Podcast / Start Making Sense / May 15, 2024

American Origins of the Israel-Palestine Conflict—Plus, Climate Hope

On this episode, Harold Meyerson talks about the immigration restriction act passed 100 years ago this month and Elizabeth Kolbert about her new climate change book, H Is for Hope.

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American Origins of the Israel – Palestine Conflict, plus Climate Hope | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

The most important event in the history of Israel and Palestine was not the 1948 founding of Israel and the Nakba, or Israel’s 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories. It was the outlawing of immigration of Jews (and others) to the US from Russia, Poland, and Eastern and Southern Europe. That was the purpose of the immigration restriction act passed by Congress in May, 1924, 100 years ago this month. Without that, the Jews of Europe would never have moved to Palestine, Harold Meyerson argues.

Also: The New Yorker’s award-winning climate writer Elizabeth Kolbert talks about her fascinating new book, “H is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z.’”

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Danzig-Polish fugitives, mostly Jews from the towns surrounding Warsaw, waiting in the quarantine station at Danzig for vessels sailing to the United States, in 1920.

Danzig-Polish fugitives, mostly Jews from the towns surrounding Warsaw, waiting in the quarantine station at Danzig for vessels sailing to the United States, in 1920.

(Bettmann / Getty Images)

The most important event in the history of Israel and Palestine was not the 1948 founding of Israel and the Nakba, or Israel’s 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories. It was the outlawing of the immigration of Jews (and others) to the US from Russia, Poland, and Eastern and Southern Europe. That was the purpose of the immigration restriction act passed by Congress in May 1924, 100 years ago this month. Without that, the Jews of Europe would never have moved to Palestine, Harold Meyerson argues. He’s on the podcast to discuss.

Also on this episode: The New Yorker’s award-winning climate writer Elizabeth Kolbert talks about her fascinating new book, H Is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

The Abortion Pill Underground, plus Can Dems Hold the Senate? | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Since Roe was overturned, pregnant people seeking abortions in Red states have found help from providers operating at the edge of the law. Amy Littlefield reports.

Also: Democrats in the Senate are going to lose the seat vacated by Joe Manchin in West Virginia — can they hold all the others in November? John Nichols has our analysis, starting with Maryland, where Democrat Angela Alsobrooks will face Republican ‘moderate’ Larry Hogan, the popular anti-Trump former governor.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense.  I’m Jon Wiener.  Later in this hour, Elizabeth Kolbert, one of our greatest science journalists, talks about her new book, “H is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z.’”  And in her book, “A” is not for “Apple.”  But first—the American roots of the war in Gaza.  Harold Meyerson will explain—in a minute.


The most important event in the history of Israel and Palestine was not in 1948, the founding of Israel, and the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians. It was not in 1967, when Israel occupied Palestinian territories.  It was in 1924, when the United States outlawed the immigration of most Jews and others to the United States from Russia, Poland, and Eastern Europe.

That was the purpose of the Immigration Restriction Act passed by Congress 100 years ago this month. Without that, the Jews of Europe would never have moved to Palestine. That’s what Harold Meyerson argues. He’s editor at large of The American Prospect. We reached him today in our nation’s capital. Harold, welcome back.

Harold Meyerson: Always good to be here, Jon.

JW: I taught 20th century American history for decades. I always gave a lecture on immigration restriction and the importance of the 1924 law. But I never made the connection to the establishment of the state of Israel. You did it – in an article at Prospect.org. It is a brilliant argument. Thank you for that.

HM: You’re very welcome.

JW: You point out it’s the 100th anniversary, on May 26th, of the Immigration Restriction Act, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, passed by Congress, and signed by Calvin Coolidge, Republican president. Before that, there had been open immigration from Europe. That act – it did what?

HM: Well, it stopped open immigration from every place except Northwestern Europe through, first of all, putting an overall annual limit on immigration to the United States of 150,000. In the years before World War I, more than a million people were coming every year, and they were coming from Southern Europe, Italy and Greece, and even more so Eastern Europe, Russia and Poland.  Poland then, of course, was governed by Russia, there was no independent Poland until after World War I. So it was, to put it mildly, an ethnically exclusive law, and it was passed in a wave of white Protestant phobias about America becoming less white Protestant, the great replacement theory of its time.

