The Few and the Many: Gregory Baum and the Creation of Israel

The Few and the Many: Gregory Baum and the Creation of Israel


Howard Adelman

In the previous two blogs, I tried to show why Gregory Baum was wrong in arguing first, that Orthodox Jews hesitated to support Israel because they believed that Israel could only be recreated by an act of God – indeed, only a small Orthodox sect, the Neturei Karta believed that. Second, Gregory argued that had there been no Hitler and no Holocaust, there would have been no Israel. Though there is a thread of plausibility in this thesis, and a few arguments and pieces of evidence support it, and though this is a belief also widely held in the Jewish community, I offered a number of arguments to demonstrate it is an erroneous thesis.

In this blog, I want to take up the other six quantitative theses of Gregory Baum’s anti-Zionist position in a slightly different order than first presented. Before Gregory shifted to theology, he earned an MA in mathematics. Therefore, it is thus more surprising to read the gross numerical errors concerning Zionism. The six quantitative theses are as follows:

  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM) prior to Hitler.
  2. The Few Thesis: only a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine” prior to Hitler.
  3. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis: those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”
  4. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM): large scale migration to Palestine led to the shift to majority support for Zionism.
  5. The Creation Thesis: that mass migration led to the creation of the State of Israel.
  6. The Conflict Thesis: mass migration also led to the conflict with the Arabs.
  1. The Zionist Ideology Minority Thesis (ZIM) prior to Hitler.

Gregory is correct. Prior to Israel, Zionism was a belief held by only minority of Jews. But so was Bundism (Socialism), Communism, Orthodoxy, Ultra-Orthodoxy, Liberalism, Assimilationism, or the Reform Movement. This is certainly true compared to what emerged after the creation of the State of Israel. Zionism became the clear majority belief among all Jews; it has remained the predominant belief since then. The issue is not that Zionism was a minority ideology before 1933, but whether Zionists constituted a significant minority prior to the accession of the Nazis to power. World Jewry has never articulated its views in a single voice. Even currently, when a majority of Jews support Israel, there are many different ways in which that support is manifested and different beliefs supporting the myriad of voices.

  1. The Few Thesis: only a “few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine” prior to Hitler.

There is a hint of truth in this thesis, but one which reveals its overall gross distortion. With the rise of Hitler, the level of support for Zionism in 1936, particularly in America, was significantly higher than in 1932. But that does not mean that Zionist support prior to the rise of Hitler was insignificant. More particularly, with the plight of German Jewry worsening and the gates closing on immigration to America, Zionists could promote resettlement in Palestine in a way they could not in the years prior to Hitler’s accession to power. Those efforts earned support among individuals who would previously had nothing to do with Zionism. On the other hand, Britain began to close the gates even more to Jewish immigration in 1935, just 3 years after Hitler was first elected. Given the growing trend in the pattern of Jewish migration to Palestine prior to 1932, and had the original number of Jews been allowed to stay alive, it is safe to assume that, by 1947, the total number of Jews interested in migrating to Palestine would have grown in at least the same proportion as it did prior to the rise of Hitler. At the very least, there would have been as many Jews in Palestine as there were after the rise of Hitler and the catastrophe of the Shoah.

My focus will be on the five decades between 1882 and 1932 to assess whether there were only “a few thousand” Jewish arrivals in Palestine during this period.

The numbers of Jews and Arabs in Palestine who arrived in each of the following decades after 1880 before the rise of Hitler is a matter of some controversy. So are the Jewish and Arab percentages of the total population. I do not intend to sort through the various positions. Nor do I have to, for it takes very little effort to demonstrate an overwhelming consensus that the claim that, prior to the rise of Hitler, only “a few thousand arrivals…wanted to create a Jewish cultural community in Palestine,” is false. The claim is not only demonstrably false, it is so erroneous, regardless of the estimates used, that it constitutes a gross misrepresentation and misperception.

Without getting into the variation in estimates, in 1880, only 3% of the population of Palestine was Jewish out of a total population of about 450,000; 94% were Arabs. Jews lived in Safed and Jerusalem and constituted the largest plurality in the small populations in those two towns at the time.

In the Third Aliyah between 1917 and 1923, in spite of quotas imposed on Jewish immigration to Palestine, 40,000 more Jews migrated to Palestine, bringing the total number by 1923 to 90,000 halutzim or pioneers who had resettled in Palestine (see the August 1925 “Report of the Executive of the Zionist Organization.”) It was a period when marshes were drained, roads built and towns established. Even critics of the Zionist figures, such as Justin McCarthy, agree with the British census that the total population of Palestine had risen to 725,000 by 1922 of which 84,000 or about 12% were Jewish. Other estimates offer a percentage of 12.4% or 90,000.

In the Fourth Aliya from 1925 to 1931, another 80,000 Jews resettled in Palestine. The number of Jews had doubled and the percentage of the total population had increased to over 16%. Of the almost 225,000 Jews who resettled in Palestine in the Fifth Aliya between 1931 and 1939, in the first two years an estimated 60,000 more had arrived. Thus, Zionist migration to Palestine probably totalled about 230,000 by then. This is not “a few thousand.” In the next fifteen years, in spite of the British barriers to migration imposed in 1935, the total Jewish population of Palestine had risen to 630,000 representing almost 32% of the population by 1947.

Without the rise of Hitler, given the rate of increase of the Jewish population over the previous fifteen years from 1917-1932 and projecting forward, without even considering the constant acceleration in the number of arrivals, the Jewish population would have doubled again to 460,000 rather than 630,000. If the rate of acceleration is taken into account, bracketing the war, the Holocaust and British barriers, it is estimated that about the same numbers would have arrived that actually did. That is, without Hitler, without the Holocaust, the number of Jews in Palestine would have been at least as many in 1947 as ended up there.

