Nehemia de Lieme

Nehemia de Lieme, founder of De Centrale Arbeiders Verzekerings- en Depositobank and philanthropist of social-cultural institutions of the modern labour movement, was born in The Hague on 26 March 1882, where he died on 24 June 1940.

He was the son of Benjamin de Lieme, a kosher butcher, and Aaltje Goudsmit. On 30 March 1908 he married Rebecca Kahn, who bore him a daughter and a son. De Lieme learned about Jewish history, tradition and culture from his father, who was a Talmudic scholar. His interest in this field never waned. He wanted to become an architect but was forced by his parents to leave school at age fourteen and went to work as an office boy at the Edersheim securities firm. Two paths in his career started here. Thanks to the Edersheim family, he joined the Zionist movement, where he later figured prominently. He also used this professional setting as practical training to learn the banking trade.

De Lieme joined the Nederlandsche Zionistenbond (NZB, 1899-1941) following the Hague Congress of the World Zionist Organization in1907. He started by selling books for the organization and took great pride in this responsibility. Until 1937 he held several offices on the board of the NZB and was the chairman from 1912 to 1918. Even in the periods when he did not hold offices, including after he had severed all ties with the NZB, he had the final say. He advocated centralization and firm leadership.

The NZB publication De Joodsche Wachter frequently deplored the lack of operating freedom he allowed others. In 1914 a member recalled 'the force and strength with which he rejects another opinion, suppresses what should not be said in his view ... menacingly points his gavel at the speaker, thus depriving nearly everybody of the floor.' Another submitted that De Lieme's staff members were made aware of their own mediocrity far too quickly. The NZB historian L. Giebels described his leadership as enlightened despotism.

De Lieme viewed Zionism not exclusively as an ideology but primarily as a matter of hard work and straightforward thinking. This outlook, combined with his uncompromising nature, often brought him into conflict with the movement. In 1921 he was dismissed from the Executive of the World Zionist Organization.

Like the supporters of the U.S. Justice Louis Brandeis, he believed that Zionism had accomplished its political mission, and that all efforts should be focused on making Palestine economically viable. In Palestine he had already made himself a persona non grata as a member of an international committee of inquiry by showing interest only in the financial records of the kibbutzim rather than in their work as pioneers. De Lieme changed his mind about moving to Palestine with his family, even though their suitcases were already packed.

In 1921 he also resigned as director of the Jewish National Fund (an office he had held since 1919) following a disagreement about a land purchase. After a vehement dispute concerning the position of the Palestina Opbouwfonds in the Zionist movement, De Lieme stepped down as chairman of the NZB in late 1924. When the international Zionist congress accepted the British proposal to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections in 1937, he was deeply disappointed and withdrew from the NZB. In the sixties the kibbutz 'Sde Nehemia' in northern Israel was named after De Lieme.

De Lieme believed that Zionism and socialism could not be achieved simultaneously. His previous appeal in De Joodsche Wachter of 8 January 1909 for the establishment of a socialist Poale Zion chapter within the NZB therefore indicates his awareness that the working class was indispensable in a popular movement like Zionism.

Following its actual establishment in 1933, the Dutch Poale Zion repeatedly found itself at odds with De Lieme. His grudge against one of its leaders (S. de Wolff) may have been a factor. De Lieme's main objection, however, concerned Poale Zion's view that the class struggle should continue in Palestine. Although he approved of socialism in theory, its practice often bothered him. He was a liberal deeply committed to social causes. He focused his urge to do socially meritorious work on the working class and founded an insurance institution to support the labour movement through its organizations.

An acquaintance introduced him to G. W. Melchers, who was an SDAP member of the Lower House at the time. Melchers responded with enthusiasm and immediately thought of allocating part of the net profit to the labour organizations. Other representatives of the movement who helped establish De Centrale Arbeiders Verzekerings- en Depositobank in The Hague in 1904 included A. Harms and J. Oudegeest.

During its early years the bank operated out of a few upstairs rooms at the home of De Lieme's parents. Aside from its idealistic objectives, De Centrale differed from other insurance companies through its publication of its corporate policy. De Lieme ran the firm until his death in 1940. The bank covered a major share of the expenses of the SDAP and NVV schools for party officials, the institute for worker's advancement and the Troelstra Oord, which De Lieme co-founded in 1927.

In 1934 De Lieme was contacted by N. W. Posthumus of the Netherlands Economic History Archive. Posthumus appealed to De Lieme's strong historical interest with a view toward salvaging the library of the Jewish Bund (Algemeiner Jidisher Arbetersbund in Lite, Polyn un Rusland). De Lieme contributed the funding needed. His donation marked the start of their collaboration, which culminated in the establishment of the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in 1935. De Lieme was the first chairman of the board. He repeatedly funded the acquisition of the source collection to which the IISH attributes its fame.

De Lieme's personality seemed replete with contradictions. Though he was immensely idealistic in his efforts for Zionism, the labour association and the life insurance firm, his approach was always brisk and straightforward. He was the main pillar of support behind many social-democratic institutions but never joined the SDAP. He preferred to operate behind the scenes but ruled with a heavy hand. Most of his biographers have described him as a mysterious and unfathomable person.

Abel Herzberg, one of the later chairmen of the NZB, considered him a harmonious balance of different factors. De Lieme selected his goals according to the highest moral standards. That was his main concern. Considering his thoroughly businesslike disposition, however, he pursued objectives only once he was certain they were feasible.

  • Text: Margreet Schrevel, from: Biografisch Woordenboek van het socialisme en de arbeidersbeweging in Nederland, vol III (Amsterdam 1988) p. 120-122
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