THE BIRTH OF A NATION
AN ADDRESS BY MARGARET AITKEN
Chairman: The President, Mr. Thos. H. Howse
Thursday, March 3rd, 1949
HONOURED GUESTS, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN
In recent months an epic struggle has been going on iii ancient Palestine, where the Jews have successfully fought to re-establish themselves in the land which was theirs in Biblical times.
I think the outcome of this struggle has been a surprise to the world and regardless of what viewpoint any one may hold, the courage and resourcefulness shown by the Jews in bringing the war to a successful conclusion cannot be overlooked by the historians.
We have all read much on this subject but today we are going to have the privilege of listening to an address from a trained observer who has just returned after spending several weeks in Palestine.
Our guest of honour, Miss Margaret Aitken, is known to all readers of the "Telegram" through her column "Between You and Me" which has been an outstanding feature of that paper for the past 8 years.
Miss Aitken was born in New Brunswick, completed her education at the University of Toronto, and as you all know, adopted journalism as her profession.
She has gone a long way as a columnist and feature writer and has been given many important assignments, such as the wartime conferences of Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt, a series of stories from Britain prior to "D" Day, the last election of President Roosevelt and more recently, the wedding of Her Royal Highness, the Princess Elizabeth.
During the past two months Miss Aitken has flown to Palestine and back; it sounds very simple, but in the process she actually landed in thirteen different countries, not all of which were on her itinerary.
Having read most of Miss Aitken's reports from Palestine, I am sure her address will be of outstanding interest.
It now affords me very great pleasure to introduce Miss Margaret Aitken who has chosen as the title for her address "The Birth of a Nation."
Mr. Chairman, members of The Empire Club and fellow guests, it is a very great honour indeed for me to be standing here today.
For several years now, I have been a faithful attendant at The Empire Club-probably one of the Club's most faithful attendants. My appearance on all previous occasions has been in the more humble, and I might add, more comfortable position of reporter. I have reported the words of many speakers at this Club and now, to find myself standing here, instead of sitting at the Press table, is an experience both frightening and flattering. But mostly frightening. I shall enjoy it more in retrospect.
I have just returned from one of the most interesting assignments any reporter could have. I have seen the birth of a Nation and it is about that new State--Israel--its people and problems, that I want to talk. In five weeks I covered every phase of the country--from Dan to Beersheba. I saw a people living their own history, hour by hour, day by day.
Alongside that living history was the ancient history of Biblical days. In Nazareth I saw where Jesus lived as a boy and where Mary, his Mother, cooked the meals he ate--Mary's Kitchen, it is called. In the Communal land settlements I saw modern dish-washing machines in the kitchens, along with other labor-saving devices.
In Jerusalem I saw deeply religious men, with caps on their heads and two long curls on each side of their heads (they are Polish Jews, of an old and strict cult)--these men were fashioning the beautiful diamonds that we associate with the more worldly side of life. Near Tel Aviv, at the Weizman Institute, I saw scientists fashioning modern precision tools and working on blueprints that will bring water from the Jordan down to the Negev desert. Near-by, I talked to an old man as he drew water from an ancient Biblical well-"It's dew, from heaven," he said.
It is these contrasts, plus the amazing paradoxes and complexities of life in Palestine, that made my assignment such a fascinating one.
Ken McTaggart and I were the first Canadian correspondents to go to Israel since it proclaimed itself a Republic. As Canadians, we were given a warm welcome.
As a matter of fact, I found this same warmth toward Canada in all the 13 countries I landed in.
(I use the phrase "landed in" because that's exactly what I did. It was not my intention to visit 13 countries but airplanes are no respectors of one's intentions. You go with the wind, in a manner of speaking. I think my greatest surprise was to land in Iceland, I thought I was on my way to Newfoundland. I landed in Iceland where I stayed for 24 long, cold hours. Not even the aforementioned warmth, which I'm sure Iceland also feels toward Canada, was much help.)
When I arrived in Palestine, the country was still torn asunder by war. There was a blackout and censorship and all the usual security measures that a country at war must observe. There were air raid alerts, which never amounted to much, but they added to the excitement. There were daily briefings, as to the war's progress. There was an atmosphere of tension but there was also an atmosphere of faith in ultimate victory, such as existed in Britain during World War 2.
The ordinary people appeared to have no doubts about the future. Despite the sacrifices demanded by war--and those sacrifices were mighty in physical comfort--the people were happy and vital and--what was most important to them--alive.
