“When Zionism first appeared on the American scene, the Jewish establishment… [viewed it] an offence to Americanism… [an] obstacle to Jewish adjustment in [the Diaspora].”
Introduction: The Anti-defamation League (ADL) definition of Zionism is, as it has been generally understood in both the Diaspora and Israel since the Holocaust, “the Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel.” And while Pinsker and Herzl would have accepted this as one part of Zionism’s mission, they would never have accepted its implication that, beyond temporary periods of quiet, the Jewish people will find long-term security in the Diaspora. Ze’ev Jabotinsky more closely represented the purpose of Zionism when he warned in 1937, “Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you!”
But America was not Russia, and, by European standards, American Jews felt uniquely blessed, that their country was indeed “exceptional.” The Enlightenment defined Jews a “nation.” So no surprise the Jews saw themselves as such, and that Zionism reflected Jewish nationalism. But the idea of Jews-as-nation-apart appalled American Jewish leaders who considered it, “an offence to Americanism.” To find acceptance Zionism had to redefine itself from “ingathering of the exiles [all Jews],” to “refuge” for less fortunate Jews, “overseas.” This allowed American Jews to remain “exceptional.” Zionism was transformed from nationalist to philanthropic.
I will address the issue of “homeland exceptionality” as an issue unto itself in the future. For now, as context to this week’s discussion, I offer a brief introduction.
Centuries of persecution and expulsion have created a sense of insecurity and impermanence to Diaspora life. This was well represented by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof character asking the rabbi why Jews always wear a hat (kippah). Believing in our “exceptional” homeland reassures that “this time” we won’t have to flee without time to find our hats; that we really have found acceptance. Any suggestion that we might be less than fully loyal, such as “Jewish nationality”, at least in our imaginations makes us visible to our neighbors as less than fully loyal (I’ll return to this when I discuss Pollard). To be acceptable to American Jewry Zionism would have to allow us our exceptionality. This was the American compromise.
Ironic that Zionism-as-refuge born of 19th century pogrom would be replaced by a watered-down Zionism-as-national-renewal after the Holocaust.
Setting: “When Zionism first appeared on the American scene, the Jewish establishment reacted like their liberal co-religionists in western Europe. It was… a movement arresting the march of progress and tolerance… an offence to Americanism… [an] obstacle to Jewish adjustment in a democratic environment. As in Germany feelings ran high…” (Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism, pps. 402-3). American Jewish opposition to Zionism only began to soften following the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The American Jewish Committee approved of Palestine, “for only a part of the Jewish people, [but American Jewry] owed unqualified allegiance to their country… Reform rabbis passed [a] resolution to the effect that Israel was not a nation, Palestine not the homeland of the Jewish people – the whole world was its home.”
But attitudes change following 1932, and the rise of National Socialism in Germany. In 1937 Reform Judaism “tacitly” endorsed Zionism. As for opponents of Zionism their, “arguments were identical with those formulated by the German liberals forty years earlier,” (p. 404.). But for some, opposition to Zionism and a Jewish homeland continued even during the years of the Holocaust. In 1943 the American Council for Judaism (AJ) announced: “we oppose the effort to establish a national Jewish state in Palestine or anywhere [as] defeatism” (p. 404) [the same position had been taken by some German Jewish leaders in the years before the Holocaust encouraging Jews to remain in Germany]. The ACJ objected to any doctrine of Jewish nationalism, of Jewish homelessness. Their opposition continued during and following the Holocaust and even following the establishment of the state of Israel.
This was the atmosphere that American Zionism had to accommodate to find acceptance.
A recruitment poster for the Zionist Organization of America Manhattan branch. Date unknown, but between , circa 1900-1947. (Wikipedia)
One of the tasks laid out for the Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs at its creation in 1914 was to create an acceptable identity for an American Zionism. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis accepted its leadership and, as a result, became leader also of American Zionism. Under his leadership American Zionism de facto rejected the idea of Jewish nationalism as conflicting with American Jewry’s allegiance to the United States. Minus Jewish nationalism Zionism was “we” [assimilated Jews] providing a homeland for “them.”
With Jew confronting Jew serving their own national army in the First World War Zionism was forced to turn to neutral (at the time) America to lead the World Zionist Movement.
“Brandeis was approached to serve as a sort of figure-head Herzl: a wealthy and assimilated Jewish brahmin who, it was hoped, would grant the movement access to the pocketbooks of his peers. What the Zionists got was, in today''s jargon, a new paradigm: a Zionism for the Jew who would never live in Palestine,… a sharp contrast with the visceral yiddishkeit and messianic overtones of Zionism in Europe... Brandeis made Zionism acceptable to American Jewry by… de-emphasizing Jewish nationalism and a distinctive Jewish culture in favor of concentrating on rebuilding Palestine.”
In May, 1942 the World Zionist Organization met in New York and passed a series of resolutions, the Biltmore Declaration, regarding the goals of the movement. “This statement was the first in which non-Zionist organizations joined with the Zionists to advocate the establishment of an independent Jewish state.” But a state in the future did not address the desperate situation faced by Europe’s Jews in May, 1942.
Responding to the timidity of “establishment” Jewish leadership in confronting Roosevelt administration passivity faced with the slaughter, a small group of young Palestinian Jews, the Bergson Group under the leadership of Hillel Kook 9aka “Peter Bergson”] took the protest to America’s streets.
“Bergson used direct--and often bombastic--appeals to the American public and to members of Congress to demand the creation of a Jewish army (between 1940 and 1942), to rescue Jews from Nazi terror by any means (between 1942 and 1944), and finally for the creation of a Hebrew state (between 1944 and 1948).”
We Will Never Die, Madison Square Garden (Wikipedia)
Among their more spectacular projects was the pageant, We Will Never Die. The play was performed, “before an audience of 40,000 at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1943, to raise public awareness of the ongoing mass murder of Europe''s Jews.”
In the end America and Britain ignored the protests and the murdered two million of 1943 soared to six million by the end of the war, a period of only two years.
American Zionism may be faulted as too submissive, its leadership a 20th century reincarnation of the centuries-long and mostly ineffective “court Jew” tradition in its “respectful” response to FDR’s inaction regarding the Holocaust. And perhaps a more forceful Zionist leadership would have proved no more successful. But in the end the Zionists remained committed to the Biltmore Declaration and its call for a Jewish refuge, for a state for the few survivors of the Holocaust. And despite unrelenting opposition by the US government bureaucracy, and particularly that of the traditionally antisemitic US State Department, when the partition vote came in 1947 President Truman supported it. And six months later David Ben-Gurion declared Jewish independence in the reborn State of Israel.
Recent writings in this Series: