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A London Letter

Leo Kohn’s Imperial Epistemology and the Legislative Council

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Among the Jewish Agency’s (JA) files in the Central Zionist Archives, one comes across a peculiar series of documents titled »London Letters.« These short articles relate in detail the contents of a report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform, which was published in the United Kingdom in November 1934. The report recommended the establishment of an all-India federation, in which the 11 provinces would each elect their own legislative assemblies, thereby allowing for greater self-government among local constituencies. One of these letters, the German-language »Londoner Brief,« is perhaps the most interesting, as it discusses generally the establishment of legislative councils across the British colonies, while testifying to their problematic nature. However, one cannot help but wonder what such a document has to do with the activities of the JA.

The signature at the end of this letter, as well as other substantial evidence, point to the identity of its author, which is revealing in terms of this archival riddle: Leo (Yehudah Pinhas) Kohn, a Frankfurt-born Jewish jurist, who as of 1919 held various important administrative positions in the Zionist Organization. Especially interested in constitutional law, in 1932 Kohn published a seminal book on the constitution of the Irish Free State and later penned numerous drafts of the prospective Israeli Constitution. The writing of the »London Letters« paralleled a significant shift in Kohn’s life, as he moved to Palestine and assumed the office of the political secretary of the JA, which drew him into the most critical junctures of Zionist activity from the mid-1930s and throughout the 1940s. After the establishment of the State of Israel, he worked as a political advisor to the Israel Foreign Ministry and in 1953 joined the Hebrew University as a professor of international relations, a dual career he pursued until his untimely death in 1961.

According to the »Londoner Brief,« while the transfer of legislative power to the population was usually considered a milestone in the gradual shift towards complete self-government, in reality it paralyzed the British administration, which still retained the executive capacity in its hands. The local legislative councils usually lacked any substantial power and tended to engage in unbridled and irresponsible criticisms of the British government’s actions, as well as to make unreasonable demands. Minority issues further complicated the situation, as local constituencies were divided along ethnic lines and the political dynamics were thus dictated by majority-minority relations. It was therefore crucial that the various ethnic groups reach a mode of cooperation and understanding.

Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.
Leo Kohn's London Letter, ca. November 1934. Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, file S25\4641.

Kohn’s writing on the constitutional reforms in India was not divorced from his Zionist work, but rather stood in direct connection to it. He confessed to this quite openly when claiming that this report and the political debate accompanying it deserved the most serious interest in the Zionist world. This was probably true, as the JA was at that time bogged down in drafting its own version of a planned Legislative Council in Palestine. This plan harks back to 1922, when the British undertook the establishment of self-governing institutions in Palestine, but this commitment had not been further pursued in the 1920s due to a lack of cooperation from the Arab communities.Notably, the Jewish opposition was secretly just as strong. However, the Arabs’ stance changed soon enough, with the Passfield White Paper of 1930 announcing that the time had come to establish some form of self-government. The High Commissioner, Arthur G. Wauchope, was intent on realizing his government’s pledges,Norman Rose, The Gentile Zionists: A Study in Anglo-Zionist Diplomacy, 1929-1939, (London 1973), 50. George Burnett added that Wauchope thought the Legislative Council idea would have a moderating effect on Arab nationalism and relieve some of the Arabs’ discontent. See: George Burnett, British Policy Towards Self-Governing Institutions in Mandatory Palestine: The Question of the Legislative Council, 1932-1936, MA diss., the American University of Beirut, 2015, 58. and towards the end of 1933 the enactment of the Legislative Council seemed closer than ever, to the JA’s dismay. Their main concern was that any legislative council in which the Jewish representation would be in accordance with the current number of Jews in Palestine would perpetuate their minority status. Moreover, they were worried that it would be a platform from which the Arabs could effectively attack the establishment of a Jewish National Home, which had been both promised to them in the Balfour Declaration and reaffirmed in the Palestine Mandate.

Against this backdrop, Kohn was tasked with researching the precedents of legislative councils, and especially their shortcomings. The data he collected formed the basis for the memorandum submitted to the British government in the fall of 1934, as well as for an extensive survey of constitutional reforms throughout the British Empire, completed shortly after he moved to Palestine in December 1934.

The »Londoner Brief« can thus be seen as a window not only into his involvement in the efforts to prevent the establishment of a legislative council in Palestine, but also into his imperial epistemology, within which India served as a forewarning, shedding light onto the »dos« and »don’ts« of constitutional reforms within the British Empire. For Kohn, the case of India showed that the establishment of a Legislative Council was not quite a milestone on the road to self-government, but rather an obstacle to its functioning – as well as to the Zionist objectives. However, the »dos« are no less important than the »don’ts,« as Kohn claimed that the only sustainable solution to the question of self-government entailed a Modus Vivendi and an understanding between the different ethnic groups, thereby hinting at Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

In fact, his argument for a Modus Vivendi is nothing but another riddle, as it is hard to reconcile this with his significant political actions against the establishment of a legislative council. However, the solution to this riddle would require further investigation. In the meantime, Kohn’s letter can be seen as a thread tying the history of Zionism to that of the British Empire, revealing the close attention Zionists paid to the political changes in the Indian subcontinent, as though they could thereby hint at their own.

Maya Kreiner is a Master student in the department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry and in the Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem | maya.kreiner(at)mail.huji.ac.il

Cover Photo: Leo Kohn, the political secretary of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, ca. 1935, photographer unknown. Central Zionist Archives, PHG\1012921. 

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