes an essay called “A Conflict of Nationalisms?” He rails against the Mufti of Jerusalem, who preaches a “fanatical nationalism which would tolerate no suggestion of compromise,” and can only lead to violence. Plus ca change. He also has a word of warning for the Jews, who have “failed to evolve an Arab policy such as might lead to an acceptable compromise.”
So nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. The Palestine Book is an epic piece of foreshadowing. Here is European Jewry, in the last few minutes before its annihilation. Here are the Zionists and their American supporters, appealing to the West to allow it to serve as homeland and haven. Here is America, confident that a world’s fair could reverse the bloody momentum that was dragging the whole world back into war. And here is Israel Rokach, mayor of Tel Aviv, promising his “all-Jewish city” would become one of the “economic, industrial, and cultural centers of the entire Middle East.” And he was right.
That’s the nature of dreams. Some come true. Some turn into nightmares. All we can do is try to interpret them, and perhaps learn from them. That’s our responsibility.