Alice A Butler-Smith. Israel Affairs. Volume 15, Issue 2. April 2009.
The American Jewish community was on the ‘threshold of history’, Israel Knox wrote at the end of 1946. Regardless of time or place, Jewish self-perception has always been complex and fraught with ambiguities. Until recently a people with no option but Diaspora, it continuously sought to define its nationhood in spiritual, cultural, territorial and racial contexts and terms. Whenever these unresolved tensions encountered new circumstances, ideas or dramatic events, the result was a period of reassessment of personal and communal identity in relation to the changed environment. It was at once a vague, varied and ever changing sense of self. There were no two more significant or defining moments in modern Jewish history than the Holocaust and the realization of Jewish national aspirations in Palestine. As American Jews entered into this new decade of transition—one which most agreed found them with ‘new status and new self-consciousness’—it was an opportunity that required them to develop ‘an understanding of the American Jew in terms of the American scene, as well as in relation to Jews abroad, an analysis of his institutional and communal experience as a Jew, and a redefinition of values, an appraisal of the content of Jewishness’. And as Etta Blum’s poem (above) intimates, the questions that remained were issues most fundamental to Jewish identity. As they found resolution, the Jewish community, particularly in America, found its place and purpose for the first time.
A comparison between American and Jewish identities in dimension, arena and orientation sheds important light on the complexities of the Jewish community and is essential to an appreciation of the perpetual tensions, and personal and communal evaluation processes. Those differences in histories and outlooks carry implications for the relationship between the Jewish community and non-Jewish majority, and ultimately for the role Jews find for themselves in American society. The chronological dimension of self-understanding illustrates the most striking difference between Jew and America with a concomitant difference in attitude towards time. America is new, where a new man, divested of any tradition entertained new ideas. By contrast Jews have a historical orientation that originated in the generations of Judaism. So Americans see time as precious—and in national terms have engaged in a race for continent, treasure and possession. For the Jew time has been marked from creation. American history seems ‘closed’ at both ends: it has a clear beginning, direction and destination. Jewish history is ‘open’: God made the beginning and the end and ‘the creation of the world merges indefinitely into the creation of the Law and the mystery of truth’. The Messiah has always been ‘about’ to come. American history has taken place within the arena of ‘nature’ but Jewish history has unfolded in society, so accomplishment was defined within these distinctly different contexts. Americans tamed and exploited nature, Jews survived persecution within many different contexts. Americans have valued practical education and tend towards legalism while Jews tackled the ‘eternal’ conceptions of the Law. Jewry has always searched for the definition of a Jew—Americans were citizens with a creed in the shortest order. The United States found summation in linear movement across a map and has most often emphasized quantity—a concept totally at odds with Jewish history which instead valued mental exploration and perfection while living in a microcosm.
The Jew has known older days, and they were days of constant thinking and speculating; he has older eyes and ears than most people… and the Jewish mind was a mind in motion… often acutely tensed with strain. The Jew was always in the midst of the Jewish fact and the Jewish problem. He might forsake them, they never forsook him.
Although Jews were in America from 1754, the federal government began to count the number of people immigrating to the United States who belonged to the ‘Hebrew race’ in 1900. There were already about 1 million American Jews by that time. In spite of various Congressional efforts to restrict immigration, over the next 25 years an additional 2 million Jews came to America. Many of the institutions that would later define communal character began to develop in that vibrant period of American Jewish history. Until the end of World War II, the population increased only slightly under restrictive immigration regulation designed to limit the number of East Europeans, particularly those who were Jews, entering the United States. By the time Congress finally revised the law to permit greater numbers of war refugees to enter the US, Israel was a state. And it was Israel that relieved much of the pressure by taking nearly 200,000 of the Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) from the refugee camps in Europe. Nonetheless, the consequences of World War II and the extermination camps left the US with the largest national Jewish population of nearly 5 million souls.
The notion that Jewry has a communal quality that transcends national boundaries is as common as it is old, yet the phrase ‘Jewish community’ only came into use in America in the late 1880s. It emerged from the specific historical context of emancipation as a way to describe and sustain the idea of a corporate identity—but in terms that were sufficiently neutral, if not ambiguous. These qualities allowed community members to enjoy civil equality while avoiding notice as a Jewish minority and the potential dangers of anti-Semitism. It was equally practical for its inclusiveness. In fact, the phrase ‘Jewish community’ came to mean virtually the same thing to Jews and non-Jews alike: it implied a unity that encompassed the variously defined religious and cultural aspects of being Jewish, national and ethnic ties that existed between individuals, and the political aspirations of Jews across national boundaries. Jews were thus bound together by an understanding, or implicit consent, but not in any strict sense or by any single link. To put it another way, it was ‘a community held together by the strength and magnetism at its core rather than by any clear boundaries at its periphery’.
This vagueness both reflected and perpetuated a complex diversity of thought with regard to Jewish identity—in cultural, religious, and ethnic terms—of a practical and philosophical nature in relation to US citizenship and its consequences. The Jewish experience outside America had required strategies for communal survival owing to persecution, as a group with minority status living in a hostile environment. Life in the ghetto and beyond the pale had clearly distinguished Jews from Gentiles socially and culturally. Whether that segregation was the result of voluntary separation or was externally enforced, it often strengthened people’s commitments to the community and its religion. In fact, it enhanced perceptions of self-worth and ethnic pride. And for those few who would continue to view suffering in a theological context, persecution was even closely bound up with divine destiny. But the openness, freedom and liberties in the US presented entirely different challenges to that survival. Typically emancipation and modernization had led to a decrease in Jews’ religious character and consequently to civil and national identity. Because these identities overlapped, the process of adjusting to tolerance was particularly convoluted. Some questioned whether Jews would be able to participate fully in society as individuals and still retain their character and identity as a community. At a time when Jewish immigration to America was at its peak, the fear—or challenge—was that a religion and culture that has sustained itself against ‘the billows of hatred and storms of persecution [would] melt… away like wax under the mild rays of freedom’.
Until the 1920s American Jews were essentially a community of immigrants. Perspectives on the nature of that community have varied. In some respects the newness of American Jews as a group and the influx of new immigrants obscured, or even precluded, the existence of a single community. Some have gone so far as to suggest that a ‘genuine’ Jewish community did not yet exist, but that there were two communities. The native, or German population and the East European ‘Russian’ immigrants were indeed separated by disparities in wealth, religious orientation and, by virtue of differing lengths of tenure in America, also prestige. As one might expect, the established community had greater wealth and looked down on the new immigrants who were poor, distinctly apolitical and Orthodox. The Reform and Orthodox were distrustful of each other and both disapproved of the secular ideology of the Jewish labour union. Earlier immigrants from central and western Europe were influenced by their exposure to republicanism. As elites were pitted against the immigrant masses, political differences divided conservatives from liberals, and democrats from socialists. And the traditional leadership of the established German Jewish population was challenged by the large numbers of East Europeans who hoped to form one all-encompassing national American Jewish community.
All of these differences worked against cohesiveness and unity of purpose except in the most extreme circumstances and they translated themselves into a plethora of organizations. By 1920 the Jewish Communal Register of New York City listed a total of 3600 organizations. In fact some years later an observer noted that, ‘to be Jewish is to belong to an organization’. This kind of over-organization together with lack of coordination—and even competition—was to be one of the more enduring characteristics of the American Jewish community generally, whether in intra-communal activities or in relation to the non-Jewish world. In spite of a strong sense of community, factionalism ultimately limited its effectiveness and would continue to prevent the establishment of any effective national representative body. Perhaps, more importantly, it often contributed to perceptions, some contradictory and some already existing ones, about the weight and ascendancy of the small minority. One of the most persistent consequences of the inability to organize was the duplication and overlapping of efforts. Often when confronted with a barrage of requests or petitions on a subject of interest to the Jewish community, non-Jewish recipients’ initial response was to the pressure of what they felt was a powerful monolith akin to the ‘Jewish conspiracy’. The more observant were confused by seemingly similar representations from an array of organizations. This combined with their existing predispositions would often put them off regardless of the nature of the appeal. Although this trend persisted, by the late 1930s American Jews recognized that, as one of several minorities, they might find strength as a ‘majority’ by combining to claim equality. It was in actuality the old socialistic strategy on which they had relied 50 years earlier, but with an American twist: protect the American people as a whole, and defend all of its component parts, or groups, at the same time. By endorsing fairness in education, business and accommodation laws and practices for others, one’s minority status becomes irrelevant.
While the US may not have provided a unique environment for fostering national communal unity—any more than any other national context—it was singular for the historical context it provided for the development, expression and self-perception of the community, and ultimately the role it found for itself in relation to the larger world Jewish community. Veteran Zionist Ahad Ha’am noted American exceptionalism in ‘America’s exemption from the workings of an iron law of anti-Semitism’. In his reflection on American Jewish culture another author said simply, ‘For Jews, America is different’. Although questions of emancipation and self-emancipation that were central in the Diasporas particularly of Europe were no longer relevant, some concerns persisted about assimilation, whether by choice in a democratic environment, or as a result of external pressures. There was also the fear that the freedom and equality to which many had become accustomed might somehow be qualified: ‘The American Jew is not fully accustomed to his new security and alternately revels in it and doubts it… [he] knows that his quest for status within the general community has pre-defined limits.’ So the problem both for Jews and for Judaism in America continued—marginality and identity.
Debates over political rights and equality for Jews living in America were of course long since settled in every real sense, though at a personal and even a communal level they remained unresolved. A famous Polish folk-tale recounted the story of a thoroughly assimilated Jew who was still frightened by the sound of barking dogs—a reminder of those who belonged to a Christian farmer whose home he passed daily as a child on his way home from school. Looking back over ‘The Golden Age’ of American Jewish history, 1945-1967, one contemporary argued that psychologically the ‘dogs still bark[ed] for the American Jew… In America, as elsewhere in the long history of their Diaspora… Jews [were] still in exile’. This Jew of the post-war era was different from his ancestors who recognized and accepted their alien status.
much of the ambivalence of the American Jew toward himself stems from his pathetic confusion: he knows that in many non-Jewish hearts he is regarded as a stranger, while in his own heart he stubbornly refuses to be one… When he has tried to forget that he is a Jew, the others have remembered. But when he tries to remember that he is a Jew, he often forgets how to be one.
Critical of the secular middle class and intellectuals alike, he could only prophesy the continued alienation of the middle class Jew from the Anglo neighbours he hoped to imitate, and the rejection of the thinker by his fellow Jews. Religious identification was perverted in the first instance and unattainable in the second.
The most significant response to the persistent themes of alienation, exile and integration was Jewish nationalism. The putatively indeterminate nature of the ‘authentic Jew’ and questions that persisted from the turn of the twentieth century about whether Jews—authentic or otherwise—would ever be able to adjust permanently to life in the US supplied supporters for the Jewish home in Palestine. Zionism was particularly important as a vent for the fears of the second generation. Problems of social and economic adjustment, anti-Semitism, finding their place in American culture all existed within the context of the American Jewish ‘burden’. The movement had several significant features. Advocates of Zionism increasingly saw that their commitment was to the solution of the Jewish problem. It was not a rigid ideology and, by supporting its general aspiration, they in no way denied the possibilities of successful life in exile. In fact American Jews did not expect that they would be the ones to leave the US and settle in Palestine. This increase in nationalist sentiment in the period leading up to World War II enhanced support for communal unity. Non-Zionists who were accustomed to centralization in the East European tradition believed a unified authority was necessary for Jewish survival. And they were joined by supporters of Zionism who thought of Jewry as a ‘peoplehood’ imbued with political characteristics that should be realized in the US as well as Palestine.
A People and a Cause in Search of Themselves
‘For Americans, America is Zion; but for Jews even the achievement of a Jewish state does not make Zion attained.’ These words encapsulated the range of questions posed by the creation of Israel for Jews everywhere, but particularly for American Jewry—questions of religion, nationality, relationship, exile, dispersion and identity. They were utterly fundamental ideas about which there had never been consensus—Judaism, Zionism and the place of American Jews in relation to their government and the non-Jewish environment in which they lived: ‘Who is a Jew’ and ‘Who is a Zionist’?
The realization of Zionism put all of these old issues back on the table and demanded resolution and redirection. Jews everywhere recognized that the communal centre of gravity might well be shifting to Israel where Israeli Jews would become the repository of the Jewish future and thought there might well be unpleasant practical consequences. Speaking at a Commonwealth Conference in Israel in 1950, its chairman outlined what all Jews knew:
we shall have need to consider the implications of our legal position vis-à-vis the Government of Israel and our respective Governments, because… it imposes on us important duties and restraints and gives us important rights. In strictness Israel is legally a foreign state, but for Jews to regard Israel only as a foreign state is… a moral impossibility. Under normal conditions of peace civilized Governments cannot fail to recognize the spiritual connection of their Jewish citizens with Israel, which to religious Jews and even to Jews without any particular religious affiliation is something more and in certain aspects something greater than a political unit of the type of modern state.
Jews had feared accusations of dual loyalty since the Balfour Declaration, and the existence of Israel raised the issue again but much more urgently. Their sensitivity about this threat exceeded tangible evidence of a widespread sentiment, at least among non-Jews in Western countries, which would produce such charges. It remained a topic of debate in the American Jewish community through most of the 1950s and was kept alive and used by anti-Zionists—Christians and Jews—who were fairly small in number.
Some Christian denominations that had sponsored mission work in Palestine as early as the 1840s remained solidly ‘pro-Arab’ after Israel became a state—notably the Quakers. But among the most visible non-Jewish anti-Zionists at the time of Israel’s statehood was Dorothy Thompson and members of her organization, American Friends of the Middle East. Their predisposition was also ‘pro-Arab’ and the names of unabashed anti-Semites were on its membership roll. She worked with intellectuals, philanthropists and religious groups and maintained ties with the Near East Society, the Near East Foundation, and the Near East College Association, universities such as Harvard and Lafayette, as well as such important Christian organizations as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. In 1950—as the debate over national loyalty was reaching a pitch—she denied that ‘minorities’ existed in America and wrote, ‘[t]he concept and the basis of the United States precludes them’. Thompson disdained ‘hyphenates’, and acknowledged only a ‘latent’ interest in Zionism among the Orthodox. It was Hitler who gave the ‘greatest impetus to Jewish nationalism’. Her biggest concern was that a world Zionist movement would come ‘under the political discipline of the state it has created’.
Rabbi Elmer Berger, the ideologue and architect of the anti-Zionist Council for American Judaism, shared some of Thompson’s perspective, though his motives were different. He originally formed the organization to fight the creation of Israel. Berger railed against the evils of Zionism, Jewish nationalism and non-Zionism—all of which contributed to the decline of American Judaism and which were an assault on the American citizenship of Jews. The crux of his argument was that Jews were associated only by virtue of a shared universal faith—Judaism represented only a religion, not a nationality or a people. Berger’s Americans of Jewish faith were descendants of the prophets who, ‘conceived a Judaism elevated above tribal or nationalistic horizons’. The demons of Jewish nationalism were produced by Herzl who introduced the notion of the ‘Jewish people’ which had ‘no validity in Judaism. It [did] not exist in any of the sacred writings of the Jews… and [was] a perversion and vulgarization of the phrase “people of Israel”‘. It was a view that had been widely discredited on historical and theological grounds. His views, and those of similar mind, both fed and fed off the Dorothy Thompsons of the time. By rejecting all aspects of ‘Jewishness’ and ‘community’ save religion, Berger was, in all ways that counted, an assimilationist. Animated by hatred and a fear of anti-Semitism perhaps more than Biblical interpretation, anti-Zionists tended to give important additional weight to their non-Jewish counterparts.
The much more imminent threat than this agitation on the periphery was conflict between Israel and the Diaspora. ‘[A] practical issue threaten[ed] to divide Jews from each other… the theory passionately held by some and equally passionately denounced by others, that the final consummation of Jewishness is the taking up of permanent residence in the land of Israel.’ The issue of exile was a sensitive one for all Jews, but perhaps more so for American Jews as the largest and most visible supporters of Zionism over the previous 50 years. It became very public when the prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, began stating openly that the next task consisted in bringing all the Jews to Israel, ‘because the State of Israel was created not only for its inhabitants, but for the ingathering of the exiles, a task perhaps more difficult than both the establishment of the State and the War of Independence put together’. He fired the first shot at a Zionist banquet in New York when he interjected into a discussion, ‘A Zionist is a person who settles in Israel’. It became bitter when he engaged in open debate at the World Zionist Congress in 1951—the first since the creation of Israel—about the centrality of the ‘ingathering of the exiles’ to the realization of Zionism:
unlike most Zionists, I believe that the meaning of Zionism is life in the Land of Israel, not an affiliation with a Zionist organisation … Whoever presupposes the survival of Jews in the dispersion, and wishes along with it the existence of the Jewish people wherever it might be wishes to maintain the impossible… this desire has no way to free itself from inner contradictions. But even as a Zionist I cannot free myself from the question of the existence of Judaism in the dispersion… what will unite our grandchildren here and your grandchildren there?… the State of Israel and the Book of Books.
Ben-Gurion and many Israelis held that Zionism required ‘fulfilment’—there could be no Zionism in the Diaspora, only in immigrating to Israel, leaving exile, was there meaningful and authentic Jewish life. So they would continue to challenge, ‘how does Zionism differ from non-Zionism if you do not come and settle with us?’ That single act of aliyah became the heart of Zionism and its acid test. Nahum Goldman, co-chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, believed that if Ben-Gurion’s understanding of Zionism was to be adopted, organizations abroad would wither to nothing.
The simple statement, acceptable for centuries, ‘I am a Jew’ is no longer felt to be enough: unless one can testify to a ‘total commitment’ or firm affiliation with this or that set of principles or this or that program or organization, one may find one’s right to call oneself a Jew questioned—and one’s right to speak or write as a Jew challenged.
