“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, 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 a part of Zionism’s mission, they would never have accepted the implication that the danger applies only to the European subcontinent, that security exists, or is even possible, in other parts of the Diaspora. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, while addressing Polish Jews in 1937 actually issued the universal warning,
“Eliminate the Diaspora or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you!”
But America was not Russia, and pogroms were not an Amer
ican tradition. By European standards American Jews could legitimately say that, although antisemitism was present, it was genteel, not a physical threat. Consoled by that fact they concluded America “exceptional.” Zionism challenged that consolation, was a threat to their need 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… [an] obstacle to Jewish adjustment in a democratic environment. As in Germany feelings ran high…” (Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism, pps. 402-3).
Supporters of Zionism mostly consisted of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. They tended to speak Yiddish, kept Kosher and Shabbos. Jewish National Fund pushkas were commonplace on the kitchen table (I recall the blue JNF pushka from my own childhood).Opponents of Zionism for the most past came from the Orthodox and Reform communities. An example that appears describes a young Zionist with a pushka approaching an elderly Jew: “If [God] wanted us to have Zion again,[berated the elder Jew] He would restore it again without the help of the so-called Zionists.” But organized political opposition was centered among the wealthier and more assimilated:
“Opposition to a Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine came from many corners. One source was the highly assimilated American 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 Zionism had to redefine itself from “ingathering of the exiles [all Jews],” to “refuge” for less fortunate Jews “over there,” allowing American Jewry to retain its tenuous “exceptionality.”
I will address the issue of “America-the-exceptional” in more detail in the future. For present purposes, a brief introduction to the subject will do.
Centuries of prejudice, persecution and expulsion have created a deep-rooted sense of insecurity and impermanence to Jews living in the Diaspora. This was represented by the character Tevye in the play, Fiddler on the Roof. Why, Tevye asked the shtetl rabbi, do we always wear our hats (kippa)? Because, the rabbi responded, we never know when we’ll have to leave quickly. American “exceptionality” is how we modern Jews reassure ourselves that, despite 2000 years evidence to the contrary, we have finally found acceptance and a secure home in the Diaspora. Zionism as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people” threatens that identity, our faith in exceptionality. American Jewry has to believe that the Diaspora, our “Diaspora,” is recognized as an alternative homeland to Israel. Zionism-as-refuge, born of 19th century pogrom is, even following the Holocaust, Zionism-as-national-renewal, is refuge for “them,” not for “us.”
But not even “American exceptionality” was sufficient to reassure in the years before, during and after Auschwitz. The reason is that Antisemitism was as intense in the United States as in Europe, in Germany. According to historian Walter Laquer the arguments by American opponents of Zionism, “were identical with those formulated by the German liberals forty years earlier,” (p. 404) which, for some, continued even during the years of the Holocaust. 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). This was the same logic used by German Jewish leaders, that leaving would confirm Nazi claims that Jews were “foreigners.” Even Martin Buber maintained that to leave Germany in the wake of Hitler’s 1932 victory would constitute “defeatism” on the part of German Jewry. In the United States, the ACJ objected to anything suggesting Jews were not “at home” in the Diaspora, that Jews were a “nation.” ACJ opposition would remain throughout the Holocaust years and after.
A recruitment poster for the Zionist Organization of America Manhattan branch. Date unknown, but circa 1900-1947. (Wikipedia)
The Provisional Executive Committee for Zionist Affairs was created in 1913, one year after a young Jew was arrested for the murder of a Christian girl in Atlanta. One task that was before it was to provide an identity for Zionism acceptable to American “exceptionality.” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis was named leader and inherited also leadership of American Zionism. He would soon become leader also of of the World Zionist Organization as Chaim Weizmann, head of WZO, in the midst of a European war pitting Jew against Jew in opposing armies 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 responding to 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 (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), 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.”
But in the end even an assertive Jewish response proved unable to impact America and Mandatory Britain and within two years the murdered two million of 1943 soared to six million by the end of the war in mid-1945.
American Zionism may be faulted as too submissive, its leadership a 20th century carry-over of the centuries-long and mostly ineffective European “court Jew” tradition in back-door appeal to President Roosevelt’s inaction during the unfolding tragedy of European Jewry. In hindsight, with the enormity of the Holocaust as backdrop, it is easy to overlook that before and during the years of the Holocaust the threat to American Jewry from American antisemitism was also great. The 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a child of the German establishment, came as a bolt from the blue. And denial of that threat both maintained faith in the faith in American exceptionality, and dependency on the president for protection. Given the intensity of popular antisemitism raging in the streets; of government and bureaucratic antisemitism inspiring Congress’s 1924 antisemitic legislation slamming shut the gates of American refuge to Jews; by the Roosevelt Administration’s policy of hiding behind that legislation and effectively condemning European Jewry to Auschwitz: it is unlikely that a braver and more forceful Zionist leadership would have proved more successful.
Where American Zionism was successful was, even in the face of continuing antisemitism following the war was in remaining committed to the Biltmore Declaration and its call for a Jewish refuge in Palestine. If American Zionism was unable to impact the unfolding Holocaust, it maintained 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 US State Department, when partition came to a vote in the United Nations in November, 1947, President Truman, supported the creation of a state for the Jews.
Recent writings in this Series: