The Influence of Abba Hillel Silver’s Diaspora Zionism on His Decision Not to Immigrate to Israel

Ofer Shiff. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 31, Issue 2. September 2012.

In the wake of Israel’s declaration of independence, Abba Hillel Silver was one of the American Zionist leaders most identified with the successful battle for Jewish statehood. From the end of 1946, he was one of the few activists at the top of the pyramid of the world Zionist hierarchy who was seen by a large segment of American Jewry as the representative of the Jewish state-in-the-making. After having been one of the major parties, together with David Ben-Gurion, behind Chaim Weizmann’s resignation from the presidency of the World Zionist Organization during the Twenty-Second Zionist Congress in Basel in December 1946, Silver was appointed head of the American section of the Jewish Agency—a move that consolidated his status within the world Zionist hierarchy. During the three months that preceded the UN partition resolution, which was put to a vote on 29 November 1947, Silver reached even greater heights as the foremost representative of the Jewish collective before the nations of the world. During this intensive three-month period, he was regarded in both the United States and internationally as embodying—via his public persona and his oratory—the Jewish collective’s unwavering demand for a sovereign national home.

It was against this background that Israel’s founding became such a decisive moment for him—one that posed a most complex challenge for his American Zionist leadership. Literally overnight he was forced to decide whether Israeli statehood obliged him to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel), thereby renouncing his diaspora-centered Zionist advocacy to which he had dedicated his entire rabbinical and political career, or whether he should choose to remain an American citizen and accept being relegated to a secondary status within a new Zionist hierarchy that was destined to be dominated by the leadership of the nascent Jewish state.

This seemingly irresolvable dilemma became all too apparent soon after Israel’s declaration of independence. Silver was later to describe the day of Israel’s establishment as the most important and exciting day of his life. On 14 May 1948, on receiving word from Tel Aviv that statehood had been declared, he held a special news conference during which he movingly announced the news to the assembled representatives of the international press. His exhilaration intensified later in the day on hearing that the United States had been the first country to grant the fledgling state de facto recognition.

However, this pinnacle of achievement was also a turning point: from the moment that Israeli statehood had been declared, Silver, as an American citizen, was not eligible to be the foremost spokesperson of Jewish sovereignty. He was suddenly obliged to relinquish his leading role for that of a backstage advisor. Indeed, the following morning Silver phoned Ben-Gurion, his most ardent rival in the struggle for control of the world Zionist leadership, and, like a soldier awaiting orders, inquired whether he should leave immediately for Israel. Ben-Gurion, now the de facto head of the nascent Jewish state and therefore the indisputable leader of the entire Zionist movement, instructed Silver to remain in place in order to fight for cessation of the arms embargo and raise funds for the new state. Clearly, from Silver’s perspective, Israel’s establishment was not merely a source of exaltation; it also created a new reality that transformed him overnight into a guest advisor to the cause that he had hitherto called his own.

From an Israeli perspective, the abrupt end of Silver’s illustrious career as the leader of the Zionist movement was absolutely justified, as exclusive loyalty to the newly established state was a kind of litmus test indicating the degree to which Zionist leaders abroad were committed to the cause. In his memoirs, Abba Eban exemplified this attitude in his discussion of Silver’s decision regarding aliyah. Eban, who from April 1947 until Israel’s declaration of independence had been a junior member of the Jewish Agency’s UN delegation under Silver’s leadership, described the day of Israel’s founding as the one on which Silver was forced to reach a decision that until then he had been able to evade—whether to become an Israeli citizen and renounce all other loyalties or to retain his American citizenship. According to Eban, Silver’s embrace of the latter option could be likened to abandoning ship at the journey’s most critical juncture. He noted the way in which Silver had retreated from center stage, suddenly leaving him and a few young colleagues to their own devices. Eban related that the day after Israeli statehood was declared, when the General Assembly reconvened, these younger, inexperienced delegation members were at a loss to select a replacement for Silver at the head of the delegation’s table. For Eban, it was unsettling how, all at once, American Zionism’s preeminent leader suddenly got cold feet and let it be known that the endeavor underway was not one to which he felt personally committed. From Eban’s perspective, it was clear that Silver’s decision to return to Cleveland, where, since 1917, he had served as a rabbi in one of the largest and most prestigious American Reform synagogues, was a testament to the weakness of his Zionist allegiance.

