Israel at 64

The ZOA’s $10 million aliya campaign in 1920 had its ups and downs.

January 13, 1920 issue of 'The New Palestine' 370  (photo credit: Courtesy David Geffen)
January 13, 1920 issue of 'The New Palestine' 370
(photo credit: Courtesy David Geffen)
Excitement filled the air in the United States in 1920 when the slogan “How to Grow Old Yet Not Age” appeared in many newspapers around the country. Dr. Ignatz Nascher, a leading physician and “father of geriatrics,” announced he could restore the “buoyancy of youth.” In the American Jewish community there was a youthful faction, too. With 201,000 members in the various Zionist organizations out of 3,300,000 Jews in the US, these committed individuals were ready to raise $10 million for Palestine.
Part of that sum would be used to assist in aliya all over the world. In addition, in the US, there were those in the 20-45 age bracket who were prepared to follow the suggestions of the Jewish Legionnaires returning from their tour of duty there. These veterans said proudly, “Very soon after we settle our personal affairs, we intend to return to Palestine to live.” The Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion noted “a portion of those Legionnaires who remained in Eretz Israel will be colonists at the new Balfouria settlement and the others journalists and social workers.”
The Palestine Restoration Campaign was born at the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) convention in Chicago in early December 1919. Judge Julian Mack was the president and Justice Louis Brandeis was the honorary president of the major US Zionist organization. Between them and Judge Felix Frankfurter, they were able to motivate the 600 delegates to get the drive under way by delineating its 11 objectives: A campaign against malaria before any immigrants arrive; the purchase of lands by the Keren Kayemeth Le Israel-Jewish National Fund and the Zion Commonwealth; afforestation to stop the sand, aid rainfall, provide timber; extensive support for water conservation and wide-scale irrigation; aid for public welfare and communal organization groups; improvement of housing conditions; development of sanitation and drainage in cities and towns; survey and development of natural resources; assistance for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; improving the Hebrew school system in Palestine; and setting up technical laboratories for agriculture and industry.
With the call to the delegates and to the Jews of America of “let us rise up and build,” the cover of the ZOA’s January 13, 1920 New Palestine newspaper, founded the previous month as the official organ of the ZOA, carried a full page illustration highlighting in picturesque drawings what the $10 million 1920 campaign could accomplish.
Most of the artwork reflected the list cited above. The artist was E.F. Sapakoff, a devoted member and supporter of the ZOA.
“The development will require vast sums of money, which only the Americans can provide at this time since the Europeans are still suffering from the war,” the newspaper’s editorial said. The New Palestine emphasized “that all differences of opinion within the movement and concerning the movement must be forgotten so the campaign can be successful.”
The final step in preparation for the campaign occurred on January 17, 1920, a Saturday night.
Thousands gathered in New York – 3,500 workers gathered for a briefing, 1,500 were in Manhattan at the Pennsylvania Hotel, 1,000 gathered at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, and another 1,000 met at Pythian Hall in the Bronx. “They left these meetings with orders in their pockets and a renewed ardor for the big job of combing New York City for $3,500,000.” They did not raise every dollar they sought, but The New York Times reported that “over $2 million was raised by the inspired Zionist members.”
Various notables sent messages. Nathan Straus, after whom the city of Netanya was later named, was a well-known figure because of his efforts in the field of pasteurization and for the health clinics he had built in Jerusalem. He was asked to be Honorary Chairman of the National Committee of the Palestine Restoration Fund and he replied: “To wish you success would be like wishing myself success – you know how fully I share all your noble aspirations for the Jewish people.”
Since Brandeis worked behind the scenes in all these efforts, he hoped that the two major fund-raising bodies in the US would unite. A meeting was held in New York at Reform synagogue Temple Emanuel between Joint Distribution Committee leaders and ZOA leaders in December 1919.
The mediator was the noted leader Jacob Schiff. For a time it appeared that the JDC would join the ZOA in its campaign. Then Julius Rosenwald, founder of the Sears- Roebuck stores, came out against this plan.
“Many Jews who are not Zionists contribute to the JDC. Unfortunately, these will refuse to contribute when they know that a part of the money is to go for Zionist purposes,” he said. The unity failed, as the American Hebrew newspaper reported, but the ZOA went forward with its $10 million campaign.
Clearly, a number of American Jews were not ready to support a Jewish homeland.
Truth to tell, it was Hitler and the Nazis who finally aroused them.
In the January 1920 issue of The New Palestine, there was a major article on aliya titled “Plans formulated for a scientific control of immigration into Palestine: Emigrants being registered and classified for their own good and for Palestine’s.” In spite of the fact that aliya was crucial to develop the country, the Zionist movement wanted to be careful not to permit just anyone to move to the homeland. On the one hand, there would be receiving stations in Haifa for registration purposes to assist the movement of immigrants to various parts of the country. Moreover, hospitals and quarantine stations would be built for them. Yet, on the other hand, The New Palestine reported that “Zionist officials point out that the difficulty of restraining wholesale immigration to Palestine from all parts of the world is becoming an acute problem.”
Sadly, the 1920s began with opposition from some quarters to having the largest aliya possible.
These telling lines in the “scientific control” story made the point very clearly.
“This elaborate system of handling and checking immigration has been devised, it was explained by the London Zionist office, to guarantee that only persons perfectly fit, physically and otherwise, to live in Palestine, will comprise the pioneers whose duty it will be to reclaim the country, and that will be evenly balanced as to professions and occupations so that there will be no dearth of overabundance of any kind.”
Fortunately, a few months later in the fall of 1920, Herbert Samuel became the first high commissioner of the British Palestine Mandate. With his encouragement immigrants came to Palestine in the Third and Fourth Aliyot in great numbers throughout the ’20s.
At the beginning of 1920, it was reported that 6,000 applications had been filed by American technicians, engineers, teachers and others willing to help build Jewish Palestine, but very few of them ever came.
They could not leave the US in the Roaring Twenties. One Jewish Legionnaire who did return was Gershon Agronsky, later Agron, in 1923. In 1932 he founded The Palestine Post, now The Jerusalem Post.
Dr. M.J. Wissotsky and his wife from Los Angeles tried aliya for a few years. In a letter from 1922, he wrote this touching description of Jerusalem: “When I came to Jerusalem all my plans changed. After I walked around for a few days on these narrow crooked, hilly, stony, funny and in the same time most wonderful streets where every stone speaks to you of our forefathers... I realized we were here for good.”
On Israel’s 64th we are all here for good.
In honor of Danya Benovitz of Jerusalem.
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