But what amazed me about this little country of Palestine--what amazes everyone, including the Palestinian himself is not so much the war and victory but the complex situation of running a war and a wide-open immigration policy at the same time.
To welcome 10,000 refugees a month, as Israel is doing and has been doing since last June, and to carry on a full-scale war at the same time, is a project no other country would dare attempt.
There is no time to screen all these refugees-not from the security angle and not from the health angle. As a matter of fact, in some months as many as 40 percent of the 10,000 refugees have TB. There is no selectivity ?n Palestine's immigration policy. The old and the sick arc as free to enter as the young and healthy.
What other country would dare take on such a load? For at least two decades, a great proportion of the people in Palestine will be a care to the Nation. They are broken in health and spirit. The Ghettos and concentration camps of Europe have made them permanent human wrecks. How can Palestine do it?
I asked that question many times. "It is highly dangerous," the Military leaders said. "It is economic suicide." the Economists admitted. "It is impossible," the Politicians said.
Well, Palestine is doing the impossible.
But there was one answer that came to me again and again-"No alternative." Those two words add up to Israel's secret weapon in war and peace. It was "no alternative" that won the war and it will be "no alternative" that absorbs the broken, unhappy Jews of Europe. They have reached the promised land. There is no turning back, nowhere else to go. They must live in and for Israel or die. There is no other alternative. And it was "no alternative" that won the war for Israel too.
When the British gave up their Mandatory powers on May 15th, 1948, the Arabs immediately tried to move into all the strategic police stations which the British had built throughout Palestine. Whichever side held those fortified stations, held control of the entire country. Possession of the strongholds was essential to both sides. The Jews also tried to move into them and that was how the Arab-Jewish war really began.
But don't think the Jew wasn't frightened when the British moved out. The Arab Legion was supposed to be invincible and for more than a century Palestine had been a centre of conflict-tension, violence, bitterness-between Jew and Arab. But the British were there and both sides knew they had the protection of British justice behind them. Because of Britain's policy regarding immigration to Palestine, relations had grown strained between the Jews and the British but, the fact remains, the British WERE there and the British ARE just.
The Jews were frightened, They had no arms or army. They had no planes or tanks or ammunition but they also had "no alternative." They fought with their bare hands at first and they won.
So now, there is peace in Palestine. There is peace but I believe it will be a long, long time before conditions become settled and peaceful.
There are 400,000 Arabs who fled the country, clamouring to get back in. There are at least another 400,000 homeless European Jews waiting, with invincible hope and eagerness, to get into Palestine. There is a housing shortage in Israel to beat all housing shortages. There is a vast desert in the South to be irrigated and cultivated into fertile land. There are rocky, barren hills in the North to be cleared and cultivated.
I tell you, there's so much to be done in the Land of Israel, the mere thoughts of it all, leaves one in a state of breathless, wide-eyed wonder.
One way in which the Jew has met one problem in Palestine is a way of life called the Kibutz. It is a form of land settlement, peculiar to Palestine, and it has been going on for about 40 years.
I visited several Kibutzim in Palestine--including the oldest one, which was established in 1909, and one of the newest, which was established in January, 1949. I want to tell you something of this way of life because it has and WILL play a most important and significant part in the development of Israel.
The kibutz is built on idealism on the pioneer spirit, on an all-embracing communal life. It is something new in a social and economic order. It is also an attitude or approach to life that must be instilled in one.
I would hate the kibutz life, as I venture to say most of you here today would hate it-with its communal living, lack of privacy and subordination of the individual. But young Jews, and by that I mean mere children, in many parts of the world-including here in Canada and the United States-are trained to take up the life.
I attended one opening of a new kibutz which was two-thirds English Jews--young men and women from working class homes who had been trained in England to live the kibutz life.
It starts this way--A group of about 100 young people, in their late teens or early 20's, decide they want to form a kibutz. They apply to the Jewish Agency for land and money. They are immediately placed in old, established kibutzim where they train for five, six or seven years. Finally, the day comes when they are ready to form their own kibutz. The authorities give them perhaps 300 acres and 28,000 pounds, which is $84,000, and thenceforth, the kibutzers are on their own.
Tradition decrees that the group go upon the land cold, as it were. I use the word, "cold," in its slang sense, but I might add, it can be used in its literal sense as well. It was bitterly cold the day I went kibutzing and the stony, Galilee hills looked coldly uninviting.
