When US Zionist leaders called for mass aliyah

The total of American Olim averages between 2,000 and 3,000 annually.

American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
American and Israeli Jews [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Fifty-two years ago this week, in the heady aftermath of the Six Day War, several American Zionist leaders not only celebrated Israel’s miraculous victory, but went considerably further by publicly calling for large-scale aliyah by American Jews to Israel.
This represented a startling departure from standard American Zionist practice. One of the consistent features of the US Zionist movement throughout its more than 100 years is that – in contrast with its European counterpart – its leaders have almost never suggested that large numbers of American Jews should move to Israel.
Likewise, very few American Zionist leaders have themselves settled in Israel, although a few toyed with the idea now and again. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, longtime leader of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), wrote to a colleague in Tel Aviv in 1938 that he was fed up “with my fellow-Jews in America, who today are wasting more money in two winter months in Florida than they have put into Palestine in 25 years.” He continued: “This generation [of American Jews] is not worth saving… I am almost prepared to swim over and live in a hut with my fellow-Jews.”
The key word was “almost.” Rabbi Wise asked his colleague to help him find “a little orange plantation” somewhere in Palestine to purchase, but then added, “of course, without a home.” At around the same time, Wise wrote to another friend, “Louise and I want to get some land in Palestine – perhaps just enough for graves.”
When prime minister David Ben-Gurion in 1959 publicly cited the Talmudic statement that a Jew who lives outside of the Land of Israel is “considered as one who does not have a God,” American Jewish leaders were outraged. The ZOA accused Ben-Gurion of “impugning the religious faith” of all Diaspora Jews. B’nai B’rith complained that the prime minister was trying “to negate 2,000 years of Diaspora Jewish existence.”
BUT ISRAEL’S victory in June 1967 inspired two veteran ZOA leaders to think outside the box. That month’s edition of the ZOA journal, The American Zionist, published their surprising calls for mass aliyah.
The first was an essay by former ZOA president Max Nussbaum. He argued that the two challenges facing American Zionists in the aftermath of the Six Day War were Hebrew education and aliya.
“In both cases, we have paid only lip service to these ideas,” Nussbaum wrote. But the fact that “thousands of young people across the nation visited Israeli consulates [during the war] and volunteered for service in the Jewish State” was a hopeful sign. “We ought to take advantage of this deep-rooted sentiment and spend most of our budget on motivating aliyah of the old and the young, but especially of the younger generation.”
One way to inspire potential olim was to find compelling new ways to “tell the exciting story of Israel to our young American-born generation,” Nussbaum argued. “In human terms, it is a story vastly more exciting than any to be found in the Peace Corps movement” (for which many young American Jews had volunteered).
Nussbaum urged his ZOA colleagues to “concentrate all our powers and all our means on giving the Jewish State what it needs most – aliyah of young people from the United States,” although he slightly qualified his plea, by adding that “this aliyah has to be undertaken in a flexible method – for a year, or two, or three, or permanently.”
A second former ZOA president, Emanuel Neumann, was even more forthright. American Jews had “responded magnificently” to the war crisis by contributing “millions of dollars” to Israel, but “money is not enough,” Neumann declared in a speech whose text was reprinted in the same issue of The American Zionist.
“When you compare the record of American Jewry in money with our record in manpower, in aliya, our contribution of men and women to the Yishuv, we have no reason to be proud,” Neumann bluntly asserted. “Every Jewish family in this country ought to be represented by one of its children in Israel….They should be encouraged by their elders to take part in the high adventure of nation building.”
Neumann went so far as to set a numerical goal for American Jewish immigration to Israel: “Surely Israel has a right to expect, not a huge inundation of American aliya, but in the next three or four years, a hundred thousand young American Jews who will want to help shoulder the responsibility of this small but heroic people.”
As it turned out, 100,000 in three or four years would indeed have represented “a huge inundation” compared to the actual numbers. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, fewer than 14,000 American Jews moved to Israel during the three and a half years following the Six Day War. The annual total since 1974 has averaged between 2,000 and 3,000.
Neumann, it should be noted, practiced what he preached. His family was “represented by one of its children” in Israel, exactly as he urged of other American Jews. He himself made aliya in 1979, at age 86, returning to the country where he had spent his early years, and to which he had devoted his professional life, if mostly from afar.
The writer is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.