JW: One interesting point here is that the system of national quotas that was made law in 1924 was based on the American population of 1890, which was 34 years before this law was passed. The most recent census had been 1920. Why did they pick 1890?

HM: Well, they wanted to allocate the number of immigrants based on where the population of 1890 or their ancestors came from. At that point, there were relatively few Americans who could point to ancestors who came from Italy or Poland or Russia or Romania. At that point, it was Germany, Ireland, mainly Britain, also Scandinavia and France. That’s what the power establishment of the United States wanted, so they had to go back to the 1890 census to find some statistical model that would keep out the Catholics and the Jews.

JW: The numbers are astounding. The numbers in the change of immigration, this most astounding part of your article. What proportion of Eastern European Jewish immigrants came to the United States before 1924, and what proportion went to Palestine?

HM: Roughly 85% of the little over two million Jews who fled Tsarist Russia and Tsarist Poland, or later on, the early days of the USSR and independent Poland. 85% of them came to the United States, only 3% went to Palestine. Now, this was after the Balfour Declaration saying Jews could have a state in Palestine, though they still kept coming to the United States for a number of years after that until this law was passed by Congress.

JW: And what was the Jewish population of Palestine say at the end of World War I?

HM: It was only 60,000, which was a little under one-tenth of the total population of Palestine, and it was less than the number of Jews who had come to Canada, it was less than the number of Jews who had come to Argentina. So to pick a phrase, which is much in use these days, there wasn’t that much settler colonialism. There was more ‘let’s get out of Eastern Europe where there are pogroms’ and ‘let’s go to the new world’ – and by the new world, they did not mean Palestine.

JW: I want to zero in on the years in America immediately preceding the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. World War I ended 1918, travel from Eastern Europe had been impossible for the previous four years, now travel was open again. What was immigration like to the United States in the early ’20s, and what was American politics like?

HM: Well, it continued to flow from Eastern and Southern Europe. Meanwhile, American politics was beginning to center on nativism and xenophobia. The Ku Klux Klan, which had more or less subsided, revived after the D.W. Griffith movie, Birth of a Nation, but by the 1920s it was mainly centered in the north, not the south. The state with the most number of Klansmen was Indiana, and it was mainly an organization of white Protestants who, yeah, they didn’t like Blacks, but their main concern was that there were Jews and Catholics who were undermining the Protestant character of America and who were particularly overtaking a number of American cities.

JW: Are you saying that the newly revived Klan was the main source of congressional concern about excessive immigration of Jews and Catholics?

HM: Well, it was a major one, but let’s not think of the Klan as this kind of lumpen organization comprised entirely of lower-class yahoos. It was an organization that businessmen and politicians joined, and I would point out that the 1924 Democratic National Convention tied itself in knots on a resolution to condemn the Klan, which the rural elements of the Democratic Party were clearly opposed to, and the urban Jewish Catholic machines of cities like New York were the ones who introduced it.
So it affected the whole political climate, but look, the leading Senate exponent of stopping immigration across the Atlantic, except from Britain and a few other northwestern European nations, was Henry Cabot Lodge, the epitome of the American establishment, Senator from Massachusetts. So this was not a marginal concern, that it went beyond the Klan, and you see aspects of it referred to in The Great Gatsby, even some references to it in The Sun Also Rises, so this is a dominant theme of mid-1920s America.

JW: So, you’ve said millions of Jews came from Eastern Europe to the United States before the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act was passed. How many came per year after that?

HM: Well, the way I calculated it based on the national origins going back to the 1890 census, then updated to the 1920 census was that for all the nations of Eastern Europe, about 15,000 people could come in in a given year. By no means were all of those Jewish, by no means were all of those from Russia or Poland, so maybe 5,000, 6,000 as opposed to the 150,000, 200,000, which were coming a year before World War I.

JW: Then of course we had the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Germany and Poland and Hungary. Jews who could no longer get into the United States then started going to Palestine. Again, your statistics tell the story. How much did the Jewish population of Palestine change between 1932 and 1939?

HM: Yeah, look, the Jewish population of Europe, most of them understood it would be better to get out than stay once Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933 and increasingly loomed over the rest of Europe. So, the 3% of Eastern European Jewish emigres who went to Palestine in previous years went up to almost 50%. I think 46%, 49%, something like that in the immediate years preceding World War II, ’cause they couldn’t get into the United States.