We started at 5 o'clock in the morning, in a long convoy which carried all the worldly possessions of the entire group. By 3 in the afternoon they had their prefab living quarters up, their communal kitchen and dining room erected and their children's house or nursery on the way to completion. A married couple or a single person is allowed one room, no, more, and the children live in their own house.
In these kibutzim a man owns no property, no money. He gets no wages and all workers are of equal importance. Men and women work as a collective group. Women share equally with the men in all work and all the profits. They work an 8-hour day. No more.
The kibutz motto is: "From each according to his capacity; to each according to his need." This motto, of course, is a straight steal from Karl Marx. But Kibutzim is not Russian Communism as we see it practised. Kibutzim is.an idealistic, communal, non-political way of life.
The children of a kibutz are cared for by specially trained members of the group. The parents see their children between five and eight each evening but they have no actual care of them or family life as we know it. Each member of the kibutz has one vote and every matter pertaining to life in the settlement is voted upon. Even in such matters as to whether a child should go to University is decided by the entire group-not by the parents of said child.
Well, that is life on a kibutz. Not my cup of tea but it has and IS answering Palestine's need. It is turning the Jew into a farmer. It is inspiring youth with the pioneer spirit. It is providing security, employment and living space to thousands of homeless Jews. In the not distant future it will turn the desert Negev and the stony Galilee hills into fertile farms.
Of all the things I saw and did in Palestine, the picture that will remain longest in my memory is the stark human emotion of the first Cyprus refugees as they sailed into Haifa Bay and reached out for the freedom they had endured so much to find.
When Britain announced that all the illegal immigrants were to be released, I went to Cyprus, on the ship which brought the first 1,500 refugees to Israel. They had been in the detention camp two years--behind barbed wire--waiting for freedom. I went through the camps--straggling rows of huts. I stepped over mud holes of stagnant water and every time I stopped to speak to anyone, I could feel a large, silent audience gathering around, These people were hungry for contact with the outside world, "A nightmare," they called Cyprus with its barbed wire. "A nightmare," which they wanted to forget as soon as possible.
I shall never forget the man who broke into hysterical cries as the ship left Cyprus.
"Give me back my 22 months," he cried to the British soldiers on the dock. "Give me back my 22 months." The Cyprus episode was a tragic one and none were happier to see the end of it than the British. It is a terrible thing to see men and women caged behind barbed wire. I do not argue the rights or wrongs of the Cyprus episode. The illegal immigrants, as the very words indicate, defied the law. Britain had to take action and that action was Cyprus-instead of sending the refugees back to Europe. I only say, it is a tragic and terrible thing to see men and women behind barbed wire.
I shall never forget the faces of those 1,500 captives as our little shit) sailed into Haifa Bay. The Jews had mustered everything that would float--including one Canadian-built Corvette, which they call their "fleet". There were dozens of flag-bedecked row boats--everything that would float was out to greet the refugees. Their reaction to this welcome was glorious to behold. All the bitterness and sadness, carved on their faces seemed to melt away.
And it was at this point that a typically British gesture melted away some of the bitterness in the hearts of those captive Jews.
There were three warships docked in Haifa Bay-an American, a French and a British--as the refugee ship sailed into port. As we passed the British ship, British sailors raised an Israeli flag alongside the Union Jackin salute to the homecoming Jews. It was a lovely gesture, a sporting, friendly gesture which warmed the hearts of all Jews.
Well, there it is, Mr. Chairman-my report on the birth of a Nation.
If you, ladies and gentlemen, were to ask, have I any one message to deliver, my answer is "Yes." And even if you don't ask-I am going to tell you that message.
My message is directed especially toward the Jews of North America. I say to them--and I say it in all sincerity and sympathy--Do not sit in your comfortable armchairs and tell the Israeli people what they should do or should not do. If you must give advice, go yourself to Palestine and see conditions there first. See the sacrifices and hardships the Israeli people have made and will continue to make in order to build a homeland for the Jews.
Do not preach militant Zionism from your peaceful country.
Do not incite discord between the Israeli people and the Briton or American or Canadian.
If you do these things, it is the greatest possible disservice you could do to the new Jewish Republic. Above everything else, Israel needs peace and friends, And believe me, she needs the friendship of Britain. All the leaders I talked to in Palestine said the same thing. In the past, the Jew has had no better friend in the world than the Briton. That friendship must and WILL flourish again. But it will not flourish if you or I or those penthouse Johnnies in New York sow continual seeds of discord.
Israel needs peace. She needs friends. She needs British friendship. That is my message, ladies and gentlemen.