Cultural Zionism and Binationalism Among American Liberal Protestants

Walker Robins. Israel Studies. Volume 23, Issue 2. Summer 2018.

The article examines the influence of cultural Zionism, as represented by Ahad Ha’am and Judah Magnes, on three leading American liberal Protestants in the Mandate era—Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Ernest Hocking, and John Haynes Holmes. While all three claimed to support cultural Zionism, each interpreted and appropriated it in different ways. Fosdick favored it as a functional moral alternative to political Zionism—he came to equate it with Judah Magnes’s binational solution to the Palestine question. Hocking had real ideological affinities with cultural Zionism but likewise came to prioritize its political implications. For both Fosdick and Hocking, the failure of Zionists to embrace binationalism meant the failure of Zionism. While Holmes shared their affinity for Magnes and binationalism, he did not equate cultural Zionism with binationalism, and so remained supportive of Zionism and Israel even as binationalism failed to win support.

For the most part, scholars of the relationship of Christians to Zionism have focused on explaining the intellectual bases of Christian support for or opposition to Zionism as a movement. Several studies have also emphasized the interactions between Christians and individual Zionists or Zionist institutions. Of less concern has been Christian engagement with Zionism as an ideology. Zionism, of course, was more than just a movement to revive Jewish life or build a Jewish state in Eretz Israel. It also encompassed a variety of related but competing ideologies that offered a reimagining of Jewish identity and the place of Jews in the world. Neither Christian supporters nor opponents of Zionism were walled off from the ideological questions underpinning the movement. As with the Zionists themselves, many Christians’ ideological understandings of Jewish nationhood shaped their political approaches to the Palestine question.

The article examines how three prominent American liberal Protestants engaged a particular strand of Zionism—spiritual or cultural Zionism—in the decades leading up to the establishment of Israel. In particular, it focuses on Harry Emerson Fosdick, John Haynes Holmes, and William Ernest Hocking, all of whom were leading liberal Protestant public intellectuals from the 1920s to the 1950s, decades in which American liberal Protestants were important in shaping broader liberal public opinion. Fosdick, a Baptist, was best known for his defense of religious modernism and attacks on Christian fundamentalism in the 1920s. He served in three New York pulpits throughout his career (including, most famously, the Riverside Church) and was active in liberal political causes, including the pacifist movement. Hocking was the Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard University. Highly regarded as a philosopher of religion, he was perhaps best known for chairing the Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry in the 1930s, which called for Protestant missions to emphasize practical aid over the export of Western culture. Holmes, who came from Unitarianism, served for decades as the pastor of the Community Church of New York. Like Fosdick, he was a committed pacifist and a political activist; most notably, he was involved in the founding of both the NAACP and the ACLU. All three were public intellectuals whose opinions on world issues—including Zionism and the Palestine question—were valued both within and without Protestant circles.

On Zionism and Palestine, the three shared much in common. All three traveled to Palestine in the late 1920s and shared an opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state, while celebrating to varying and shifting extents the development of a vibrant Jewish culture, society, and economy in Palestine. Most significantly, they claimed to have been influenced by the tradition of cultural Zionism, which did not prioritize the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, but rather the development of a Jewish spiritual and cultural center. Holmes, Fosdick, and Hocking alike cited figures like Ahad Ha’am, the “father” of cultural Zionism, and Rabbi Judah Magnes, the American-born president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in explaining their approaches to Zionism. They were especially fond of Magnes, whom they hailed as a latter-day Hebrew prophet, even as they interpreted his approach to Zionism differently.

This interplay between liberal Protestants and cultural Zionists has received some attention. Individual studies on Holmes, Hocking, and Fosdick have noted the affinity of each for Judah Magnes. However, only Naomi Wiener Cohen has attempted to analyze this affinity, albeit in passing, arguing that Magnes’s cultural Zionism “supplied the means for cloaking opposition to political Zionism in moral and religious terms that could in no way evoke charges of antisemitism.” Rabbi Stephen Wise had argued the same decades earlier, claiming that “Magnes’s word… made it possible for Jews and Christians alike to speak up for the Arabs and against the Jewish position as they would not have dared to do but for that word.” While there is some truth to these charges, they also obscure the varying extents to which American liberal Protestants actually engaged cultural Zionism. The article examines specifically how these three influential liberal Protestants encountered cultural Zionism, how they interpreted it, and how they reinterpreted it according to shifting concerns and political realities. It shows how the liberal Protestants developed a vocabulary that placed political Zionism outside the acceptable fray and portrayed cultural Zionism as the true and acceptable movement. In their embrace of Ahad Ha’am and Judah Magnes, liberal Protestants castigated political Zionists as “chauvinistic” while praising cultural Zionists as responsibly “moderate”. They argued that this moderate vision would allow for the continuation of all that was admirable in Zionism while also protecting the political rights of the Arab majority. Echoing Magnes, liberal Protestants viewed this as an ideological, moral, and practical necessity in the face of increasing Arab resistance to Zionism.

Fosdick, Hocking, and Holmes’s preferred political solutions to the Palestine question were variations on Magnes’s own—a binational democratic state with sovereignty shared between Jews and Arabs. Their reactions to the failure of Magnes’s vision differed. Fosdick and Hocking grew increasingly active in their opposition to Zionism and became leading Protestant critics of the Jewish state after its founding. Holmes, on the other hand, lamented the failure of binationalism but remained ultimately supportive of Zionism and Israel. Many factors guided this divergence. Underlying it, however, were divergent understandings of cultural Zionism. For Fosdick and Hocking, cultural Zionism came to be inexorably intertwined with politics—the failure of Zionists to embrace binationalism meant the failure of Zionism itself. For Holmes, cultural Zionism was a way for Jews to reinvigorate their national life by living out high Jewish ideals in community. Because he did not equate cultural Zionism with a particular political framework, his support for Zionism was, ironically, able to survive the creation of a Jewish state.

Ahad Ha’Am and Judah Magnes—Cultural Zionism and Binationalism

Before examining the liberal Protestants, it is important to explore the Zionist intellectual tradition that they drew on—particularly the thought of Ahad Ha’am and Magnes. Born Asher Zvi Ginsburg, Ahad Ha’am was the intellectual force behind cultural Zionism and Theodor Herzl’s primary ideological foe within the Zionist movement. His Zionism was rooted in the belief that a positive, organic national essence distinguished Jews as Jews and bound them as a people and that this essence was under threat in the modern era. The religion that had long sustained it in the diaspora had grown stagnant in the East, while the process of emancipation threatened its death through assimilation in the West. For Ahad Ha’am, this—the “problem of Judaism”—was the defining problem facing Jews. Gideon Shimoni notes that Ahad Ha’am’s solution to this problem was the development of a secularized identity “bound by certain norms rooted in the religion-saturated cultural heritage of the Jewish nation”.

Palestine was a crucial piece of the solution. Ahad Ha’am believed the development of a modern Jewish society in Palestine had the potential to revitalize the Jewish national essence. “Judaism,” which he equated with that essence rather than religion, “seeks to return to its historic center, where it will be able to live a life developing in a natural way, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to broaden and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity.” In returning to work the land of their fathers, in reviving their national language, in bringing Jewish values to bear on all aspects of human life in their homeland, Jews could recapture and revive their national essence. This did not immediately require a state, though it would eventually lead to one. Ahad Ha’am expected Jewish settlement of Palestine would (and should) proceed gradually and that the diaspora would remain an integral part of Jewish life for the foreseeable future. Still, he looked forward to the eventual creation of a Jewish majority in Palestine and the establishment of Jewish sovereignty there. In the meantime, he believed that Zionists needed to seriously acknowledge their minority position in Palestine and engage the “Arab question”. His 1891 essay, “Truth from Eretz Israel”, was one of the first Zionist works to draw attention to that question. Though he was involved in negotiations over the Balfour Declaration, which committed Britain to the creation of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, the terms of the declaration revived his concerns over confrontation with the Arabs. The years after WWI saw a great decline in his literary output. In 1922, he emigrated from London to Tel-Aviv, where he died in 1927.

While some liberal Protestants read Ahad Ha’am themselves, more encountered cultural Zionism through the interpretation of Judah Magnes, the American rabbi who served terms as Chancellor and President of Hebrew University during the Mandate era. Magnes had been an early American supporter of Zionism. After graduating from Hebrew Union College in 1900, he had attended the Hochschule in Berlin, where he was exposed to the writings of Ahad Ha’am and soon proclaimed Zionism his “whole philosophy”. To Magnes, Ahad Ha’am was “first of the modern Jews who has seen the great light in the distance”, a model of the “harmonious Jew” who could reconcile the demands of modernity with Jewish tradition. After returning to assume a pulpit in Brooklyn, Magnes served as secretary of the Federation of American Zionists (FAZ) during 1905–08. While in New York, his cultural Zionist leanings found confirmation as he fell in with a group of Jewish intellectuals revolving around Solomon Schechter that favored Ahad Ha’am’s vision for the movement. Like Schechter, Magnes would infuse Ahad Ha’am’s secular cultural Zionism with a religious impetus. In the words of his biographer, Magnes “emphasized Reform Judaism’s stress on ethics, but applied it to Jewish nationalism; Jews, he stressed, were an ethical nation.”

In Palestine, the ethical nation could build an ethical community that would invigorate Jewish life around the world. For Magnes, Zionism was “the attempt on the part of the Jews to bring the Land of Israel into the center of Jewish life.” Palestine would be “a spiritual center, and the Judaism [there] developed may in many ways be authoritative for, and enrich the Judaism of, the Jews in other parts of the world.” Like Ahad Ha’am, Magnes argued that the development of Jewish nationhood did not require a state, writing in 1908 “It is just this idea of nationality that we wish to combat from the beginning.” Prior to WWI, he argued that the Jewish national center should be developed within the Ottoman political system. During the war, Magnes’s ideological discomfort with the political aspirations of many Zionists and his growing pacifism began to fray his relations with others in the movement. “All that we have a right to ask,” he wrote after resigning from the FAZ in 1915, “is that the Jews be permitted to migrate to, and settle in and develop their Jewish economic and cultural life in Palestine freely, just as other peoples of the [Ottoman] Empire have the same right.” Zionism “must mean now, as it has in the past for most of us, the building up of a Jewish cultural center in Palestine through the inner cultural strength of the free Jewish People in Palestine, an Ottoman province.” When the promises of the Balfour Declaration were written into the British Mandate for Palestine, Magnes proclaimed, “I do not want this gift to blind my eyes or to bribe me.” Zionism, Magnes worried, had hitched itself to Western imperial power with a narrow political achievement that might ultimately undermine the goal of revitalizing Jewish life. “Will the Jews here in their efforts to create a political organism become devotees of brute force and militarism,” he asked in 1923, “Or will the Jews of Eretz Israel be true to the teaching of the Prophets of Israel and attempt to work out their ideal society so that Jerusalem may be restored and Zion redeemed through righteousness and peace?”

In 1922, Magnes and his family relocated to Jerusalem, where he would be named Chancellor of the Hebrew University three years later (he served as president 1935–48). There, he drew close to the likeminded members of the Brit Shalom movement, which was founded in 1925 to offer a specific policy alternative to the aggressive political approach of the Revisionist Zionists, who sought Jewish control over both Palestine and Transjordan and the creation of a Jewish military force to protect Jewish settlement in the face of Arab resistance. Like Magnes, many members of Brit Shalom considered themselves disciples of Ahad Ha’am, opposed the immediate pursuit of a sovereign Jewish state, and sought reconciliation with the Palestinian Arabs. Brit Shalom called for the creation of a binational state in Palestine, with sovereignty shared between Jews and Arabs. More ideological supporters of Brit Shalom also argued that Zionism must manifest a Jewish national (or religious) ethic that demanded the equitable treatment of the Arab population. Though Magnes did not join the group, he was nonetheless personally, politically, and ideologically close to its membership.

After the outbreak of the “Wailing Wall riots” in 1929, which brought unprecedented violence to the Zionist-Arab confrontation, Magnes became the face of the binationalist cause. In a November 1929 address at the Hebrew University, he called for reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, arguing that the Jewish national ethic demanded it. In subsequent writings in The New York Times and the pamphlet Like All the Nations, he laid out his longstanding concerns over the tempting prospect of Jewish statehood and called for the establishment of a binational, bicameral federation of Jews and Arabs. Magnes argued that Zionists should focus on securing three essential rights—to immigration, to settlement on the land, and to the development of a Hebrew life and culture. “If you can guarantee these rights for me,” he wrote, “I should be willing to yield the Jewish State, and the Jewish majority.” Magnes believed that these rights could be secured within a binational framework that would also allow the realization of Arab political aspirations, which was necessary on both practical and moral grounds—“If as a minority we insist upon keeping the other man from achieving just aims, and if we keep him from this with the aid of bayonets, we must not be surprised if we are attacked and what is worse, if moral degeneration sets in amongst us.” “The question is,” he argued, “can we establish our life here not upon the basis of force and power, but upon that of human solidarity and understanding?” For the Jewish Home to be a truly Jewish Home, Magnes believed it must be guided by a Jewish ethic. As an American Jew and a pacifist, he viewed democracy, pluralism, and pacifism as defining features of that ethic.

Magnes continued to promote his binational vision throughout the 1930s and 1940s. During these years, the Zionists were confronted with the outbreak of the Arab revolt between 1936 and 1939, the issuance of Britain’s 1939 White Paper restricting Jewish immigration and land purchasing, and the intensifying, eventually-genocidal persecution of Jews in Europe and concomitant refugee crisis. For the Zionist mainstream, increasingly guided by David Ben-Gurion, these events suggested the urgent need for Jewish sovereignty. Magnes, though, stayed the course. In 1937, he urged rejection of the Peel Commission’s plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories. In 1942, he responded to the Biltmore Program, which called explicitly for Jewish sovereignty, with the formation of Ihud, an association devoted to binationalism. In 1946, he presented the binational plan to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. However, the urgency of the Jewish refugee crisis in Europe, paired with the opposition of the British, the Zionist leadership, and the Arabs, ensured the continued rejection of binationalism. In the end, the plan that called for unity between Jews and Arabs simply failed to find traction among either. Magnes died in 1948 in the US, having witnessed from a distance the Palestine question be answered by partition and war. American Protestants mourned him as a prophet.

The Liberal Protestants and Cultural Zionism

For the most part, liberal Protestants encountered cultural Zionism through Magnes. Of the three figures examined here, only Holmes engaged seriously with the thought of Ahad Ha’am, albeit still through the mediating influence of Magnes. Both Holmes and Fosdick had known the rabbi prior to his emigration to Palestine. The three had much in common, sharing a concern for social issues in New York City, a pacifist approach to world affairs, and an interest in interfaith rapprochement. Magnes’s influence on the two in terms of Zionism, though, came after his move to Jerusalem and appointment as Chancellor of Hebrew University. For the New Yorkers, Holmes and Fosdick, as well as the Harvard man, Hocking, their decisive encounters with the rabbi and his thought came during trips to the Holy Land during the late 1920s. Magnes even served as a guide for Fosdick and Holmes, both of whom would cite his guidance as decisive in shaping their understanding of Zionism and its challenges. The 1929 publication of Magnes’s Like All the Nations further cemented the rabbi’s influence on the three, articulating a vision of Zionism that was in line with their own values, confirmed their concerns over the movement as it existed, and offered a seemingly-viable policy alternative to Jewish sovereignty. Fosdick, Hocking, and Holmes each engaged with Magnes’s approach in distinct ways, sometimes arriving at vastly different approaches to Zionism and the Palestine question.

Harry Emerson Fosdick

Fosdick was among the most influential pastors of his day and, for many, the voice of American liberal Protestantism—Rabbi Stephen Wise called him “the least hated and best loved heretic that ever lived”. The Baptist’s “heresy” was a liberal faith rooted in the Social Gospel, which prioritized the social implications of Christianity and would color Fosdick’s approach to international affairs and the Palestine question. By the mid-1920s, Fosdick’s social faith had led him to pacifism, as he proclaimed war to be “the most colossal social sin against [Christ] of which the world is guilty”. It had likewise led him to decry the “dogma of nationalism”, which he described as “the most dangerous rival of Christian principles on earth”. Both Fosdick’s pacifism and his anti-nationalism—rooted in his Social Christianity—would draw him towards Magnes’s vision for Zionism.