JW: Let’s talk about Zionism as a political ideology and as a political movement, the idea of building a Jewish state. How much of the emigration to Israel up to 1939 was the pull of Zionist Jewish nationalism? How much of it was the push of fascist anti-Semitism, do you think?

HM: Well, how much of it was the fact that they couldn’t come to the United States? That’s the key variable on which everything hinges. Look, Zionism was an official doctrine propounded by Theodor Herzl back in 1896. It was there either for Jews to embrace or nod sagely and ignore, and clearly the appeal of Zionism only really hit home when Palestine was the one place that they could go to and escape Europe. It wasn’t the ideology; it was a question of which doors were open and which doors were shut.

JW: So, the millions of Jews of Poland, Russia and Eastern Europe who were faced with anti-Semitism wanted to come to the United States, not to Palestine, and that’s what they did as long as the United States would let them in. Meanwhile in Palestine, of course everything changed after World War II. There’s an important chapter here when most – there were a million Jews who survived World War II in Europe, most of those Jewish survivors were still not allowed to emigrate to the United States. That story is told in an indispensable book, The Last Million by David Nasaw.

That one million European Jews who had survived the Holocaust spent three to five years after the war living in displaced person camps in Poland and in Germany and other places. The United States didn’t allow them in, most other countries didn’t want them either. Then in 1948, we have the partition of Palestine, we have Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and many of those people still in DP camps went to Israel. Of course the new Israelis expelled the Palestinians, then the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza made everything much worse.

HM: When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the Sephardic Jews living in other Middle Eastern countries, Iraq, Egypt, and there were quite a number of them, they had to flee as well, but that 1924 law was still on the books, and so they went to Israel as well. This didn’t only effect by this metric Russian and Polish Ashkenazi Jews, it affected the Sephardic Jews of the Middle East as well.
That law was on the books until the Great Society Congress of 1965 repealed it and ended the preferences for and discrimination against different nations when it came to immigration, so it really plays the decisive role, I would say, shaping the Jewish, Arab, Israeli, Palestinian conflict. The xenophobia, the nativism, the bigotry that was at large in the United States in the 1920s and took the form of a congressional act that really shaped the Middle East fundamentally.

JW: Do you see any parallels to that spirit today in America?

HM: Yeah, in an odd way or not so odd way, we’re back to the same kind of nativist xenophobia. People are struggling to get into the United States, because life in their homelands is too violent.  Or it is changing. For people who relied on agricultural work, the changes in climate no longer facilitate that kind of work. Those people are coming to the United States for the same reasons that people came to the United States from Russia, Poland and elsewhere in 1910, because there’s a way they can get in and they got to get out of where they live. It is producing the same kind of nativist backlash that had the very unfortunate effect of being the catalyst for much of the tragedy that’s the ongoing story of Israel and Palestine.

JW: Harold Meyerson of The American Prospect. Harold, thank you for this terrific article, and thanks for talking with us today..

HM: You are very welcome – and always good to be here, Jon.
Jon Wiener: There’s a story behind climate change, and Elizabeth Kolbert has found an ingenious way of telling it in her new book. It’s an A to Z narrative, 26 short chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, gorgeously Illustrated. Elizabeth Kolbert is one of our great science journalists – that’s what The New York Times says. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Sixth Extinction. We talked about it here.  She’s been a New Yorker staff writer for 25 years. Her work there has received two National Magazine Awards and a prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her new book is called H is for Hope: Climate Change from A to Z.  Elizabeth Kolbert, welcome back.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Thanks for having me.

JW: Let’s start at the beginning. In most alphabet books, A is for Apple – and there’s certainly a story to tell about how climate change is affecting apple growing. But in your book, A is not for Apple. What is it for?

EK: In my book, A is for Arrhenius. And Arrhenius, Svante Arrhenius, and I am sorry for your Swedish-speaking listeners if I’m mispronouncing his name, but he was a very eminent Nobel Prize-winning chemist actually. And in the late 1890s, there was a lot of debate about what caused ice ages, and Svante Arrhenius came up with a hypothesis that they were caused by rising and falling carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And by virtue of trying to prove this, he actually created the first very rudimentary climate model, and showed basically that as we, as humans, dump a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we would warm the planet.

JW: And what did he think the results of global warming would be?

