David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Baja California: Jewish Refuge and Homeland. By Norton B. Stern. Baja California Travels Series, No. 32. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1973. Notes. Illustrations. 69 Pages. $10.00.
Reviewed by William O. Hendricks, director of the Sherman Foundation Library in Corona del Mar. Dr. Hendricks is editor-translator of David Goldbaum, Towns of Baja California, and co-president of the Asociación Cultural de las Californias, sponsor of the annual Baja California Symposium.
Nationalism, one of the strongest forces at large in the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and often carrying racist overtones, caught Europe’s Jews in an ugly predicament. On the one hand they found themselves the victims of a new and particularly virulent brand of anti-semitism, while on the other hand they had no nation of their own to which they could turn for sanctuary. This dilemma, plus the growth of their own nationalistic sentiment, resulted during the late 1890s in the birth of the Zionist movement. The movement was aimed at colonizing Jews in their ancient homeland of Palestine, where it was hoped they would eventually constitute a majority and obtain the protection of public law and at least a measure of political autonomy. But there was a question in the minds of some Zionists as to whether or not this goal was feasible with regard to Palestine (then under Turkish rule), and a difference of opinion on this point led to a split in the movement and to the birth, in 1905, of the Territorialist faction. While the main body of Zionists insisted that only Palestine could provide a true Jewish homeland, the Territorialists argued that a more important and pressing consideration was that some suitable place in the world be found. According to Dr. Stern, though it has never appeared in Zionist histories, “Evidence now at hand indicates that the first area which the Territorialists considered was Baja California.”
Stern’s book actually treats several related but somewhat different topics. The first chapter, which covers a period from 1891 to 1905, deals primarily with the interest shown in Baja California by Alta California Jews, especially as an area for settling refugees of the Russlan pogroms. The second chapter, which is as long as the other two combined, is concerned mainly with the lives of three of northern Baja California’s early jewish settlers: Luis Mendelson, Maximiliano Bernstein, and David Goldbaum. Mendelson arrived on the Peninsula in 1871 and the other two men during the 1880s, but each of them came on an individual basis, for strictly personal reasons, and not as part of any organized movement. The third chapter focuses on the interest shown in Baja California by the leadership (in London) of the Territorialist organization, and which occurred in late 1905 or early 1906. Though the leadership’s decision was negative and their interest short-lived, the subject continued to excite a few Alta California Territorialists for some years afterward. The chapter then concludes with Baja California once again under consideration as an area for settling Jewish refugees—this time the German-jewish refugees of the 1930s. But since the idea was announced before first being discussed with Mexican authorities, the latter gave it a decidedly cold reception, one of them referring to it as a “fantastic dream.”
At times the book gives the impression that except for a mistaken assessment of its agricultural potentialities by certain Territor-ialist leaders (i.e., that it was too arid), Baja California might well have become a New World Israel. Stern quotes David Lubin, a Sacramento merchant: “Why could not some arrangements be made with the Mexican Government for the sale of Lower California, so as to form there an autonomous Jewish State under the joint protectorate of the United States and Mexico?” Although certain Jewish figures may have thought of this as a distinct possibility, is there any evidence that Mexico ever considered going along with the idea? The answer, I think, is a definite “no.” It is true that throughout his long tenure as Mexico’s president, Porfirio Díaz welcomed Jewish colonists (as he did colonists in general), making him in this respect almost unique among heads of government. However, there is no evidence to show that he entertained for one moment the notion of their obtaining political autonomy at his nation’s expense. Other considerations aside, Baja California bears too strategic a geographical relationship to the northwestern coast of the Mexican mainland for that country to have willingly agreed to its alienation. Surely little short of United States force could have wrenched it away; yet if this had occurred, can anyone seriously imagine that it would then have been turned over to the Territorialists?
A Santa Monica optometrist, Dr. Stern is the founder-editor of the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly and has previously published, among other items, California Jewish History, A Descriptive Bibliography. His present book, though relatively short, not only contains a good deal of interesting information but it discloses a noteworthy and hitherto unrevealed facet of Baja California history. And like all the volumes in this series, it is handsomely printed and put together.