The American Herzl?

In praise of Abba Hillel Silver – the US Zionist leader who helped bring Israel into being.

Abba Hillel Silver 311 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
Abba Hillel Silver 311
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
"On May 8 1947, a unique event took place. A spokesman of the Jewish people, Dr. Abba Hillel Silver, sat in a council chamber together with the official representatives of the nations of the world and formally voiced the demands of his people for national recognition and for the right to reestablish a national state in the ancestral home.”
It is in this way that Harold Manson, American Zionist activist, described Silver’s speech before the United Nations as the spokesman for the Jewish Agency. It was not David Ben-Gurion but Silver who made this initial presentation several months before the vote on November 29, 1947.
Today anyone who chooses can watch that stirring speech on YouTube.
“It was a moment,” Manson continued, “rich in drama and in historic significance. Dr. Silver’s persuasive address, as well as his subsequent appearances before the United Nations, brought a new sense of pride and dignity to Jews the world over.”
Today we may well ask who was Silver, a noted Reform rabbi and American Zionist leader? As significant as his contributions were in the 1940s, his memory in Israel has been relegated to the agricultural village, Kfar Silver, the Silver postage stamp from 1981 and several streets bearing his name in different cities. Let us share some of Silver’s heritage 63 years after the partition plan was passed.
The Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel makes this point in the Abba Hillel Silver entry: “Silver exercised strong leadership in the American Zionist movement during the crucial years of World War II and its aftermath.”
The essence of his work is described in this fashion: “Unlike other American Zionist leaders, he advocated the energetic pursuit of public opinion and the firm utilization of political pressure to achieve Zionist aims. A dynamic personality as well as a brilliant orator, Silver helped mobilize American and Jewish public opinion for the creation of a Jewish state.”
LET US begin to understand how a rabbi from Cleveland, Ohio was able to achieve these goals through extensive educational programs and his opposition to those he considered overly cautious in this great adventure.
One vehicle he used intensively was the American Zionist Emergency Council, which he headed from 1943. The late Dr. Shulamit Schwartz Nardi, a scholar of English literature, the English voice of president Zalman Shazar and five of his succesors and a Zionist activist from her earliest years in the US, returned with her husband to America from Palestine before World War II. She told me how Silver recruited her for the educational, publication wing of the AZEC.
Behind the scenes she helped to edit several of the books which would influence English speakers about the Zionist cause. Moreover, she oversaw two monthly publications, Palestine and Palestine Survey, starting in 1944.
They were sent to academics, university presidents, all members of Congress, wealthy businessmen and Jewish and Christian leaders and clergymen. Many of the issues of these publications can still be reviewed in the National Library in Jerusalem.
One of the key books which shaped world opinion about agriculture in Palestine was written by Walter Clay Lowdermilk, a noted authority on soil conservation. The work appeared via AZEC in 1944 under a commercial label. Over a million copies were sold. Recall the following passage from the Lowdermilk book:
“If the forces of reclamation and progress Jewish settlers have introduced are permitted to continue, Palestine may well be the leaven that will transform the other lands of the Near East. Once the great undeveloped resources of these countries are properly exploited, twenty to thirty million people may live decent and prosperous lives where a few million now struggle for a bare existence. Palestine can serve as the example, the demonstration, the lever, that will lift the entire Near East from its present desolate condition to a dignified place in a free world.”
Among the numerous political figures who appeared in Palestine was James MacDonald. He had been the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees during the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and later he was America’s first ambassador to Israel. In an article in the January 1944 issue, he wrote. “First, in view of the economic advantages which have accrued to considerable numbers of Arabs through Jewish reclamation, health and industrial projects in Palestine, it would seem the part of statesmanship to work toward mutual understanding between the two groups.”
MacDonald also understood what the agony of the Jews was and why a future for them in Palestine was imperative. “A second point that should be stressed is that the Arabs have large adjacent territories which belong to them exclusively. The Jews have no other land to which to go. In the case of the Jews in Nazi-dominated lands of Europe, it is not a question of their preference for this or that point of refuge. Quite simply and literally, the question remains the life-and-death query as to whether the one place to which they can go will receive them.”
Silver mobilized the forces in America in the firm pursuit of a Jewish state. He was one of the first to criticize president Franklin D. Roosevelt about his efforts to save the Jews during the Nazi Holocaust and about his initiatives with Winston Churchill for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In a 1944 speech at the ZOA convention, he made clear the illusions with which many Jews lived:
“There is prevalent among our people a glib notion that ours is just another minority problem, like all others, which will be solved when political progress catches up with it. This is false.
“Ours is a unique minority problem, for we are a minority everywhere and we have no national homeland anywhere. Ours is a uniquely abnormal status, and, therefore, anti-minority prejudices have selective killing effect upon us, like some substances, which leave normal tissue cells unharmed but are deadly to a specific abnormal tissue. National homelessness is the problem. National restoration is the solution.”
In the conclusion of that address, Silver stressed that “we must build upon the broad and secure base of public sentiment, the approval of public opinion which in the final analysis determines the attitude and action of governments in democratic society.”
He had created the publications to educate and to secure “public sentiment” in this very important process. Historians of the period agree that, with Silver as its leader, AZEC won wide public support for the Zionist objective, a state, and the endorsement of Jewish statehood by both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Rabbi Stuart Geller served at the Temple in Cleveland, where Silver was spiritual leader for more than half a century, during the 1970s. He explained to me recently that Silver was an active pulpit rabbi as well as a national Jewish leader. “Rabbi Silver and Rabbi [Stephen] Wise were the leading Reform rabbis who were active Zionists. However, Silver understood the political process which could bring into being a Jewish state. His congregants, some of whom may not have been Zionists, encouraged him in his efforts. Therefore, Silver never wavered in his resolve. He felt that he could create a groundswell for a Jewish state, even testing out some of his ideas on his Ohio congregants.”
FROM 1945, when Silver became president of the ZOA until the events in 1947 culminating with the vote on November 29, he never hesitated to work for his goal no matter what the situation. He was committed to a Jewish state and believed that only through the efforts of the American government and political leaders would this be possible.
Prof. Frances Wolpaw of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland studied Silver’s addresses and concluded: “Without Silver’s leadership, which was militant, courageous, strategic and unwavering, the Zionist movement might have lost its historical opportunity.”
Following the steps which Silver took from 1945 on, it can be seen that he was “responsible for planning the strategy to be followed by the Zionist movement in its relations with the government of the United States and with the United Nations.” He, as seen in his addresses and in his letters, understood how critical was the support of the US as the most pivotal force in pushing for the creation of the Jewish state. Silver watched the rise of the UN in 1945 and sensed that only a world body could provide the forum for the discussions which might lead to its birth.
Throughout 1946 he urged that there should be no cooperation with the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry because he saw that body as a “stalling” device by the British and American governments. When he met Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, in the fall of 1946, Silver was convinced that the British had no intention of allowing a Jewish state to come into being in any part of Palestine. The report of the Committee of Inquiry and his meeting with Bevin made Silver certain that only a continued mobilization of governmental and public opinion would force the hand of the world leaders dealing with this issue.

The Cleveland Jewish News in a retrospective story in the 1990s stressed that “Dr. Abba Hillel Silver was pivotal in the creation of Israel.... The rabbi’s brilliant oratory and lobbying of key political figures were instrumental” in the vote in November 1947.
When the decision was made in the early months of 1947 to bring the matter of a Jewish homeland before the UN, Silver worked closely with David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Shertok in preparing for the May 8 date when the presentation of the Jewish Agency would be be made.. The first speaker was Silver since the plane bringing Ben-Gurion from Palestine was delayed. He was the head of the American section of the Jewish Agency, and as such had the opportunity to address the UN brilliantly about a Jewish state. As we know, only a few months later the affirmative vote was taken.
Listen to some of Silver’s concluding words that day. “The Jewish people places great hope upon the outcome of the deliberations of this great body. It has faith in its collective sense of justice and fairness; and in the high ideals which inspire it.
“We are an ancient people, and though we have often, on the long, hard road which we have travelled, been disillusioned, we have never been disheartened... The Jewish people belongs in this society of nations. The representatives of the Jewish people of Palestine should sit in your midst – the representatives of the people and of the land which gave to mankind spiritual and ethical values, inspiring human personalities, and sacred texts which are your treasured possessions.”
During the next few months, UNSCOP representatives were sent to Palestine to investigate the conditions here and to return with recommendations. Great Britain continued to be critical of the entire process since it was not ready to release any part of the Mandate to the Jews. On October 2, Silver spoke before the UN about the problems of the UNSCOP report.
He concluded in this fashion: “Twenty-five years ago a similar international organization [League of Nations] recognized the historic claims of the Jewish people, sanctioned our program and set us firmly on the road of realization... The Jewish people was confirmed in its right to rebuild its national life in its historic home. It eagerly seized the long-hoped-for opportunity and proceeded to rebuild that ancient land of Israel in a manner which evoked the admiration of the whole world. It has made the wilderness blossom as a rose.”
THE NEXT few weeks were key in this entire process. It still is not known exactly what president Harry Truman did since secretary of state George Marshall was against permitting a partition plan for Palestine to pass.
In November, Truman seems to have favored the plan. Dr. Nardi told me that many individuals – some less known, others more known, Jewish and Christian – were mobilized to convince the various countries which were wavering on how to cast their votes. Two individuals whom I know about – Herbert Bayard Swope, a noted American journalist and financier, and Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who had been sent to Palestine in 1946 and wrote six major syndicated articles calling for establishment of the Jewish state, worked behind the scenes to encourage certain nations to vote for partition.
Silver worked day and night in the New York and Washington offices of the various Zionist bodies in October and November.
One of Silver’s sons wrote: “My dad would not compromise. He simply demanded that they press for an independent Jewish state, which eventually they got. My father was a shrewd political strategist, very single-minded in developing political pressure in the United States so Congress and the president would do what was necessary to allow a Jewish state to exist.”
November 29, 1947 is a day which will be remembered in modern Jewish history and in the history of Israel. The vote on the partition plan should have been held earlier in the week, but it was clear to Silver and his forces that the two-thirds vote necessary for passage had not been reached. The actual vote was postponed to Saturday, November 29. There are YouTubes depicting that day in the UN. There are videos of what Jews here were doing as they listened into the night. Finally, the decisive tally for statehood became a reality. Throughout the world and especially here celebrations erupted.
WAS EVERYTHING Silver’s doing? Probably not. However, all of his efforts from 1943 through the final declaration of Israel in May 1948 were superhuman.
He was a leader who believed that a Jewish state must arise following the terrible destruction of our people in World War II. When he said amid his tears on May 14, 1948 that “the age-old dream of Israel to be reestablished as a free and independent people” has occurred, he knew that his untiring work had been a major force in making statehood possible. On this November 29, the 63rd anniversary of the UN vote, it is fitting to recallSilver’s monumental achievement.
The writer was one of 14 Young Judaea members who led a communal celebration in Atlanta for the new Jewish state in January 1950.