The most vociferous debate at the Zionist Congress centred on the concept of exile which had a ‘deeply rooted mystic and religious significance in Jewish life’ and which had the most fundamental implications for immigration. It combined an ‘ideal of the Return to Zion as a precedent for the coming of the Messiah; the ideal of the Millennium, the perfectibility of the world in which we live; and in which Zion is to function as the centre of Jewish life, passing from Redemption to Fulfilment’. Or perhaps more than ideology—the debate was the result of differing philosophies of history among those who were present at the meeting. There were Israelis present who reiterated Herzl and who argued that what happened to European Jews in World War II could happen anywhere. Ben-Gurion’s party maintained that there was no future for Jews in the Diaspora. But American Zionists protested, and drew distinctions between galut or exile, and golah which was dispersion—America may have been the Diaspora but it was certainly not exile. Still there were others from the US who agreed that indeed galut was every country in the Diaspora, and should Fascism rise in American, Israel would be a necessary refuge. This controversy was not resolved in 1951, or even by the end of the 1950s. Differences, particularly between the Israelis and the Americans on the Congress’ ‘commission on the fundamental issues of Zionism’, were so sharp that they agreed that no efforts should be made to define a new ideological programme for Zionism, but to simply set out the movement’s practical tasks: strengthen the state, gather the exiles, and promote unity among the Jewish people. Ben-Gurion would continue to agitate by posing the question to Zionists year after year—regardless of whether he was in office or not—was the Zionist movement even feasible after the creation of the state without the duty of immigration? And if it was, what duties were incumbent on a Zionist that would distinguish him from one who was not? Surely without making aliyah Zionism was no more than sentimentalism—no more than any other humanitarian or philanthropic aid given to Israel.
Ben-Gurion exerted additional pressure on Zionists by striking a deal with non-Zionists—led by Jacob Blaustein, representing the American Jewish Committee. Non-Zionists in America were concerned that Zionists would curry extra favour with Israel especially in the form of political or diplomatic recognition and were anxious to prevent any for ‘Jews [or] Jewish communities in America or anywhere else outside of Israel’. Leadership in the Zionist Organization was incensed that anyone would accuse them of attempting to exert any more authority in relation to Israel than they had ever done in pre-state years. Moreover, non-Zionists were concerned that Zionists might receive some ‘special status’ or possibly gain leverage that would allow them to ‘interfere in the internal affairs of American Jews’. The American Jewish Committee was equally exercised at Ben-Gurion’s insistence on speaking for Jews everywhere—at the very least giving that appearance in his calls for immigration—insinuating a sovereignty over them that seemed improper given that they were nationals of other countries. By 1950 he and Jacob Blaustein, president of the non-Zionist Committee, issued joint statements setting out the basis of their working arrangement. The Israeli prime minister agreed to limit his authority to Israeli Jews. More significantly, for his part, Ben-Gurion saw no inconsistency in reaching agreement with non-Zionists. He saw no contradiction in this with his basic principles which called for aliyah as ‘those who [were] not Zionists had chosen a different road from his own’. While they may have been wrong, the risks and responsibilities for their choice lay with them. After the creation of the state, they merely continued with their original work on the basis of their existing ideological predisposition, and that benefited Israel. Immigration was not incumbent on those non-Zionists who did not believe it was required.
For Ben-Gurion, and for Israel, there was a practical side to the issue of ingathering—there was a tremendous need in the new nation for people with Western education and expertise. There was widespread but quiet concern throughout the government over the need to create a balance against the huge influx of refugees, as well as the possible threat of ‘Levantization’—or the assimilation of Israel into the ‘backwardness’ of the Middle East. Of the total number of Jews living outside Israel and the Soviet Union, 80 percent lived in the US. Israel was still experiencing the cleavages that remained between old immigrant groups from different national origins. These tensions were exacerbated by the addition of European DPs. The Jewish Agency Immigration Department outlined additional sources of immigration: Nearly 100,000 Jews still lived in the Arab countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. There were another 100,000 in Iran, 4000 in Afghanistan, 50,000 in Turkey, 30,000 in India, 500,000 in North Africa, as well as 250,000 in Romania and another 50,000 from Europe. This balance in immigration figures illustrates why Israelis were anxious to see Americans, and Westerners, come to Israel.
The great and many-sided immigration faces the State and the Zionist Movement not only with problems of economic integration; no less difficult and important are the problems of spiritual integration. The many languages, the differences in standards of life, customs, usages and habits, and in the forms of reaction, necessitate and demand a supreme spiritual effort at once to start in the Diaspora. Its object must be to achieve the coalescence of all communities, to undertake psychological preparation, to deepen the roots of Judaism so that it can be a complete In-Gathering of the Exiles.
Of the 40,000 immigrants from Yemen, there was not one doctor among them. In some cases those with liberal or technical professions were prohibited from leaving their countries for Israel. Of course the government saw this as both unhealthy and undesirable. ‘Moreover, this immigration [was not] a proper expression to the national structure’ and ‘it decrease[d] the cultural and professional level of the state’.