EK: Well, he was quite sanguine about the whole thing. He was a Swede, as I mentioned, and he thought that the world would be better off for being warmer. And he also thought it would take a tremendously long time to make much of an impact. And that is owing, first of all, to the fact that compared to today, not that much CO₂ was being emitted back in the 1890s. And also, to the fact that he underestimated how much of that CO₂ was going to remain in the atmosphere. He thought that the vast majority of it would be absorbed by the oceans, and that turns out not to be the case.

JW: He did try to calculate how long it would take for humanity to double atmospheric CO₂, an extremely important question to us today. What was his estimate?

EK: He estimated it would take 3,000 years.

JW: And what do we think now?

EK: Now we think that CO₂, we could reach doubled CO₂, which means doubled from pre-industrial levels by around, at the rate we’re going, sometime in the middle of this century.

JW: That’s about 25 years from now.
In this book, once you know that A is not for apple, it’s for Arrhenius, you really want to find out what B is for. Please tell us.

EK: Okay. Well, B is for ‘blah, blah, blah.’ And that refers to a kind of famous or viral speech that Greta Thunberg, another Swede, delivered at an event that was a run-up to one of the big sets of climate negotiations. This one happened to have been, I believe, in Glasgow. And her point was, it’s a very clever speech, I recommend that people watch it on YouTube, it’s up there, because she offered all the slogans and nice sounding slogans that people offered, climate change is an opportunity, blah, blah, blah. And then as she went on, at the beginning, it seemed like she was actually endorsing that kind of sloganeering. And then she really turns on it, and it’s interesting to watch the audience’s reaction.

JW: Our leaders, Greta Thunberg said, talk about net-zero, but haven’t really done anything significant to get us there. Your letter C is really the big reason why that is. In your book, I thought the letter C would be for carbon tax, but you go much deeper. In your book, C is for?

EK: It is for capitalism. I was kind of lucky how these letters just kept appearing to me, I guess, or these words. They kind of made a nice sequence, I thought. So C is for capitalism, and as I’m sure many of your listeners are aware, there’s a very big debate in what I’ll call, for lack of a better phrase, climate circles, about whether we can effectively tackle climate change using a model of green growth, whether we can basically continue using the principles of capitalism, but greener, to tackle this problem – or whether that is impossible, whether growth, infinite growth on a finite planet. There’s a very famous saying for an economist named Kenneth Boulding back in the seventies: “the only people who believe on infinite growth on a finite planet are mad men and economists.” So there’s a big question about whether we can tackle climate change in the context of growth or whether we need to start de-growing AKA shrinking.

JW: Just to go back to the carbon tax for a minute, the idea here is the way to reduce carbon emissions is to use the power of the market to change the incentives, because there’s profit to be made in solar and wind and we can make fossil fuel production less profitable with a carbon tax or a tax on fossil fuels. You say here, the real problem is not just fossil fuels. You have a sentence; “Climate change can’t be dealt with using the tools of capitalism because it is a product of capitalism.” That is profound.

Of course, the defenders of capitalism say it’s just human nature for people to want more and better, not just for themselves but for their families, for their kids. And I’ve heard you can’t change human nature. What do you say to that?

EK: Well, they may be right. Once again, I don’t have the answer to this question, whether green growth is a viable strategy that will lead us to a better place, or whether that’s not possible. I don’t know the answer to that. Increasingly, I think we have to be honest about it and say there’s no evidence right now that we’re going to deal effectively with this problem.

JW: That leads us directly to the letter D. What is D for in your book?

EK: D brings you right to despair, which I think is a very legitimate or very honest sort of response, but not a useful one. And that is why despair is not only unproductive, it is also a sin. And then we dispatch with D and despair and move on.

JW: I want to move on, skip a few letters and go to H. H is for hope in your book. It’s also, of course, the title of your book, so we’re not surprised by the time we get to H. I like Rebecca Solnit’s definition of hope. She distinguishes between hope and optimism. Optimism is based on a confidence that you know what’s going to happen, and, of course, it’s going to be good. In that way, she says it’s not so different from pessimism based on the same idea that you know what’s going to happen, it’s going to be bad. But if you know what’s going to happen, good or bad, you don’t really need to do anything because, of course, it’s going to happen anyway.