From Silver’s perspective, however, the situation was more complicated. It was true that during the effort vis-à-vis the UN he had assumed the de facto role of spokesman for the state-in-the-making, even going so far as to demand personal authority and broad American Jewish unity on behalf of the future state. However, even at the height of the political struggle for statehood, he had been unwilling to view this role as the sole manifestation of his Jewish loyalties and never intended to shirk his duties as an American Jewish religious leader. Despite transportation conditions that entailed considerable personal exertion and sacrifice, he took care to return each weekend to his synagogue, the Tifereth Israel congregation in Cleveland (“The Temple”), in order to perform his various duties there. These efforts indicated the degree to which he regarded his Zionist mission as intertwined with his obligations as an American religious leader. Still, to the non-American members of the UN delegation, this attitude constituted problematic evidence that Silver was not exclusively committed to the Zionist cause. As Eban noted, the delegates had dubbed Silver “the weekend statesman.” Now that statehood had been achieved, the problem, as they saw it, had only worsened. Silver needed to decide whether he was prepared to become a full-time Zionist. In other words, would he subordinate his other obligations and loyalties to the demands of the Jewish state?

As I will attempt to demonstrate, there were a few occasions when Silver considered the option of aliyah, the most conspicuous was during his trip to Palestine at the beginning of 1948. And yet, in retrospect, it is safe to say that from Silver’s diasporic Zionist perspective, the option of aliyah was never a viable one. As far as Silver was concerned, the question was not one of dual loyalties between American and Israeli citizenships. Rather, it was an inner identity dilemma between his imbedded American cultural and moral outlook and his intertwined religious and Zionist duties that were increasingly subordinated to the Israeli state agenda.

Silver was not the only one who had to contend with this issue during the period in question. Nahum Goldmann, Silver’s longstanding rival who would soon take his place as the head of diaspora Zionism, related in his autobiography that after Israel’s establishment he had been offered a post in the provisional government and that, after some consideration, he had declined the offer. Goldmann explained his decision as having been rooted in a feeling that he could contribute more substantially to the Jewish cause in the American and international spheres in his capacity as a Zionist leader who was external to Israeli political and ideological discourse. It appears that despite the differences subsisting between the two, on this point Goldmann was expressing a basic recognition that Silver shared—namely, that becoming part of Israeli politics would necessarily come at the expense of the distinct diaspora-Zionist agenda.

Indeed, Silver had faced a similar dilemma a few months earlier, soon after the 29 November 1947 partition resolution was approved by the UN. During this period, when Jewish statehood was ratified but not yet implemented, he too had to decide whether to make aliyah and enter Israeli politics or retain his non-Israeli Zionist leadership role. It was during this period, just after what was perhaps the greatest Zionist victory to which Silver was a major contributor, that Silver had to contend in a most painful and substantial manner with the impact of Israel’s pending foundation on his diasporic Zionist beliefs.

Between Territorial and Diaspora Zionism

Immediately after the successful completion of the intensive Zionist effort in the UN arena to pass the 29 November partition resolution, but prior to Israel’s establishment, Silver considered, both publicly and privately, the possibility of emigrating to Palestine. As earlier noted, in retrospect it seems that Silver’s decision against aliyah was a foregone conclusion; nevertheless, the fact that he gave the option serious consideration, and that his decision against aliyah was never final or definitive, should not surprise us. When we take into account the centrality of the Zionist vision of Jewish statehood throughout Silver’s life and remember that both of his parents had emigrated to Palestine and had been residing in Jerusalem since the late 1920s, it seems only natural that Silver would have given serious thought to aliyah and participating in the life of the nascent state for whose establishment he had yearned and striven.

Moreover, Silver was not the kind of person who could easily tolerate playing second fiddle for long; within the newly pending Zionist reality of Jewish statehood it was clear that only by making aliyah and settling permanently in Israel could Silver hope to attain equal standing within the Zionist arena—otherwise, he would remain a mere outsider or Zionist fellow traveler. Indeed, already while visiting Palestine in March 1947, Silver had publicly taken up the subject of his possible immigration. During a ceremony on 26 March at which he became an honorary citizen of Ramat Gan, a city then under the sway of the Israeli General Zionist Party—an oppositional force to the dominant Mapai Party and one that could become Silver’s new Israeli political base—he expressed the hope that as soon as the effort in the UN reached its successful conclusion he would make aliyah and settle in “this beautiful city.”

The historic victory of 29 November, which at least within the American Jewish community was credited to Silver’s leadership, strengthened his feeling that the most suitable role to which he could aspire would be that of leading the General Zionists in Israel. Accordingly, on 7 December 1947, a week after the UN approved the partition plan, during a party held in his honor at The Temple in Cleveland, Silver announced that he was considering emigration to the new Jewish state. While in Palestine a few weeks later, in January 1948, he undertook a kind of “pre-aliyah” tour. His official reason for visiting Palestine was to participate in the Zionist General Council meetings taking place in besieged Jerusalem; however, his own statements just prior to and during his visit, as well as the fact that, despite the difficult security situation, his wife accompanied him on the trip, all pointed to Silver’s additional motivation to assess his chances of integration into Israeli life. Silver also purchased a plot of land in Jerusalem during this period. Although he hired an architect to design a house for him on the land, the house was never built.

Although many of Silver’s statements during this period appear sufficient to establish that he did indeed give earnest consideration to the idea of aliyah, particularly during the immediate weeks following 29 November, during the same period he expressed contradictory statements to the effect that he was not contemplating aliyah or, at least, that he harbored reservations about it. For instance, at a press conference in Tel Aviv on 16 January 1948, in response to a question regarding a possible post for himself in the future Israeli government, he answered in the negative, giving a similar explanation to the one given by Goldmann a few months later. He also stated that any American Jewish leader who wanted to be an Israeli government minister would have to settle permanently in Israel, thus hinting at his decision not to do so.

Ultimately, however, the important question is not whether, at a given point in time, Silver truly intended to move to Palestine or whether on a certain date he definitively decided for or against aliyah. When we look at what Silver was saying during the period in question, we find contradictory statements on Silver’s part. It seems that for him, the aliyah issue (both personally and as a substantial option for American Jewry) boiled down to whether the act of immigration could bridge the gap between the diaspora-centered Zionist agenda and that of the future state. Silver felt that the act of immigration should under no circumstances be interpreted as repudiation of diaspora-centered Zionism or the American-Jewish hyphenated identity that he had cultivated and idealized throughout his Zionist career. Therefore, when we consider Silver’s hesitation regarding aliyah, we should pay less attention to his explicit or implicit statements for or against and instead focus on his attitude regarding the intrinsic difficulty of realizing his religious and national vision of the diaspora within the new pending reality of Jewish statehood.

Against this background, it is important to note that it was precisely at key moments when the possibility of aliyah actually arose that Silver chose to place his diaspora-Zionist ideology in conflict with the attitudes prevalent in the Jewish Yishuv (pre-state community) of Palestine. This contentiousness on Silver’s part was evident also prior to his January 1948 trip to Palestine, and it appears to be related this time to his deepening identification with the Yishuv agenda during the period in which he spearheaded the effort for UN approval of the partition plan. This identification made the Yishuv’s negative attitude regarding the intrinsic hyphenated nature of exilic Jewish existence especially problematic for Silver. Formerly, when the Yishuv’s “negation of exile” ideology was still perceived as external to the American-Jewish scene, Silver, Horace Kallen, Mordecai Kaplan, and other American Zionist leaders aligned with the “cultural pluralism” diaspora-Zionist model could employ the cultural symbols associated with the Yishuv as tools in a collective Jewish struggle for integration within the general American “orchestra.” From Silver’s point of view, all this changed once he personally became identified with the Yishuv outlook—all the more so if he was contemplating aliyah to Palestine. In this new situation, the Yishuv approach to Zionism, for which an American-Jewish hyphenated identity merely reflected the inability to commit to a whole encompassing Israeli-Jewish identity, was no longer an external symbol of solidarity but a viable option that either demanded allegiance or elicited opposition. As soon as he began contemplating aliyah, Silver had to decide whether to remain loyal to his cultural-pluralist brand of Zionism, and in so doing to place himself outside of the basic Yishuv consensus (together perhaps with former American Zionist colleagues who had made aliyah, like Judah Magnes and the late Henrietta Szold), or to align himself with that consensus and thereby repudiate the outlook and way of life that he had up to then embraced.

A comparison of two speeches by Silver, both of which addressed the social challenges facing the Yishuv, may shed light on the increasing intensity of this dilemma. The first speech was delivered after the Zionist campaign had been launched on the UN front, but before the UNSCOP majority resolution in favor of the partition plan had been adopted—and, thus, before Silver himself had adopted the pro-partition perspective and become the de facto leader and architect of the effort in the UN arena to realize the plan. The second speech was delivered after the victory of 29 November, at a decisive moment in terms of Silver’s decision regarding emigration to Palestine. In the earlier speech, Silver spoke in general terms of the possibility of American-Jewish aliyah to Palestine (not his own), portraying it as a means of steering the Yishuv-Zionist agenda in the direction of American-style democracy and pluralism. In the second speech, he was no longer content merely to advocate an Americanization of the Yishuv’s Zionist agenda; rather, he called for a fundamental revision of that agenda, effectively depicting the gap between it and the American-Zionist agenda as almost unbridgeable.