Fosdick’s defining encounter with Zionism came during a 1926 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. His original plan was to publish a relatively conventional serialized pilgrim narrative in the Ladies’ Home Journal. However, Fosdick’s longtime friend, Wise, encouraged the pastor to pen an article giving his impressions of Zionism, hoping that the prominent Protestant would be won over to the cause and help reverse recent publicity failures. Wise provided Fosdick with a list of contacts to consult during his trip. Fosdick obliged Wise on both counts, meeting with his recommended contacts and giving his perspective on the movement in an essay titled “Palestine Tomorrow”, which formed the final chapter of his 1927 compilation, A Pilgrimage to Palestine. Wise would be horrified by the result. The rabbi, who was an intimate friend of John Holmes, had been a crucial figure in the American Zionist movement since its modest beginnings—and would remain so into the 1940s. Unlike Magnes, Wise was committed to political Zionism and supportive of its mainstream institutional form. It was Magnes, though, who served as Fosdick’s guide on the ground in Palestine. Rather than bringing Fosdick towards Wise’s vision of Zionism, Fosdick’s trip would bring him towards Magnes’s—and lead him towards outspoken opposition to political Zionism.

Fosdick did not consider himself an anti-Zionist. In “Palestine Tomorrow” he described himself as a “non-Jew who, neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist, is interested without prejudice to observe the facts”. However, he was opposed to forms of political Zionism that sought to establish Jewish political control over Palestine. He quoted with disdain a member of the Zionist Executive’s 1921 quip that there could only be “one National Home in Palestine, and that a Jewish one”. Such statements were “typical of the madness” that had caused trouble for the movement, inflaming the native populace against it. Fosdick was drawn to the movement, though, impressed by both its energy and modernity. As he contemplated the future of Palestine, he found himself torn between “sympathy with the ideals of the moderate Zionists” and the “clear perception that before this courageous venture can succeed it must face serious problems whose solutions are not easy to see”—the struggling Palestinian economy, the growing racial antagonism between Arabs and Jews, and the unseen divisions within Zionism itself. “While tragedy is obviously possible,” he wrote, “I personally hope that Zionism may succeed.” By this, he meant the success of “moderate Zionism”. Though Fosdick did not mention Magnes by name in the chapter, his definition of moderate Zionism bore the rabbi’s imprint. “The hope of Zionism,” he wrote, “lies in its own moderation and wisdom.” This Zionism must “count Arab welfare as precious as its own” and must “center its efforts on creating in the Holy Land a cultural expression of world-wide Judaism”. It must “forego grasping ambition for political dominance and turn its back on chauvinistic nationalism.” If the “partisans of political Zionism… are allowed to force the issue,” he warned, “Zionism will end in tragedy.”

Fosdick’s embrace of cultural Zionism was never deep. From the beginning, he valued it primarily as an alternative to the “chauvinistic nationalism” so abhorrent to his Social Gospel faith. For Fosdick, Magnes became a symbol of the better path not taken. Prior to the publication of “Palestine Tomorrow”, Fosdick spoke at the Union Theological Seminary about his concerns with Zionism, noting that if the movement “could be led by Dr. Magnes or a man like him, there would be hope of success, with a program of an educational and cultural revival instead of political ambition as its motive.” In a 1929 review of Holmes’s own travelogue, which even more enthusiastically endorsed Magnes’s cultural Zionism, Fosdick urged readers to search the work for “some good guidance toward a finer type of Zionism, which alone either ought to win or ever can.” In 1935, he declared Magnes “one of the supreme hopes of the situation in Jerusalem today”.

Fosdick remained opposed to political Zionism even as the Jewish refugee crisis in Europe deepened. He did attend the 1936 American Christian Conference on the Jewish Problem (sponsored by Holmes’s Pro-Palestine Federation), which called for keeping Palestine open to Jewish refugees; however it is not clear whether his attendance signified an endorsement. Fosdick’s general position on Nazism and the refugee crisis was clear and was among the earliest American Christians in condemning Hitler and among the few church leaders who were active in trying to lower immigration barriers to refugees fleeing Nazi terror. Whether or not Fosdick considered Palestine a possible refuge for Jewish refugees, by the late 1940s he had grown more active in his opposition to political Zionism. He joined a number of anti-Zionist organizations, including the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land and the American Friends of the Middle East. He drew closer, too, to members of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, which argued against Zionism on the basis that Jews constituted a religious group rather than a nation. In 1947, famed archaeologist William Foxwell Albright attributed Fosdick’s anti-Zionism to the influence of Bertha Vester and the American Colony, where he had stayed for most of his two months in Palestine in 1926. While Fosdick had developed a strong friendship with Vester that persisted many years after his visit, he disputed the idea that she had shaped his views towards Zionism. In contrast, he cited Magnes as an influence several times between the 1920s and 1950s. Like his favored prophet, he would express confusion that he was labeled an anti-Zionist even as he grew more assertive in his opposition to the movement and the creation of Israel in the late 1940s. “I was not aware that I was really an anti-Zionist,” he wrote in 1947, “much less am I violently anti-Zionist.” Magnes had said the same in 1929.

As Fosdick was drawn into deeper opposition to Zionism and, later, the State of Israel, he continued to fixate on the rabbi as a symbol of the better path not taken. On several occasions, he described himself as a “disciple” of Magnes. In his 1956 autobiography, Fosdick lamented that the leadership of Zionism had slipped from the likes of Magnes, who believed in “a cultural Zionism that would put at the disposal of the Middle East modern agricultural and industrial techniques and methods of social service with which the Jews would usher in a new day for all the people.” Instead, “aggressive, chauvinistic, even violent Zionists” had won, portending the eventual tragedies of Folke Bernadotte’s assassination and the massacre at Deir Yassin. He repeated much the same in 1960 after being questioned over his support for the American Council for Judaism. Even then, after Israel’s existence for 12 years, Fosdick believed Magnes’s vision remained the only real solution to the region’s problems: “Magnes died of a broken heart because of the failure of his policy, and I see little hope until his policies are put back into full force again.” That Fosdick lamented the failure of Magnes’s “policy” is telling. Although he had proclaimed the virtues of “moderate” cultural Zionism for decades, Fosdick had always been less interested in cultural Zionism per se than in its implications as an alternative to political Zionism.

William Ernest Hocking

In a 1988 essay, Carl Hermann Voss and David Rausch described Hocking as “one of the foremost anti-Zionists in the academic world of the United States”. Egal Feldman likewise described him as having been “the outstanding anti-Zionist intellectual in the United States” in the 1940s. Frequently referenced in discussions of Christian opposition to Zionism, the substance of his opposition, it seems, has only been studied once. Douglas Frank argued that Hocking’s anti-Zionism stemmed from the conflict between the philosopher’s idealistic hopes for a moral international order and his growing sense of Zionism’s tilt towards a cold realpolitik. Although Frank’s study mentioned Hocking’s relationship with Magnes, it did not engage the symbolic and intellectual role that the rabbi played in giving definition to the intellectual conflict that pushed Hocking from early support for the movement to vehement opposition. For a time, Magnes’s vision resolved the contradictions between Hocking’s hopes for Zionism and his diagnoses of the movement’s fundamental problems. More important, however, was that Magnes’s cultural approach to Zionism, intertwined with his binational solution to the Palestine question, offered evidence to Hocking that the Zionist movement was explicitly spurning a moral alternative to realpolitik.

Hocking’s earliest writings on Zionism were supportive of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1917, he penned a favorable piece on the movement in The Maccabaean, the institutional organ of the Federation of American Zionists. He seems to have derived his early approach to Zionism from general principles rather than specific engagement with the movement. In particular, he was concerned with the interplay between internationalism and nationalism. “We are living in an age when internationalism in the sense of the community and brotherhood of nations is strengthening its hold upon us,” he wrote, “and this kind of internationalism we all want to see grow and prosper.” However, he warned against the type of internationalism that would suppress or wipe out national distinctiveness. He held that nationalities served as necessary labs of experimentation for devising “those systems of laws, those institutions, those interpretations of the family, of property, or religion, of education” which would “best serve the interests of mankind”. Each nation had its own particular genius that could help humankind in addressing the challenges of the twentieth century. As Hocking saw it, every national genius “has its root in the soil of its land”. Consequently, “The whole of humanity will be impoverished unless every strong national stock has a chance to show what is in it and to develop itself in experimental life on its own homeland.” For that reason, he supported Zionism, arguing that “Jewish nationality must have a fair chance for national self-expression.”

As of 1917, Hocking believed that self-expression should come in the context of a “self-protective” Jewish state. Only this would allow an “all-round expression” of Jewish national life. A Jewish state would allow Jews to protect their religious distinctiveness and prevent them from becoming “religiously neutral” among the other nations. While there was much in Hocking’s arguments that coincided with general Zionist ideology as well as cultural Zionism, he seems to have arrived at these parallels through particularizing a general and abstract approach to nationality rather than an actual engagement with Zionism as it existed. As he grew more familiar with the situation in Palestine, his support for Zionism would transition into outspoken opposition.

In 1930, in the wake of the previous year’s riots and his own 1928 visit to Palestine, Hocking revisited Zionism in the pages of The Atlantic. His trip to the region was crucial in changing his opinion of the movement—with “deep personal regret” he wrote that he had gone to Palestine “seized with the idea of Zionism” but come away saddened. The trip had convinced him that Arabs’ own national ambitions and the absorptive capacity of Palestine were irreconcilable with the mainstream Zionist program. He argued that American Jews and Gentiles “should recognize as axiomatic three things”:

(1) that nothing like the full plan of Zionism can be realized without political pressure backed by military force; (2) that such pressure and force imply an injustice which is inconsistent with the ethical sense of Zionism, undermining both its sincerity and its claim; (3) that every increase of pressure now meets with increasingly determined Arab resistance, within and beyond Palestine.

Hocking’s second axiom is most revealing of his shifting attitude towards Zionism. Whereas he had earlier expressed hope that each nation should work out its own genius on its own soil, his argument that political pressure was “inconsistent with the ethical sense of Zionism” shows that Hocking believed that the Jewish national genius entailed a particular ethic that eschewed power politics. For Hocking, the only “true and attainable Zion” was “the Zion of culture and faith, not the Zion of political nationalism”. It was the Zionism of Judah Magnes, “the symbol of all that is best” in the movement.

Although Hocking shared Magnes’s belief that the ethical core of a Jewish national revival pointed away from political Zionism, his initial proposed solution to the Palestine question differed from Magnes’s own. Hocking hoped that the Zionists would cease “new social and economic experiments” in Palestine and that the region would remain impoverished and thus unspoiled. He called on Jews to strengthen “that magnificent university, with its broad conception of its mission, with its scientific ministration to the needs of the people and to the historical interests of the Moslem and the Christian as well as of the Jew.” Support for Magnes’s university would “let the Jewish wisdom show itself a comprehensive wisdom in which all creeds and races may find sustenance”. In terms of a political solution, Hocking called on the Zionists to “publicly disavow its unholy alliance with Western military power” and its “purpose to dominate in Palestine”, and on Britain to “restate her… general conception of the mandate, in terms which clearly subordinate the interests of the Empire to the general human good”.

In 1932, Hocking restated his position in light of subsequent events, particularly the British government’s issuance of the Passfield White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine, and his exposure to Magnes’s Like All the Nations in an article, “Political Zionism”, a critique of political Zionism in general and political Zionists’ response to the White Paper in particular. He argued that political Zionists’ criticisms of the White Paper were incorrectly rooted in political claims derived from the Balfour Declaration and its inclusion in the Mandate—that Zionists could claim no particular political rights on the basis of the Balfour Declaration. “The force of the Zionist claim” rested solely “on the considerations moral and other which gave rise to it.” These moral claims to the land derived from religious attachment and “that instinct of cultural pregnancy which craves not only some physical basis of national life, but a special soil and sky”. In this could be found faint echoes of Hocking’s earlier enthusiasm for Zionism as well clear echoes of Magnes. Hocking argued that Jews’ “instinct of cultural pregnancy” had been expressed most poignantly by the rabbi in Like All the Nations, inserting a lengthy quotation that included, “The Jewish People has and can have no other historical center than the Land of Israel… Palestine can help this people to understand itself, to give an account of itself, to an intensification of its culture, a deepening of its philosophy, a renewal of its religion.” The quote also noted the Zionist desire to “build up an ethical community, and thereby make the land still more sacred”. Hocking commented, “The only Zionism which has a right in Palestine is the Zionism which feels the force of these essentially ethical demands.” Those demands precluded a Jewish political nationalism, but Hocking believed it was perhaps “the destiny of the Jews to demonstrate… the reality of a purely moral force”. They could do so by choosing between two “programs” laid out in Magnes’s Like Among the Nations (Hocking directly quoted Magnes), one that seeks the establishment of a Jewish national home “through the suppression of the political aspirations of the Arabs” and one that seeks to establish a national home “only if [Zionists] are true to ourselves as democrats and internationalists”. This latter approach only required Magnes’s three conditions of Jewish immigration, Jewish settlement, and the development of a Hebrew life and culture. According to Hocking, however, those conditions did not need to be met at any particular “rate of speed”.

As Arab opposition to Zionism intensified in the 1930s, Hocking jettisoned any support for Jewish immigration and settlement while clutching Magnes and the Hebrew University as twin totems of his support for the development of Hebrew life and culture. Amidst the growing Nazi persecutions in Europe and the Arab revolt in Palestine in the late 1930s, Hocking opposed attempts to funnel Jewish refugees towards Palestine, citing the country’s lack of absorptive capacity, the opposition of the Arabs, and the terms of the Balfour Declaration, which he noted had been deliberately crafted to avoid promising the Zionists all of Palestine. By 1936, Hocking had abandoned his view that the “cultural pregnancy” of the land justified any Jewish claims to it, arguing instead that the “true claim of Zionism to a lodgment in Palestine is the claim of religious sentiment”. In his eyes, though, that sentiment was alien to Zionism as it existed. “Palestine does not belong to the Jews,” he plainly asserted. Although Hocking continued to praise Magnes’s Hebrew University as an example of Palestine’s potential, he did so on universalist—not Jewish—terms, declaring that the country “belongs to the universal culture represented by the great university on Mount Scopus”.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, Hocking joined Fosdick in anti-Zionist organizations like the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land and the American Friends of the Middle East. As the US’s role in the Middle East expanded after WWII, Hocking increasingly focused his efforts on condemning American government support for the Jewish state on humanitarian and strategic grounds, arguing the United States should “refrain from any act which would identify US policies in the Middle East with those of Israel”. In 1958, he argued that viewing the creation and continued existence of Israel as a fait accompli perpetuated the injustice that inhered in Israel’s creation. He had come to view Zionism as “fundamentalist and totalitarian in character”, with its program having been executed in “the name of humanity and religion… with an absoluteness apparently indifferent to goodwill, as well as to good faith”. Echoing his 1930 Atlantic article, Hocking decried Zionism’s “zeal for state-making by urbanization, industrialization, modernization and mechanization” as having “ruined the atmosphere of ‘The Holy Land’ for the worship or pilgrimage of any faith” representing “an inner tragedy for Judaism, the world over”. Amidst this recitation of the deleterious consequences of the victory of political Zionism, he noted, “We should enquire why… prophetic souls of Judaism… believed in the bi-national possibilities of the Zionist movement. Were they simply naïve?” “I think of Judah Magnes and Albert Einstein,” he added. Hocking did not believe the likes of Magnes and Einstein had been naïve, but that events, including the crisis of the Holocaust, had simply doomed their approach to the Palestine question.

As with Fosdick, Hocking had come to be more interested in the political implications of cultural Zionism than with the ideology itself. Indeed, his later laments in the American Mercury foregrounded Magnes’s binationalism, rather than his ideology. Unlike Fosdick, though, Hocking had started from a real intellectual affinity with cultural Zionism, believing that each nation should be able to develop its own genius “in experimental life on its own homeland”. With a logic that paralleled Magnes’s own, Hocking came to believe the Jewish national genius entailed an ethic that mitigated against the goals of political Zionism and pointed to some type of binational political solution. He thus came to view the failure of binationalism as the failure of Zionism itself, cultural or otherwise, and reason enough to oppose the movement and the state it produced.

John Haynes Holmes

Scholars have described Unitarian minister Holmes both as “an ardent Zionist” and as someone who “thought of himself as a Zionist supporter”. Both readings of Holmes are valid. Holmes himself claimed to be an “ardent Zionist”, frequently proclaiming support for the movement while serving in several pro-Zionist organizations, among them the Pro-Palestine Federation and the American Palestine Committee. At the same time, he shared with Fosdick and Hocking an opposition to political Zionism and Jewish statehood. Like Fosdick, Holmes was a pacifist and an internationalist, his pacifism and internationalism rooted in his social understanding of Christianity. However, the Unitarian Holmes went far beyond Fosdick in identifying his faith with social causes. In 1917, he anticipated the formation of a new universal religion that would be “strictly ethical and not theological in character”. Significantly, Holmes believed such an emphasis on the “moral life” had no “convincing example” outside “the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel”. This would play an important role in Holmes’s appreciation of Zionism. Guided by Magnes, he would come to view the movement as an attempt to live out the ethical ideals of the prophets and thus revitalize Judaism in the modern world.

As Rabbi Wise’s closest friend, Holmes had been sympathetic to Zionism throughout the 1910s and 1920s. However, his most significant engagement with the movement came in his 1929 book, Palestine Today and Tomorrow: A Gentile’s Survey of Zionism. He produced the work after a two-month visit to Palestine in early 1929 that was sponsored by philanthropist Nathan Straus and arranged by Wise. As with Fosdick’s earlier journey, Wise viewed Holmes’s trip as an opportunity to secure a prominent liberal Christian’s support for Zionism. Before Holmes set out, the rabbi arranged for him to meet with Justice Louis Brandeis, who briefed the minister on the movement. In Palestine, Holmes met with a number of Jewish and Arab leaders. As he noted in the foreword to Palestine Today and Tomorrow, though, the individuals who made the strongest impression on him were Hans Kohn and Henrietta Szold of Brit Shalom, as well as Magnes, who guided him on tours of Zionist agricultural settlements.

Holmes’s enthusiasm for Zionism was clear—“The achievements of Zionism are the answer to all doubts as to its success.” He was particularly inspired by the courage and industry of the chalutzim. An unapologetic idealist, Holmes wrote of feeling “the thrill and stir of an heroic movement for a great ideal” in the Zionist colonies. The Zionists’ “conscious sense of an ideal social mission” imbued the communal colonies with “a uniquely glorious character”. Besides this idealism, by “their labors and hand and brain” the Zionists were “transforming a wrecked and wasted country into a center of industry and happy life”. There were problems and the rehabilitation of the land was far from easy, but Holmes still found cause for celebration: “Hundreds of acres of fertile soil, reclaimed, rebuilt, now yield their abundant harvest of oranges and olives, almonds, grapes, and corn…. What has been done on a small scale will soon be done on a large scale.”

Inspired by the material successes of Zionism, Holmes understood the movement on cultural Zionist terms as an effort to revitalize Jewish life in the modern world. In Palestine, the Jew was seeking “not only his country but his soul”. The Jewish people were seeking “a recovered, restored, regenerated Israel”. In visualizing the place of Palestine in this regeneration, Holmes relied on quotations from “the seer of Zionism”, Ahad Ha’am: “A natural spiritual center of Judaism, to which all Jews will turn with affection, and which will bind all Jews together; a center of study and learning, of language and literature, of bodily work and spiritual purification; a true miniature of the people of Israel as it ought to be.” Holmes believed this would allow Jews to “achieve what the prophets dreamed” and build “an ideal society”. Like Ahad Ha’am and Magnes, he understood the movement as “a great attempt to translate long-cherished spiritual values into concrete economic and social realities.” This, far more than statehood, would preserve the Jews as a distinct people “by holding them fast to the recovered ideals of their race”. This would not only affect Jews in Palestine, but throughout the world, saving them “in the hour of [their] emancipation, from disintegration and decay, and thus from ultimate dispersal and disappearance as a people”. In preaching the regenerative effects of Zionism for worldwide Jewry, Holmes went far beyond Fosdick or Hocking in actually embracing cultural Zionism.

Like Magnes, Holmes argued that the movement could not and should not aim for the creation of a Jewish state in the near future. Conditions on the ground demanded it:

The picture of a Jewish state is absurd, as the picture of a Jewish dominion seems curiously beside the point. From the sheer necessities of the case, Zion belongs in the category not of political but of cultural societies. Her future is directed by the unalterable conditions of her environment to the world not of governmental organization and power, but of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment.

Statehood was both impractical and in opposition to the spiritual values that Holmes celebrated in the movement. The primary issue on both counts was that Jews remained a small minority in Palestine and that the Arab majority had national ambitions of its own. He decried Jews “of the chauvinistic type” who would “annihilate Arab power in Palestine forever”. He expressed concern that moderate Zionists were being tempted by political power. Such Zionists did “not think at all in terms of violence, or repression” yet had “conspired, as an obstructive minority backed by alien power, to deny to the majority their public rights”. “Darkly implicit in the whole Movement,” he wrote, “is the conviction that, if Zion is to endure, Palestine must in its own right be a Jewish state.” This would inherently result in the “repression of the Arab, or at least his subordination to Jewish authority and force”. Such a resort to force would only yield slaughter.

