THE question of organizing the Jewish community in Palestine into a juridic personality was one of the chief matters discussed at the ninth session of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations in Geneva in June, 1926. Mme. Wicksell, the Swedish member who acted as rapporteur, said in her enlightening report that in a country where religion permeated so many municipal and state functions, the problem of organizing religious sects into separate entities was extremely difficult and required a great deal of caution and patience. For example, the Committee had before it a detailed protest from a body of dissentient Jews of Palestine, called the Vaad Hair Hashkenazic, who were opposed, on dogmatic grounds, to forming part of an organized community with persons having different religious practices and principles. This sect, though including only 6,000 or so out of the 140,000 or 150,000 Jews in Palestine, had an importance far beyond its numbers because it was backed by an authoritative and powerful organization of Jewry which made religion a part of its political program -- namely the Agudath Israel, which had a large membership in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The Agudath Israel had been negotiating with the authorities in Palestine and London on many matters of interest to the more religious section of Jewry, and it also had been trying to arrive at a modus operandi with the Zionist Organization, which under the terms of the Mandate was regarded as the Jewish agency that should be consulted by the Mandatory Administration in all matters affecting the welfare of Palestine.

When Madame Wicksell made her report, the regulations of the Jewish community in Palestine were still hypothetical. There was in force a "Religious Communities Ordinance, 1926," under which religious communities were authorized to organize and were given autonomy over their internal affairs. Separate regulations were to be made suited to the special community concerned, including the constitution of religious and cultural councils possessing legal personality; these councils were to be given power to impose taxes for communal purposes upon members of the community, such taxes to be recoverable in the same manner as municipal taxes.

But just what was this "internal autonomy"? The concept was so vague that there was danger of its creating conflicts with the ordinary duties of state or city. The answer has now been given in the "Regulations for the Organization of the Jewish Community in Palestine, 1927," published in draft form in the Official Gazette in July, 1927.

These regulations are the outcome of a persevering struggle on the part of the Jews in Palestine for a measure of autonomy compatible with their status as a community which is one day to form the national home. The regulations recognize one single Jewish community in Palestine. But in order to do justice to the various Jewish groups which for decades, in some cases for centuries, have been organized as congregations according to their countries of origin, as well as to those who for one reason or another refuse to associate themselves with the general body of the community, special provisions are inserted with regard to individual congregations, which are defined as bodies of Jews combined for religious purposes.

Naturally, however, the regulations deal mainly with the general community, which is to have its own secular and religious organs. There is to be an assembly, elected on a very democratic basis by the votes of all adult Jews and Jewesses. This assembly will in turn elect a national council or executive committee, which will supervise the general affairs of the community as a whole and will act as the representative body of Palestine Jewry. It is highly important to note that the council will have vested in it general powers of taxation, which will be exercised for purposes of education, poor relief, care of orphans, care of the sick, and the maintenance of religious and lay organs of the community; also for the ritual slaughter of animals, for the baking and sale of unleavened bread, and for the grant and ratification of certificates. The lay organs of the community, i. e. the elected assembly, the general council, and the local communities, will exercise general supervision over the affairs of the Palestine community. But there will also be religious organizations, elected on a somewhat different basis. In religious affairs these will be thoroughly independent, though subject in administrative and financial matters to the general control of the lay organs, in other words, of the community as a whole.

To understand the deeper meaning of these regulations, which represent the outcome of a struggle that began with the first days of the new régime in Palestine, one has to appreciate fully the differences that have always prevailed between various sections of Judaism the world over. The differences are not dogmatic, in the true sense of the word, but they have always presented themselves in a dogmatic shape and have therefore been extremely difficult to overcome. In the case of Palestine Jews, the dogmatic or pseudo-dogmatic differences have now been satisfactorily settled, at all events in theory. This is due to the forbearance and patience of the British authorities in Palestine and in London, as well as to the moderation displayed by the bulk of the Jewish community, who were most anxious to put their domestic affairs in order on a thoroughly constitutional basis.

The constitution of the Palestine Jews has more than a local or merely Jewish import. Since the emancipation in Western Europe some states have made real attempts to crystallize and organize their Jewish citizenry into one homogeneous body. Efforts of this sort were made at one time by the Kings of Poland, who gave Jewish Courts a fairly comprehensive jurisdiction over the Jewish community in civil as well as in criminal matters. The Ottoman Empire and some parts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire tried the same thing in a more limited way. The present Palestine constitutional experiment seems likely to bring the idea of Jewish autonomy measurably nearer realization.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JACOB LUSTIG, a physician settled in Palestine, correspondent for various German periodicals.
  • More By Jacob Lustig