Jacobus Kann: Forgotten Dutch Father of Zionism
“Whatever good things we build, end up building us” – Jim Rohn
It is hard to imagine that someone from our surroundings, brought up through the modest Dutch values and traditions, has had such an impact on the creation of the Jewish State. Indeed, this person was more than a pioneer and success-driven person, but arguably, also one of the lost founding fathers of the State of Israel that was also present at some of the most historic and meaningful chapters of Jewish memory.
Perhaps by delving into the history of this Dutch leading light, we can forge closer relations between Israeli and Dutch values whilst also striving to apply his philosophy to shape the way the future will unfold.
So, how does an author, banker, diplomat, entrepreneur and philanthropist contribute to defining what the Netherlands and Israel are today? __________________________________________________________________
Jacobus Henricus Kann was born on a hot summer day in The Hague in 1872 to Jewish parents who descended from Jews that had been persecuted on the Western borders of the Russian Empire and had settled in the Netherlands with the help of the local Jewish community. As a teenager, he faced antisemitism and dedicated himself to a life of education and philanthropy to combat ignorance and hatred towards his people. Indeed, the more antisemitism he faced, the closer he became to his people and religion. He desired full equality for all. Yet, how was this small boy going to achieve this? This road was paved for Kann in his time spending his days working and his nights studying various languages and cultures through books.
Destiny’s knock on the door arrived through the tragic death of his father, who Jacobus replaced as partner in the Lissa & Kann banking house in 1891 at the age of 19. In this position, the young man became acquainted with local businessmen and important politicians, who helped him tremendously in his mission for justice through networking and philanthropy. In the subsequent decades, this banking house merged with others, and eventually formed the renowned ABN AMRO Bank in 1991.
International Jewry, including Kann’s family, encountered a moment of reflection and actions through the Dreyfuss Affair in Paris which started in 1894. In short, the Affair consisted of the accusation that French officer Alfred Dreyfus provided the German Empire with secret documents. He was ultimately cleared of the charges after a decade.
After hearing about the Dreyfuss Affair in Paris in which political antisemitism became widespread, and having read Herzl’s Judenstaat (1896), Kann became committed to improving the future of Jews in Europe, and as such traveled to Switzerland as one of the few Dutch representatives at the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. After extensive conversations about a Jewish homeland with Zionist pioneers, he offered his services to Herzl’s circle as head banker. However, Herzl’s dedication to a temporary Jewish homeland in Uganda and his insistence on expensive projects without financial planning, caused extensive disputes between Herzl and Kann. Regardless, Kann befriended ideologically-aligned members of the Zionist cause as ‘political’ Zionists who preferred Jewish self-determination through a State rather than the ‘practical’ Zionists who solely preferred Zionist immigration to the Ottoman region as guests under the local administration.
Now that Kann found a project he could commit himself to passionately, he returned to the Netherlands and pushed local Jewish communities and Chief Rabbi Joseph Dunner to form the Nederlandsche Zionistenbond in 1899, as well as a bank to finance future Zionist emigration. He went as far as attempting to garner support from Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government. His efforts echo into modernity as the Nederlandsche Zionistenbond still exists as Federatie Nederlandse Zionisten. Unfortunately, he was too committed to the International Zionist movement to fully immerse himself in the Dutch branch. Meaning, he became entangled in the Zionist organization’s international operations due to his expertise and network following Herzl’s death in 1904.
For years, Kann traveled between The Hague and various European cities to garner support and funds for the Zionist organization. However, his dream of setting foot in Eretz Israel had finally come in 1907 when he was requested to monitor the local developments and financial feasibility of Jewish immigration to the region.
To document his travels, and introduce Europeans to the Jewish connection to the Land, Kann wrote Eretz Israel: The Jewish Land at the prestigious Leiden University in 1908. The book was a stellar success among Jews and non-Jews alike and was arguably the first book written about modern Zionism in Dutch. The book also gave great demographic, agricultural and historical information which were utilized later by the Zionist organization to familiarize itself with the Land. When French and German translations were made in 1910, it was feared by European and Turkish lawmakers who dreaded conflicts with the Sultan. Istanbul certainly was not content to hear that Kann was the first Jew to make a purchase of land near Jaffa in 1907, which would become the first plot of land in Tel Aviv.