Historian Maurice Samuel noted also that there was a ‘sundering’ of Israel and American Jewry—a two-fold separation between ‘contemporary Israel and the Jewish past, and between contemporary Israel and the rest of the world’. Indeed, by the mid-1950s the Israeli Ministry of Education felt it necessary for schools to instruct Israelis in Jewish history, religion and culture—’Jewish consciousness’ classes. And even though there were American technological and cultural influences felt and admired in Israel, there was little if any contact with American Jews, nor was there any meaning for Israelis in the products of American Jewish thought, faith or culture. By the end of the 1950s, Ben-Gurion’s emphasis on halutziot, or the pioneering spirit in the Land, together with the lack of serious emphasis on the mind-set of the Diaspora, left a widening ‘psychological gulf between those Jews within and those outside Israel’s borders’.
There was yet another aspect to this complex relationship between Israelis and American Diaspora Jews and it had to do with money. Israeli Zionists, including a generation of native-born Sabra, saw themselves as a chosen, front-line, prototype of the Jewish people, with a duty to save any and all of those in exile ‘for their own good’. But at the same time they had what Rabbi Hertzberger noted as a lack of eagerness ‘to render precise accountings of gratitude’ not dissimilar to the British bitterness towards America and the Marshall Plan. While both wanted more aid—they also wanted to be on their own as quickly as possible and they resented both their sacrifices and their dependency. Israelis, who required assistance for survival, could rely on the refugees as the most visible reason for their poverty, and at the same time appealed to American guilt by pointing out their responsibility to the DPs and for the strains on the Israeli economy. Public opinion in Israel ‘insisted on financial aid without feeling inferior for taking it’. And while Israelis were ‘passionately engaged in the enterprise of feeling native and indigenous… there [was] great admiration for American… achievement and a desire to learn and emulate’.
It was a common view of secular Zionists generally that the destruction of European Jewry, as well as the precarious life of Jews in Asia and Africa, made it incumbent upon American Jews to offer material support as had been its tradition. This responsibility for ‘co-religionists’ greatly increased by virtue of the role history had thrust upon it, and because of its ‘sympathies’ and assets. This understanding of Zionist responsibility was castigated both within the US and abroad. For American Jews it illustrated the ‘degradation of [the] movement and the barrenness of Zionism. The rise of the promoter and fundraiser spelled the decline of American Zionism as an intellectual movement’ and the ‘professional community organizers’ largely erased the distinctions between Zionists and non-Zionists. At best, Jews abroad failed to recognize that American Jewry had absorbed aspects of the larger cultural environment and as a consequence became philanthropic in its outlook and practice. It is fair to say that mistaking social action for charity was understandable for those unaccustomed to the American ‘social gospel’ impulse. At worst, however, the secularization of Zionism was seen as an effort ‘to be like all the nations’ in both its impulse and character. While it might have been unfair to criticize secular Zionism for its absence of loftiness, probably the most scathing implication for Zionist philanthropy was not its ineffectiveness—in comparison to non-Zionists whose raison d’être was strengthening and supporting Jewry by administering aid—but that Zionism itself was somehow solely a response to and remedy for suffering. The distinctions between Zionism with a religious orientation and ‘secular’ Zionism were a matter of outlook and principle, and were inherently problematic for the American Jew—if he was going to find his place within that scheme. Not merely a reaction to persecution, ‘true’ Zionism was a three part concept. First of all Zionism addressed Jews’ desire to live an authentic Jewish life, which had remained unavailable in the Diaspora. Some would have also suggested that this life had not been unavailable, but impossible, given the centrality of the Land of Israel, Ha Eretz, to the notion of a complete Jewish existence. Independence and resolution of the social problems of Diaspora Jewry were the other components, or desires, of Zionism. In other words, Israel represented a place where an existing people lived ‘their own way of life’ in freedom in their own land: ‘Real Zionism involve[d] belief in the Jewish people and the strong determination that it existed again as an independent people in Israel in order to fulfil the ideal of Judaism.’ A strictly religious perspective on Israel’s character and purpose further complicated the position of American Jews. While all Jews in the Diaspora adopted behaviours and attitudes of those countries where they had lived—and ultimately, by definition, had become secularized—American Jews posed more of a danger to the creation of an Israeli-Jewish way of life by their numbers and potential influence, even if they remained abroad. This was particularly the case in relation to Reform Judaism—a uniquely American creation that, among other relaxed tenets, provided for conversion to Judaism. So the ideal, or ‘authentic’, Zionist Jew would be born Jewish, and forge a new independent life in Eretz Israel—a Jewish state—in which he would adhere to Torah. Thus Judaism, Jewishness and nationality were bound up with religious and historical understandings of blood and soil.
