“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.”
The Anti-defamation League (ADL) definition of Zionism, generally accepted in both the Diaspora and Israel since the Holocaust is,
“the Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel… [that] emerged in the late 19th century in response to the violent persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism in Western Europe.”
And while Pinsker and Herzl would have accepted this as part of Zionism’s mission, they would never have accepted the implication that the danger applies only to, “the violent persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism in Western Europe.” Neither, understanding that nearly two-thousand years of persecution preceded their own experience of antisemitism would have suggested any country of the Diaspora as “exceptional.” Pinsker in particular would have dismissed the possibility that security exists, is even possible, anywhere in the Diaspora.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, pleading with Polish Jewry to recognize the threat in 1937, issued the universal Zionist warning:
“Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you!”
But America was not Russia, and pogroms were not an American tradition. By European standards American Jews could legitimately say that, although antisemitism was present, it was polite, not physical. Consoled by self-reassurance American Jewry described the United States “exceptional,” somehow outside the historical stream of “European antisemitism.” Zionism challenged that consolation, represented a threat to American Jewry’s longing for exceptionality:
“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… obstacle to Jewish adjustment in a democratic environment. As in Germany feelings ran high…” (Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism, pps. 402-3).
Those who were supporters were mostly recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia who tended to speak Yiddish, kept Kosher and Shabbos. Jewish National Fund pushkas were commonplace on the kitchen table. Those who opposed Zionism were mostly “old” Americans from established Orthodox and Reform communities; organized opposition to Zionism was centered on the wealthier and more assimilated Jews,
“mostly from German-Jewish backgrounds, associated with the Reform movement and the American Jewish Committee. These individuals believed that if American Jews called openly for a homeland in Palestine, they would be accused of divided loyalty or, even worse, disloyalty to the United States. American Jewry, they argued, had found its promised land in the United States. They rallied to the cry, “America is our Zion.””
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 not American Jewry who] 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.”
Zionist recognition that all Jews everywhere were at risk, that Jews constitute a “nation-apart,” was appalling to American Jewish leaders who considered the idea “an offence to Americanism.” To find acceptance among American Jewry then, Zionism had to redefine itself from “ingathering of the exiles [all Jews],” to “refuge” for our less fortunate, Jews “over there.” This allowed American Jewry to retain its tenuous “exceptionality.”
Centuries of prejudice, persecution and expulsion have created a deep-rooted sense of insecurity and impermanence to Jewish life in the Diaspora. This was represented by the character Tevye in the play about ghetto life in Russia, Fiddler on the Roof. “Why,” Tevye asked the rabbi, “do we always wear our hats (kippa)?” To which the rabbi responded, “Because we never know when we’ll be forced to leave without warning.” American “exceptionality” is how we reassure ourselves that, despite 2000 years evidence to the contrary, we have finally found acceptance, a secure home in the Diaspora. Zionism as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people” confronts that sense of security with History, challenges our faith in American exceptionality. American Jewry is determined to believe that the Diaspora, our Diaspora, is co-equal to Israel as Jewish homeland.
Zionism-as-refuge was born of 19th century pogrom. That the Jewish people, not just in the United States, continue to ignore insist the Holocaust unique, outside History, is to deny our history. The Holocaust serves as precedent for our future as Limpieza de Sangre was precedent for Nuremberg. German Jewry approached Hitler’s threats before Krystallnacht as outside acceptability for German, and within months 90,000 Polish Jews were massacred and dumped in pits and the Holocaust was underway.
Walter Laquer reminds that American Jewish arguments opposing Zionism,
“were identical with those formulated by the German liberals forty years earlier,” (p. 404).
In 1943, for example, the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) announced,
“we oppose the effort to establish a national Jewish state in Palestine or anywhere [as]
defeatism” (p. 404).
These words were almost identical words to those used by German Jewish leaders arguing against leaving the Fatherland because it would confirm Nazi claims that Jews were “foreigners.” Even Martin Buber who, at the time was a community leader insisted that to leave Germany in the wake of Hitler’s 1932 victory would constitute “defeatism.” (David Engels recorded lecture series, Understanding the Holocaust) In the United States, the ACJ objected to anything suggesting Jews were not at home in the Diaspora, that Jews constituted a nation. ACJ opposition would continue throughout the Holocaust years, and after.
The Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs was created in 1913, one year after the arrest of Leo Frank. First order of business was to provide an identity for Zionism to conform to American “exceptionality.” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis was named Committee leader and so leadership also of American Zionism. He would soon be named provisional leader of the World Zionist Organization. With the outbreak of war in Europe Chaim Weizmann, head of WZO, decided to relocate movement headquarters “temporarily” to then still neutral America:
“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.”
The WZO, still headquartered in the United States, would meet thirty years later in New York and pass the Biltmore Declaration advocating, “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 timidity by “establishment” Jewish leadership, its unwillingness to confront forcefully administration passivity in face of the slaughter of European Jewry, a small group of young Palestinians led by Hillel Kook (aka “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 [1940 – 1942], to rescue Jews from Nazi terror by any means [1942 – 1944], and finally for the creation of a Hebrew state [1944 – 1948].”
We Will Never Die, Madison Square Garden (Wikipedia) was performed “before an audience of 40,000 on March 9, 1943 to raise public awareness of the ongoing mass murder of Europe''s Jews.”
But in the end even an assertive Jewish response proved inadequate to impact the American Government and Mandatory Britain and by 1945, two years after We Will Never Die, the murdered two million of 1943 soared to six million.
American Zionism may be faulted as submissive, its leadership a 20th century throwback to the centuries-long “court Jew” tradition in its back-door appeal to President Roosevelt’s non-response to the plight of European Jewry. In hindsight, with the enormity of the Final Solution as backdrop, it is easy to not appreciate that American Jewry also were under threat by an American antisemitism little different in intensity and distribution from Europe. The 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a child of the German establishment, came as a bolt from the blue; American eugenics, with widespread acceptance with America’s elite, extolled the virtues of Nazi Germany until Hitler declared war on the United States and made such unfashionable. Before America entered the war prominent Americans such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh advocated support for Nazi Germany over England. And the powerful lobby America First blamed American Jewry for dragging America into a war against its natural Aryan all, Nazi Germany just to help European Jewry.
While fear may seem insufficient as reason for not doing more for European Jewry facing extermination, the threat to American Jewry was also very real, even if denied then and now. Antisemitism was intense and increasing. Support for Hitler and National Socialism was widespread, both on the “street” and by America’s elite. FDR’s place still in the imagination of American Jewry relates to the fact that we too were potential victim for the Holocaust. Even had American Jewish leadership been braver, more assertive, Roosevelt’s policy regarding European Jewry was set in his first term in office, and remained firm until his death. Not even the Bergson Boys taking the fight to the street impacted the White House.
Where American Zionism did succeed, even in face of continuing antisemitism following the war, was in its commitment to the Biltmore Declaration and its call for a Jewish state in Palestine. If even American Zionism failed to impact the unfolding Holocaust it did maintain the vision and commitment to a state for the survivors. And despite unrelenting opposition by US government bureaucrats to a Jewish state, the unrepentant antisemitism of the State Department, when partition came to a vote in the United Nations in November, 1947 the Zionist message was received and President Truman supported the creation of a state for the Jews.