After returning to the Netherlands, Kann established the Jewish Agricultural, Livestock and Dairy Preparation Association in 1910 in order to train Jewish youth on how to cultivate land prior to their immigration to Eretz Israel. Kann became massively successful in achieving Aliyah from Dutch Jews and funds steadily increased for his project. However, everything came to a screeching halt in 1914 when the First World War broke out.
With Kann being the only prominent Zionist leader from a neutral State, he acted as intermediary in the forwarding of mails and funds in Europe between various Zionist leaders from the United Kingdom to Lithuania. His operations thrived during this time but he was met by major opposition after the War’s end. To elaborate, he got in a scuffle with Chaim Weizmann’s Zionist leadership and decided to form the Hague opposition branch in the Zionist organization as a reaction. Kann argued that Weizmann’s overly-optimistic presentation and financial policy were unrealistic and would sour relations with local European leaders and sponsors. He criticized the proposed salaries of Zionist officials and the disregard towards a balanced budget which would supposedly doom Zionists and Jews in Europe. This opposition had little influence, but was correct in retrospect, especially since land prices were pushed up by the purchasing policy of the organization’s leadership.
Regardless, Kann decided to learn more about Eretz Israel and hoped his research would influence the Organization whilst he still continued to support the Zionist movement financially. He returned to the Land in 1920 and insisted on establishing good relations with the Arab population in attaining a State. Allegedly, Kann studied Arabic and pushed for all Jews in the Land to learn the language as well, serving as a bridge to create civil peace.
Practically an ‘expert’ on the region, he was requested to return to Jerusalem in 1924 by the Dutch government to act as first Consul of the Netherlands. The Dutch government preferred having a non-Zionist in the position but entrusted Kann due to his wise and diplomatic character with the locals. In Jerusalem, he worked tremendously to make Jewish immigrants settle without difficulties on their purchased land. He even oversaw the first constructions of Tel Aviv and handled the financial accounts of many immigrants. Being relieved to practice Hebrew and Judaism in his ancestral homeland, he noted that this was the proudest moment of his life. However, in 1927, his wife fell ill and the family returned to the Hague.
Well into his 50’s, Kann still desired to be engaged as banker and philanthropist in the city he had learned to love and appreciate. In desiring a better future of tolerance and knowledge, Kann became instrumental in the renewal of Dutch secondary education. He reformed styles of education, based on non-punishment and student engagement ideas of Professors Ligthart and Casimir, and created a common substructure for secondary students followed by a split into HBS and gymnasium. Moreover, he was among the founders of the Nederlandse Lyceum in the Hague
When rumors of a German invasion spread in 1939, Kann desired to diplomatically negotiate with the Third Reich to spare the Jews of the Netherlands. When that failed, he was offered a chance to leave the Netherlands. However, his family stood in solidarity with Dutch Jews and refused to leave unless the safety of Dutch Jewry could be guaranteed. He was offered the chance once again in 1940 following his forced retirement due to being a Jewish banker, but he refused once again. Along with more than 80% of Dutch Jews, Kann’s family was deported and killed. His family was first transported to Barneveld and then to Theresienstadt in Czechia. His wife perished in 1944 and Jacobus himself was murdered in 1945.
Like Herzl, Kann was tragically absent to witness the fruition of his goals. Three short years after his passing, David Ben Gurion read the Israeli Declaration of Independence in Beit Dizengoff in a city built on Kann’s purchased land. However, Kann’s enlightened legacy is present as the principles of equality and liberalism are to be found in the words of the document which regard non-Jewish minorities in the Jewish State.
Kann’s role in Jewish and Dutch history as a moderate Zionist, international banker, philanthropist and author is overshadowed by narratives that efforts to establish Israel are rooted in a handful of individuals who survived the Holocaust. Yet, Kann’s story illustrates that ideological conflicts, international support and regional trust are equally important in shaping a dream. This dream did not die in Theresienstadt but lived on through others who did not desire decades, and perhaps centuries, of efforts to be in vain.
Such dreams still echo today; in the Netherlands and in Israel. They teach us that history is a place to learn from, not to live in, in shaping our future. Perhaps Kann’s efforts were carried through the spirit of Tikkun Olam; a Jewish concept translating to repairing or improving the world. In that case, we have much to learn from this story in realizing our own dreams for social harmony and for ourselves. Lest we forget the efforts of Jacobus Kann.