A number of factors worked to inhibit American emigration en masse. Not the least of these was cost and hardship—doubly unattractive to Zionists who never saw their support of the movement in terms of their own departure from the US. Social idealism had most typically been a reserve for intellectuals, and the American Zionist movement was essentially non-Zionist in the decades before Israel’s statehood. It was also suggested that the post-war atmosphere and the lack of moral strictures that often accompanies this might have put off those who had been inclined toward Israel with a missionary impulse. Fear of being identified with communism dampened the political enthusiasm of younger Americans. Those who might not have been thoroughly dissuaded to emigrate for any of these reasons probably would have been offended by Ben-Gurion, his understanding of Jewish nationalism and his insistence that, as the prime minister of Israel and the Jewish state, he spoke for all Jews everywhere.
If Americans were repelled for some reason at the idea of moving to Israel, or if they simply remained unconvinced, they nonetheless joined Israelis in their criticisms of American Zionism. While many Israelis simply saw it as obsolete, American Jews were critical of their own failure to produce a movement that could meet the practical needs of the new state, as well as defining and supporting the spiritual and cultural requirements of both Israeli and American Jewry. Israel Knox noted for instance that the weekly publication of the American Jewish Congress presented its belief that it must provide
leadership and guidance for a Jewish way of life in the American community… [as] we cannot make our life as totally Jewish as Palestine’s Jews do, we must strive to make it as thoroughly Jewish within the framework of the American democracy as will express our historic awareness and will to survive.
Its contributors added to that theme by suggesting that America fell into a middle class—between Israel and life in the Land on the one hand and life in exile on the other. Somehow ardent Zionist nationalism in America had remained cold to the need for Jewish education and cultural development in its own community. And at the same time organizations had become exploitative, competitive and many of them presented themselves as the representative voice of American and European Jewry even though their active memberships were small and the majority of the Jewish population remained unaffiliated. Any form of unity remained a chimera except for the brief period between 1945 and 1948.
The lowest common denominator between secular and religious Zionists’ goals then was a Jewish state that would protect the beleaguered, safeguard an independent Jewish citizenry, and produce a Jewish society—so what did this mean for Zionism? Did 1948 represent a beginning or the ending? American Zionism became ‘a cause in search of itself’. Judd Teller, a member of the Jewish Agency Executive, said that ‘the sorriest lot in some communities are the Zionists’. And it was a situation that persisted throughout the 1950s though most were out of the debate. As late as 1957 ‘that the Zionist movement is in grave decline is well known but little talked about. After all, one does not talk about a rope in the home of a hanged man’. They resented the dominance of the philanthropic and defence organizations, but had little to suggest for themselves, beyond redefining their purpose and reaffirming their position.
Most looked for ways to create a Jewish identity and awareness in America and offered variously defined efforts at education. But the bottom line was that there was a Jewish state. Now what? Some critics went so far as to argue that Zionism was dead. The fact was that American Zionists’ feeling of inadequacy, their declining prestige, and failure to gain any endorsement or approval from Israel—most importantly from Ben-Gurion—meant that without a new vision of a progressive programme and purpose, they would not continue. The oft repeated analogy was that the American Zionist movement was like the mother who had married off her last child, and who had nothing left to live for. Two years after the Jewish national home was created it was widely recognized, and feared, at the twenty-third World Zionist Congress that neither the Americans nor Israelis had come to grips with their new circumstances. The Jewish movement for independence had produced a sovereign people with a sovereign government and, while proud, the American Jews who had helped to bring this about were uncertain of their position. And they were fatigued.
Since 1933 American Jewry had lived under prolonged tension, enduring a succession of severe traumatic shocks from abroad. The expected post-war letup had been postponed by news crises and new slogans. ‘Keep Them Alive!’ had melted at white heat into ‘Bring Them Home!’ The community had obediently marched through the ‘Year of Survival’ and the ‘Year of Destiny’; but by the ‘Year of Deliverance’ it began to bog down. The European camps were closing, the Arabs were defeated, and the immigrants were on their way. Ecstasy over Israel was giving way to a soberer mood. The realization was dawning that the Jewish state was not going to settle everything after all.
Arguably the strongest remaining community in the world in terms of its size and resources, American Jews were at the same time weak in relation to their environment as they faced the challenge of finding their place and purpose.
Towards a Nationwide Jewish Community
Implementation has become more important than philosophy. In 1951 the Jewish Agency reached agreement with the World Jewish Congress based on its appreciation for the efforts of the Congress towards ‘organizing the Jewish people in the Diaspora on a democratic basis for the defence of its rights and position and for the strengthening of Jewish life, these activities being carried out in the spirit of the unity of the Jewish people and its solidarity with Israel’. As part of this agreement, the Jewish Agency undertook to allocate proceeds from fundraising campaigns to the Congress based on the mutual decision of the Agency and Congress Executives. Of course in this partnership the American Jewish Congress, as a member of the World Congress, became part of this agreement as well. These types of arrangements exposed a side of the disagreements between organizations that was not so altogether holy. It is important to understand that, while strenuous efforts were made to create sets of operating principles and structures that permitted working relationships, there was a competition between groups that was also based on matters of prestige, position, power and money. Non-Zionist organizations—in this instance the American Jewish Committee and its European counterparts—may have been annoyed over this alliance because ‘the Jewish Agency… conducted itself exclusively as a Zionist body… and [had no] jurisdiction… with regard to the work of organizations whose purpose is the protection of Jewish rights in countries other than Israel’. But the real basis of the irritation more likely owed to the funding and prestige the World Jewish Congress was to receive under the arrangements. Citing impropriety in the allocation of money from funds that had been given by Jews throughout the world for use in Israel, the likelihood of harm to future united appeals, the inappropriate ‘political’ nature of the agreement and of the special status that recognition and financial support it gave to the Congress—the final flourish to Blaustein’s complaint to the Jewish Agency, ‘[I] do not have to tell you to what extent we have been helpful to Israel’ perhaps revealed the most. This would be the more decisive aspect of the complex character of the Jewish community as it endeavoured to work together on behalf of Israel.
American Zionists and the Israeli leadership also realized that the urgency of practical needs, both in Israel and in the local communities, and the survival of an admittedly undefined Zionist movement required the establishment of a practical working arrangement and mutually agreeable priorities. Continuing to postpone the ‘definition’ of Zionism—particularly in the exclusive terms demanded by Ben-Gurion that would have spelled its end—allowed American Zionist leaders to organize their efforts in spite of widespread guilt and low self-esteem in the ranks. Ironically, non-Zionists, and as well as some anti-Zionists, found pro-Israel work a comfortable and even ‘cheerful’ part of their programme or social agenda. ‘The enthusiasm [they] did not invest in the Zionist dream [was]… poured into the endeavour to keep the dream-come-true alive. [They] readily [found] everything connected with Israel wonderful.’ It would not be fair to suggest that partisan ideologies became unimportant. The rather extraordinary number of Jewish organizations, each with its own carefully worded philosophy and defined areas of interest, but with activities that overlapped and duplicated those of others, was testimony to the continued complexity of the American Jewish community. But as has already been seen, the line between Zionist and non-Zionist had become blurred by the Americanization of Zionist ideology and its political and material emphases. Even the Zionist leader Nahum Goldman said,
that Zionism had ceased to be the great dividing line in Jewish life… that the real division in Jewish life… was not between Zionists and non-Zionists, but between those who believed in the unity of Jewish people everywhere… and all the others.
‘The majority of Jews [everywhere] are united in their desire to help the state of Israel’, and in a variety of ways that demonstrated their support, almost all American Jews became ‘friends of Israel’.
The practical plan that emerged from the World Zionist Congress in 1951, and which became the basis for subsequent redefinition, was wide-ranging in its scope and was predicated on a new working relationship between the Zionist movement and the Israeli government. The work of the Zionist Organization was to encourage immigration, absorption and integration of immigrants into Israel and to promote Youth Aliyah, as well as support agricultural settlement and economic development; to engage in work for pioneering and training for pioneering; to raise money and encourage the investment of private capital to ‘carry out the tasks of Zionism’; to cultivate ‘Jewish consciousness’ by promoting Hebrew education and language study, and the values of Judaism; to mobilize ‘world public opinion for Israel and Zionism’; and defend and maintain Jewish rights and encourage the organization of Jewish life on democratic principles. Thus the Zionist organization was not political, even though its activities supported a political entity. This plan was to be administered by the Jewish Agency, as
the representative and spokesman for the whole Jewish people in all matters concerning Israel… all organisations—whether Zionist or non-Zionist—seeking to operate philanthropically in Israel, must… seek the approval of the Jewish Agency as the executive arm of the World Zionist Organisation.
This was going to be the first time that responsibility for outside philanthropic work in Israel would be centralized in a single agency. The technical aspects of the relationship were formalized in the Knesset in 1952. This status did not apply in relation to pro-Israel activities that took place ‘entirely outside the borders of the Jewish State’. If the state of Israel was interested in obtaining support in the Diaspora for a given project, it would first consult the Jewish Agency for planning and then direct its request to whichever person or group it chose. It is important to clarify that membership in the World Zionist movement was made possible by representation in the Israeli government in the form of a political party. For example Mizrahi was a Zionist political party in Israel, a member of the WZO, and was also a Zionist organization that was active in the US. In this light, ‘entirely outside’ Israel’s borders had more complex implications.
So long as there [was] no more comprehensive organisation embracing for this purpose all the other Jewish groups and organisations, the Zionist movement and Zionist Organisation [would] serve as the principal instrument expressing the historic will the people, and [would] operate in the State of Israel in cooperation and coordination with the State of Israel, on behalf of the ingathering of the dispersed—the common mission of the State and the Zionist Organisation.