In September 1934, Arthur Ruppin, then a member of the Jewish Agency’s Executive, was called to London from his vacation in Venice. Shortly before that, the High Commissioner of Palestine, Arthur G. Wauchope, announced his intention to promote the establishment of the Legislative Council: a parliamentary body composed of officials and members of local communities, devised along proportional lines reflecting Palestine’s demography. The United Kingdom thereby wished to meet the obligation stemming from the Mandate, that is, to facilitate the development of self-governing institutions. The Zionist Executive and the Jewish Agency, fearful of any political constellation that would bind the Jews to the status of a minority, spared no effort in thwarting its establishment. New arguments and strategies, perhaps more convincing ones, were to be devised.
In the meeting on 13 September, Ruppin suggested employing the status granted to the Jewish Agency in the Mandate to stop this endeavor. The Jewish Agency was authorized to advise the Government of Palestine and cooperate with it on all matters relating to the development of the Jewish National Home. According to Ruppin, the Jewish Agency represented the interests of all Jewry, both inside and outside Palestine. By contrast, the Legislative Council would represent only Palestine’s Jews. Since the Jewish National Home was promised to all Jews, regardless of their current residence, any institution that would leave out the Jewish diaspora stood in contradiction to the Mandate.
Ruppin was not the first to formulate this argument, which had been discussed in Zionist circles as early as 1930. However, Ruppin was one of few to use the Jewish Agency’s status not only to argue against the establishment of the Council but also in favor of altering its future composition. In a letter he sent to Selig Brodetsky, the head of the Jewish Agency’s political department in London, following the meeting on 13 September, Ruppin maintained that the Jewish Agency’s unique position would be nullified if another representative institution, also enjoying such privileges vis-à-vis the Government of Palestine, started to operate. Therefore, the establishment of the Council necessarily impeded the Jewish Agency’s proper conduct and, thereby, the fulfilment of the Mandate. Following the same logic, he added that even if the Legislative Council was to be established, the Jewish Agency should be represented in the Council due to its role as the representative of all Jewry in Palestine.
However, Ruppin did not stop there: He argued that not only should the Jewish Agency be represented in the prospective Council, but the diaspora Jews as well. After all, Palestine was the National Home not only to the 300,000 Jews currently residing there, but also to the diaspora. He argued that a clear-cut distinction between the two was wrong, as many Jews, currently residing abroad, were »emotionally« connected with Palestine and »in a sense« on their way there. These »Palestinians in the making« were entitled to a position in the Legislative Council as much as any other resident of Palestine, since only physical conditions, such as the hardships of immigration, were preventing them from fulfilling their »Palestinianness.« The dynamic demographics of Palestine could serve as an argument that the Legislative Council should not be established, as it would fail to reflect the accurate demographics of Palestine – which were not only physical but emotional as well. Alternatively, they could be used to alter the composition of the Council, so it would also represent these »potential Palestinians.«
The idea that seats in a parliamentary body could be allocated to non-residents and non-citizens who were »emotionally« attached to the territory in question – absent attendees, if you will – was undoubtedly far-fetched; the Colonial Secretary certainly thought so. Perhaps for this reason, Ruppin noted that there were precedents: He cited the case of Auslandsdeutsche, German citizens living outside the boundaries of Germany, who were allowed to vote for the German Reichstag despite their residence overseas. However, while the enfranchisement of Auslandsdeutsche was included in the preliminary drafts of the election law of the Weimar Republic, it was eventually written out of the final text, and at no point they were allowed to vote from their place of residence abroad. It is unclear if Ruppin was simply unaware of this development or if the mere discussion of such enfranchisement was a sufficient precedent. Moreover, the analogy between diaspora Jews and the Auslandsdeutsche was false from its very outset, as the former were by no means Palestine’s citizens. However, Ruppin’s reasons for turning to the German experience are maybe not as important as the action itself. As Yfaat Weiss compellingly showed in her 2004 article Central European Ethnonationalism and Zionist Binationalism, Ruppin, in his function as Head of the Palestine Office, imported land-acquisition plans from Prussia to Palestine, using them as a model. This letter by Ruppin may indicate that his political imagination was shaped not only by his upbringing in Prussia, but also by Germany’s current political affairs.
But the influence of an early experience within certain geographical settings on one’s political imagination has its bounds as well. As Weiss concluded in her article, »geography is neither fate nor essence; instead, it provides a fabric on which agile minds can move in various directions.« She reminded us that while political imagination is undoubtedly shaped and influenced by the circumstances of the person’s background, its translation into action is not determined by it. Analogical thinking and knowledge transfers are not passive acts, in which the person functions as a mere vessel of former experiences, but acts of agency, in which an intended, selective use of the political imagination is made. Analogical thinking, it seems, was an essential tool in subverting cold hard demographic facts.
Maya Kreiner is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and associated to the Dubnow Institute since October 2022. Her doctoral project, dealing with knowledge transfers from the British Empire to Mandatory Palestine, is supervised by Yfaat Weiss. Maya first met Yfaat Weiss in 2018 when she attended her course »The Challenge of Sovereignty« (ובליבה חומה. ישראל ושאלת הריבונות) and has been her student ever since | maya.kreiner(at)mail.huji.ac.il
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