  1. The Arab Opposition (AO) Thesis: those few thousand “would have found a space there without gravely disturbing the local population.”

Quite aside for the number of Jews numbering far more than a few thousand, the thesis that if only a few Jews had migrated into Palestine, the Arab populations would have received them in peace is even a larger falsification. First, the Jews who arrived did not displace any Arabs prior to 1947. Though there is a debate over numbers, there is a general agreement that the booming Jewish economic sectors in Palestine attracted an in-migration of Arabs. Yet, in spite of the economic benefit, in spite of the fact that in 1922 Jews only constituted 12% of the population and totaled only about 80,000 to 90,000, Haj Amin el-Husseini emerged as the radical voice of the Palestinians. He organized fedayeen (suicide terrorists) who began to attack Jews in 1919.

Thus, Gregory perpetuates a double misrepresentation. First, that Jewish immigration prior to the rise of Hitler was small. Wrong! Second, that the initial reception of Arabs was peaceful. Wrong again! The leadership was violent even when the in-migration of Jews, though significant, was not threatening at all. In 1920, the first of a series of Arab riots began during Passover. Attacks increased in 1921. In spite of that history, in spite of being arrested and sentenced for sedition, in 1922, the British government released el- Husseini and appointed him Mufti.

Further, from that position, he consolidated power over the Arab community, taking control of all the assets and income of the mosques as well as controlling the educational system and the administration of sharia law. Like many dictators in the Arab world that succeeded him, like Erdoğan in Turkey or Putin in Russia, and, frankly, consistent with the actions of Donald Trump currently, no one could hold a position unless personally loyal to the Mufti. Given the power he accumulated so quickly, the British mandatory authority tried to assuage him by restricting Jewish immigration to “absorptive capacity.” But even that was not sufficient. Husseini insisted on zero immigration. Gregory Baum’s thesis on this issue is just balderdash.

  1. The Zionist Majority Thesis (ZM): large scale migration to Palestine led to the shift to majority support for Zionism

This causal analysis reminds me of the tale of the scientist working on the causes of drunkenness. He conducted an experiment giving his subjects equal amounts of gin and water on day 1, bourbon and water on day 2, vodka and water on day 3, scotch and water on day 4, and rye and water on day 5. After he observed that the subjects became equally intoxicated each day, the scientist concluded that the cause of the intoxication was the water.

Gregory’s error was rather more egregious, for there is a temporal factor. Mass migration took place AFTER the creation of the State of Israel with the huge influx of Jews from Arab lands as well as a good part of the survivors left in the DP camps in Europe. Yet evidence suggests that the support for Israel became a majoritarian perspective with the creation of the State of Israel. Majority support for Israel preceded large scale migration.

  1. The Creation Thesis: mass migration led to the creation of Israel

This is virtually the same issue, but applied to the non-Jewish world. Britain prevented mass migration to Israel from 1935 to 1948. The migration that took place mostly occurred in spite of British policies. In 1947, the UN members offered majority support for creating the State of Israel to get rid of the 250,000 refugees in the camps as well as for a host of reasons within Palestine. The creation of the state and the Arab resistance to that majority decision, the invasion of the nascent State of Israel by Arab states and, mostly, the persecution of their own Jewish citizens by those and other Arab states, led to the mass migration. Mass migration followed and did not precede the creation of the State of Israel.

  1. The Conflict Thesis: mass migration led to the conflict with the Arabs.

The above account also demonstrates the perfidiousness of this final thesis. I want to end, not by summarizing, but by asking how such a genuinely good man could arrive at such heinous conclusions. They are not the conclusions of Gregory alone, but of leaders in the United Church in Canada and of my other three friends and colleagues who joined with him in writing the terrible 1970s ecumenical paper based on more or less these same arguments.

One explanation is that none of the four were historians. But most of the information cited above was publicly available. One did not have to be a historian to avoid such egregious errors in judgment. Another approach to find an explanation examines the development of their ideas in the context of their personal and institutional histories. Gregory’s position must be viewed in such a context. He is a Roman Catholic. However, there has been a movement of reconciliation with Judaism in the last fifty years among Catholics. On the religious level, Gregory played a leading role. But not on the political level! The Holy See established formal relations with Israel only in 1993, well after Gregory’s influence had waned. Historically, the papacy had been consistently hostile to Zionism as an ideology. The Church actively opposed diplomatic efforts to promote the Zionist cause through resettlement of Jews in the first decades of the twentieth century. (Cf. Sergio Minerbi, The Vatican and Zionism, Oxford U.P., 1990)

However, I believe the main cause is mindblindness, an inability or unwillingness to see what is in front of you plainly in view. One final example. In that older seventies paper I recall one of the arguments was over the Crusades, an argument in which Gregory expressed a specific Christian responsibility for the Crusades that was the exertion of Western power against the Arabs in the Middle East. Whatever the value of that thesis, most noticeable was the omission of any effects of the Crusades on the Jews who had been devastated by pogroms perpetrated by the Crusaders.

When guilt over the Crusades was married to guilt over the desire to ethnically cleanse European Jews, the two premises were synthesized in the willingness and desire to dump Europe’s problems with Jews onto the Arabs. Whether or not neo-colonialism should be viewed as a modern extension of the Crusades, the assumption of guilt for pushing the Jewish problems onto the Arabs seems totally unwarranted, especially given that almost half of the Jewish population in Israel is made up of Jews forced to flee Arab countries. However, I do not believe that mindblindness should be viewed as a form of antisemitism.