Hope, in that sense, is the opposite, she says. It’s based on the confidence that you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. We do know in this case, global warming will get worse. We don’t know how much worse. We don’t know how fast it will get worse. And we do know we’ve been surprised in the past when things happen that we never imagined. So hope gives us a motive for action. More than that, it makes action necessary. You make this point in your chapter N, N is for narratives. What do you point to as a source of hope for you in this book?

EK: Well, the chapter on H leans heavily on new technologies that are coming to market. I go in that chapter to a company, a startup that is trying to make these very powerful, heavy, gigantic batteries that rely on rust, basically rusting and then reverse rusting to provide what’s called utility scale energy storage. Because if we’re going to rely on solar and wind, then we need a lot of energy storage since those are obviously intermittent sources of energy.
So there are a lot of very smart people thinking about how to affect this transition. So they, this company Form Energy, which, since I visited them, now is breaking ground on a factory to actually manufacture these batteries, so these things are moving forward. So that chapter focuses on these breakthroughs that could be very important.

JW: What is the cost of rust compared to lithium?

EK: It’s a whole hell of a lot cheaper. Iron is the most commonly mined metal on the planet. We mine a lot, a lot of iron.

JW: One other big thing provides hope, going back a few letters in your alphabet to E. And in your book, what is E for?

EK: E stands for electrify everything, and that is sort of the rallying cry. You can’t really get the carbon out of fossil fuels, although we can talk about that, whether you can store it or collect it and store it. But practically speaking, if you burn fossil fuels, you’re producing carbon dioxide. So we need to move a lot of our energy infrastructure over to electricity, which could be produced by non-carbon producing sources.

JW: Such as wind and solar. And tell us about the offshore wind industry that currently exists in the world and off the shore of New England.

EK: Yeah. I went out to a wind farm that’s off the coast of Rhode Island. It’s considered a very small one by today’s standards, but it’s an amazing site when you’re right up there against these enormous wind turbines, which were put up and effectively supply the power for Block Island. You’re on Block Island, that’s where you’re getting your power from.

And as everyone knows, there are plans in the works for many massive wind farms off the east coast of the US and hopefully also off the west coast of the US, although that raises different problems because the water’s deeper. But even since I wrote this book, there have been snags in that, owing to high interest rates and opposition from local groups. So some of these programs, some of these projects that were supposed to be in the works already are either on hold or have been canceled. So that, unfortunately, it has turned out to be kind of a mixed story.

JW: I want to take a step back and look at the form of this book. It’s sort of like a children’s book. And amazingly, given the topic, it’s sort of fun to read.

EK: Oh, thank you.

JW: And the illustrations are wonderful. Was that always the plan, a fun book with great illustrations?

EK: Yeah, absolutely. The plan was to try to mix up, mash up a lot of different genres, the kids’ book, the apocalyptic book, the illustrated book. So it’s playing with a lot of different forms and I hope that readers get some pleasure out of that, in what is often not a very pleasurable topic.

JW: One last thing, the letter R. In your book, R is for what?

EK: R is for Republicans. This is a discussion really of how climate change never seems to really rise to the top of the political agenda, we’re definitely seeing that again. We will see it, I guess it’s hard to see an absence, but I think we will hear a deafening absence of conversation about climate change. I don’t think Biden thinks that it’s going to win him a lot of votes in the swing states that he needs. And Donald Trump, of course, is just terrible on everything related to clean energy.

But it’s a discussion of how it never rises to the top of the political agenda and also how polarized the issue is and the issue has become. Which obviously is ridiculous, since the fate of the planet would seem to be an issue that would really concern anyone no matter what your political views are. But this has become terribly, terribly polarized.

JW: What percentage of Republicans list climate change as the most important challenge facing the nation?

EK: Well, in the particular poll that I cite, the percentage was zero.

JW: In your book, “T” is not for Trump, but if it were my book, I would have “T is for Trump.”  Making sure Trump is not reelected has to be the number one task of the climate movement.

EK: I think that that is a reasonable point. When you write a book, you don’t want to insert yourself into timely politics all the time because, of course, that dates a book pretty quickly. But we have, whatever, six months to go before the election, and it couldn’t be a more important election for so many reasons, climate change being up there.

JW: Elizabeth Kolbert – her wonderful new book is H Is For Hope: Climate Change from A to Z. Elizabeth, thanks for this book, thanks for all your work, and thanks for talking with us today.

EK: Thanks for having me.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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