Wild views on sorting Jews

I recently came across a curious little volume of essays on "the Jewish Question" in a second-hand bookshop in London.

Gentile and Jew: A Symposium was published just before the end of the Second World War. It contains around 100 articles, all from non-Jews, collected by the book's editor Chaim Newman.

This eclectic compendium includes contributions from long-forgotten MPs and churchmen but also has fascinating essays from the founder of the welfare state, William Beveridge, the actress Sybil Thorndike and a certain Major Quintin Hogg - later Lord Hailsham but then leader of the "younger" Conservatives - who challenged the view that the wartime black market was dominated by Jews.

It is a wild and rather unsettling collection, expressing the bleak uncertainty of the times between the Holocaust and the foundation of the state of Israel. Field Marshal Lord Milne GCB, GCMG, DSO contributes a single sentence: "You asked me to produce a solution for the insoluble - I can't."

Today, ‘the Jewish question’ has become ‘the Israel question’

The prescriptions are sometimes extreme, but more often absurd. My favourite comes from Scottish novelist Compton Mackenzie, who would later write Whisky Galore. He dismisses mass baptism and conversion to Islam as historical dead-ends, but is equally sceptical of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It is worth quoting his solution in full to give an idea of some of the crazier propositions circulating at the time:

"Probably the most satisfactory solution would be to remove the whole of the German population from West Prussia, resettle it in various parts of the British Dominions and replace it with Jews, making Berlin the capital of Jewry. Simultaneously, the German population of East Prussia would have to be removed and replaced with Poles."

At the end of the war, Stalin had other ideas and the territories described by Compton Mackenzie were split between the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany, none of which turned out to provide a welcoming home to the Jewish people.

Stalin himself is quoted as describing antisemitism as akin to cannibalism in The Soviet Way, an essay by British communists W. P. and Zelda Coates. The Coateses provide an early justification for the creation of the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidjan in the far east of the Soviet Empire where "the warm climate of the plains permits the cultivation of sugar beet, flax, rice, Turkish tobacco, the soya bean and many other valuable crops." Thus, for Mr and Mrs Coates, founders of the Anglo-Soviet Parliamentary Committee, "the Jewish question is no longer a question in the USSR".

One review of Gentile and Jew in the American journal Commentary concluded: "The value of this book is that it demonstrates how little of concerted understanding there is even among presumably competent and educated people."

I salute Chaim Newman's project precisely because it captures so well the confusion of the British intellectual milieu in the years running up to the foundation of Israel. But what struck me so strongly reading these essays was how little had changed. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to be smug about the myopia of the well-meaning gentiles of the past.

Wind forward more than 60 years and no one talks about "the Jewish question" in polite society. Instead, we have "the Israel question", which is often little more than a euphemism for precisely the same thing.

In a sense, the "concerted understanding" described as so lacking by the Commentary reviewer in the 1940s is all the more difficult to identify now, when antisemitism so often hides behind the convenient cover of anti-Zionism.

I have spent many long hours in 2010 talking about "the Israel question" with trade unionists, politicians, activists, Jews and gentiles. Discussions of attempts to delegitimise Israel via the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign have reached a new intensity. Much of the immediate post-war existential pessimism seems to be replicated in the early 21st century. It would be interesting to attempt a similar exercise to Newman's today, seeking solutions to the Israel rather than the Jewish question. Tragically, I suspect that most responses would mirror that of Field Marshal Milne in 1945. "You asked me to produce a solution for the insoluble - I can't."

Martin Bright is the JC's political editor

    Last updated: 11:29am, December 30 2010