[Photos by Joshua Tartakovsky].
By Joshua Tartakovsky, 7 April 2017
I recently visited a special exhibit marked to commemorate 1917 in the American Jewish National Museum in Philadelphia.
Three monumental events took place that year which transformed the last century: US entered World War I thereby bringing about the defeat of Germany and solidifying its position as a global super-power, the Bolsheviks carried out a revolution in St. Petersburg and Moscow (via support from imperial Germany) which ushered in the Soviet Union, and the Balfour Declaration of Lord Balfour granted the Jews a national homeland in Palestine (while the rights of non-Jews living in the land were not to be compromised).
The exhibit was quite good. It was balanced and comprehensive, showing different aspects of that crucial year while not presenting a black-and-white picture in justifying without dissent US entry to the war, or one-sided demonization of the Soviet Union or the Zionist movement. I highly recommend people visit it. Needless to say, 1917 is such a monumental year that New York’s history museums should have marked it as well.
For me personally, 1917 was an important year as well, since my grandfather was born that year, and shortly after the Bolshevik revolution his parents left with him in their arms to the safe haven of the United States.
The exhibit does a decent job in explaining how World War I played a positive element in turning the US into a genuine melting pot of immigrants and in fully integrating immigrants as full Americans. 250,000 American Jews served in the US Army, as they were grateful for the hospitality they received in the US and for the full rights granted and wanted to give back to their country.
The US entered the war partly due to the telegram intercepted by the British, sent by the German foreign minister Zimmerman to Mexico. Zimmerman suggested that US should US join the war on the side of the allies, Mexico would be welcome to conquer New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Germany also sunk a US submarine in the Pacific. The US therefore entered the war in what it perceived as self-defense. Indeed, Zimmerman was unwise to step on US toes and suggest a new unprovoked war on US soil. At the same time, the British authorities waited a month before passing on the intercepted telegram to the US.
The entry to World War I was authorized by the US Congress.
According to the opposition expressed by critics of the war in the US, the war would have been good for Wall Street and bad for the American public. US sold war supplies and equipment to western allies against imperial Germany. After these countries became self-sufficient and produced the goods they used to buy due to necessity, US sellers remained without markets. Therefore the need for US to go to war so it can buy the US armaments. (One theory of imperialism suggests that imperialism take places when the national market has already been saturated as buying of goods reached full capacity and sellers need to expand to new markets).
President Wilson who was elected for the second time in 1916, ran on a liberal and somewhat pacifist program, while receiving major support from people on the American left. Shortly after his election he changed his views and entered World War I which ended with the so-called Versailles Peace Treaty (the treaty imposed immense fines and reparations on Germany for the cost of the war which resulted in the destruction of its economy, sky-level inflation and the rise of fascism).
The revolution in Russia was initially welcome by many American Jews who were pleased the Tsar, under whose despotic regime many Jews have suffered, is finally gone. The exhibit explains that the Bolsheviks did provide full personal rights to Jews on the personal level. However, while the USSR did away with the pogroms, it went on to crack down against all Jewish national and religious practices (cracking down against the Russian Orthodox Church as well). The supposed utopia ended up repressing religious freedom and ruthlessly cracking down on people of faith who deviated from the atheist materialism espoused by Marxism-Leninism.
The US recognized the provisional government of March 1917 (social-democrat) but not the Soviet government of October 1917 (communist). The Soviet government went on to seize US properties, refused to honor earlier debt, and pursued its own peace with Germany. The US recognized the Soviet government as legitimate only in 1933.
As for the Balfour Declaration, it too was greeted by enthusiasm by Jews around the world. Interestingly enough, the Zionist state has stood the test of time and still exists, while the Soviet Union is long gone. Arguably, this indicates how narrow ethnic nationalism for a prosecuted people can last, while attempts at universal utopianism and humanism beyond the nation state end up in failure, as the factor uniting people from different backgrounds and nations is not strong enough to give them the necessary motivation to withstand all difficulties and challenges that inevitably arise.
The rights of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine were not fully resolved until today, at least not in the West Bank and Gaza, in contrary to the explicit promise of the Balfour Declaration. At the same time, the Zionist movement did inspire other indigenous and anti-colonial movements.
As I left the exhibit, I heard two elderly women saying how luckily this bloody world war was behind us. I found it useful to gently remind them that history repeats itself and that pretending we have reached utopia is a practice in wishful thinking. They agreed. After seeing the historical exhibit and having an informed opinion, they could not but agree.
(US soldier World War I uniform).