Holmes blamed the “temptation to power” on the Zionists’ relationship to the British. He believed the “intrusion of the Great War into the Holy Land” and the “consequent identification of Zion’s future with the might and favor of the British Empire” was proving to be “in its essence a calamity”. While the alliance with Britain had yielded many material advantages, it had come at a high price. First, it had aroused Arabs’ own national passions. Second, it had placed the Zionists “on the side of repressive world power” against “the aspirations of the native population among whom they must live and fulfill their destiny”. Lastly, it “insidiously changed the psychology of the Jewish mind, and thus the temper of the Zionist cause”—the “consciousness of power” intruded “like Satan into Paradise”. For Holmes, this changing psychology presented the greatest danger to Zionism. Like Magnes and Hocking, he believed that the Jewish national movement should be built on a higher ethical plane than other national movements. “Is the new Zion to be one more nation added to the other nations now existing upon the earth?” he asked, anticipating the premise of Magnes’s Like All the Nations: “Is Jewry to follow in the path of empire, and become another people feverish with pride and quick to aggression?” To do so would be to follow the path of “foolish kings” like Ahaz, rather than “wise prophets” like Isaiah. Holmes was optimistic, however, that “the genius of the Jew” would ultimately prevent the resort to force: “The ideals of the national home are too plain and too precious to be long compromised with the standards of empire.”

Holmes published Palestine Today and Tomorrow in late 1929, shortly after the outbreak of the “Wailing Wall riots” and shortly before the publication of Magnes’s Like All the Nations. When Magnes’s writings were published in the US, Holmes immediately recognized in them his own hopes and worries for Zionism. In December, he wrote to a correspondent that “Magnes’ speech was one of the greatest things that I have ever read in my life…. Every word of that address was prophecy in the truest and highest Old Testament sense.” Holmes wrote of Magnes’s binational political proposal, “I know of no other possible solution of the present Zionist problem but the one which he marked out.” He wrote to Magnes himself that he had argued the same points in Palestine Today and Tomorrow.

Holmes remained supportive of Zionism on cultural terms well into the 1940s. In the 1930s, he was a founding member of the Pro-Palestine Federation (PPF), a Christian lobby that called on the British to maintain its commitment to the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate by allowing continued Jewish immigration and land purchases. Though, like Magnes, Holmes believed the Mandate was inherently problematic, he repeatedly called for the British to enforce its terms by allowing Jewish refugees entry from Europe. In 1936, he and the other members of the PPF submitted a petition to the British embassy in Washington reiterating support for the creation of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. Notably, the petition did not call for the creation of a Jewish state, though fellow Magnes disciple Hocking condemned the petition as a “positively mischievous” push for Jewish statehood. The following year, Holmes expressed opposition to the Peel Commission’s plan to partition Palestine as an affront to both Jewish and Christian religious sensibilities, arguing that the “Holy Land is one, and must be kept one, as the sacred symbol of the oneness of mankind.” In 1945, as the Zionists defied Britain in bringing Jewish refugees, Holmes refused to oppose “that immigration called illegal”.

Holmes remained wary of the cause of Jewish statehood. In the late 1940s, he again joined Magnes in taking a stance against partition, couching his opposition in the same cultural Zionist terms he had employed in 1929: “Zion, intended to be the old homeland restored to Israel’s loving care, is now lost in the welter of states, and empires, and alliances, and a world gone mad with hate.” Citing the rabbi, Holmes called for a solution to the Palestine question rooted in spiritual and moral ideals that transcended narrow national, political, and economic interests. Despite these persisting concerns, Holmes nonetheless expressed support for the State of Israel once it was created. In 1949, he wrote in Christianity and Crisis:

I was never in favor of partition. I was never much interested in a Jewish state. Since 1929, when I visited Palestine, I have held to the late Judah Magnes’ idea of a bi-national country as shared by Jews and Arabs together. But fate, and bad politics, have decreed another outcome. Zion has been established. Wherefore would I seek peace and prosperity for Israel, and do all that my poor help may avail to secure these ends.

He noted in an interview with Donald Leith several years later, even the idealist “has to march with the march of events”. Unlike Fosdick and Hocking, Holmes had never viewed cultural Zionism and binationalism as wholly intertwined. Because of this, the failure of binationalism did not mean the failure of Zionism. For Holmes, Zionism remained more a question of Jewish nationhood, Jewish culture, and Jewish values than a question of politics. In this, the minister ultimately remained more closely tethered to the cultural Zionism of the “seer of Zionism” Ahad Ha’am than the “prophet” of Zionism, Magnes.


Naomi Wiener Cohen argued that Judah Magnes provided a “cloak” with which non-Jews could oppose political Zionism on moral grounds. Was the liberal Protestants’ embrace of Magnes, cultural Zionism, or binationalism merely a cloak? For Fosdick, it seems, it was; his interest in cultural Zionism lay in its functionality as a moral alternative to political Zionism. For Hocking and Holmes, on the other hand, cultural Zionism provided a compelling vision of Jewish nationalism that they engaged, at times, with seriousness. If Hocking found his way towards an anti-Zionism that exceeded Fosdick’s, it was in part due to his belief that the ethical demands of cultural Zionism necessitated some form of binationalism, a belief he shared with Magnes (while disagreeing with Magnes on other political matters like immigration). Although Holmes had similar ethical expectations for Zionism and a similar investment in binationalism, he did not follow Hocking in completely equating his support for cultural Zionism with a particular political policy; his interest in Jewish national revival survived Zionist political success. Cohen’s cloak metaphor thus does not adequately explain liberal Protestants’ actual engagement with cultural Zionism. However, it does accurately capture its effect, providing American Protestants with a moral, Jewish, even (in some sense) Zionistic alternative to political Zionism in the Mandate era.