Silver’s earlier speech was delivered on 6 July 1947 at the fiftieth convention of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). In it, Silver called upon young American Jews to realize the pioneering ideal of aliyah to Palestine; he described in detail the prophetically inspired “ideal society” on whose behalf young American Jews should be willing to leave the United States for Palestine. According to Silver, an exemplary Jewish sovereign society should be based on American ideals of pluralism, social justice, individualism, and democracy; accordingly, the role of the American olim (immigrants) would be to Americanize the Yishuv and to strengthen the more progressive elements of its society and culture. In this context, Silver emphasized American Jewry’s deep admiration for the Yishuv labor movement’s “socialist idealism,” even calling for progressive social legislation to reinforce that movement’s achievements and to safeguard the Histadrut’s central status in the Yishuv economy and society. At the same time, however, he also noted American characteristics that were missing in the Jewish society in Palestine. He gave special notice to the desirability of a free market based on individualist values and the cultivation of a strong middle class. He also emphasized the Jewish religion’s importance in all areas of life within the future Jewish state, insisting on the need to adopt the American model of separation of religion and state and to develop a state school curriculum for all Israeli children, religious and secular alike—a curriculum that would encompass both the Jewish heritage and universal humanistic values. Finally, he stressed the duty to ensure that, while upholding the Jewish people’s sovereign rights, the civil and cultural rights of Palestine’s Christian and Muslim populations would be safeguarded in full.

In retrospect, one might say that, despite his call to Americanize the Yishuv, Silver did not confront the fundamental differences between American-Zionist discourse, as he conceived it, and that of the Yishuv. One is particularly struck by Silver’s failure to address the discrepancy between the roles that each Zionist brand assigned to Jewish nationalism. Throughout his career, Silver, like many of his American Zionist colleagues, had striven to link this role with the construction of a vibrant religious-national diaspora capable of integrating without assimilating into the non-Jewish environment. This diasporic approach led to the perception of Jewish transnationalism as an important stimulus to the creation of an ongoing dialogue between the various groups comprising a given society’s socioreligious mosaic—one that was based on the patriotic duty of each of these groups to cultivate its own unique contribution to the common interreligious and intercultural “orchestra.” As this speech demonstrates, during the period preceding the UN campaign, Silver was not yet treating these principles as a practical plan of action for the Yishuv; nor, therefore, did he feel obliged to confront doctrines of Jewish self-segregation and negation of exile as they had developed in Palestine. He referred to the differences between Israeli and American Zionism as inconsequential discrepancies between two similar sociopolitical platforms, as though the two approaches were merely points along the same continuum—American Jewry’s role being exclusively that of nudging Yishuv society in the direction of liberalization and democracy.

The later of the two speeches was delivered by Silver on 29 December 1947—exactly a month after the UN’s historic decision to approve the partition plan and immediately prior to Silver’s departure for Jerusalem to participate in the Zionist Executive and Zionist General Council meetings scheduled for January 1948. The occasion of the address was the climactic event in a series of American-Jewish galas celebrating 29 November both as a great victory for the Jewish people and as a personal victory for Silver. The event, held at New York City’s prestigious Hotel Astor with the participation of numerous dignitaries, both Zionist and non-Zionist, Jewish and non-Jewish, was planned as a farewell party in Silver’s honor. Among the many politicians and public figures in attendance was a guest from the Yishuv: Tel Aviv Mayor Israel Rokach, who was hoping to see Silver immigrate to Israel and join the leadership of the General Zionist Party. It seems that many—including Silver himself—felt that the “farewell” in question might not be for a short trip but rather a leave-taking in anticipation of Silver’s emigration to Palestine.

To a large extent, the anticipation for Silver’s aliyah was a logical consequence of his transformation, in the eyes of many American Jews, into a figure personally identified with the external, non-American phenomenon of Yishuv Zionist activity. The association of Silver with the victory of 29 November made his leadership seem synonymous with the pan-Jewish demand for a sovereign state, and thus with a unifying Jewish interest that transcended any internal American-Jewish ideological or political divisions. One might even say that the rare instance of consensus among American Jews of differing and opposing worldviews regarding Silver’s leadership in the battle for approval of the partition resolution was made possible precisely because of prevailing perceptions during this brief period in question of Silver, not as a “local” American-Jewish leader affiliated with a particular faction of American Jewry, but as a personification of the pan-Jewish, post-Holocaust struggle for a sovereign state in Palestine. Silver himself embraced this pan-Jewish leadership mandate during the period of the UN effort, using it to demand allegiance from all of American Jewry’s various factions. Importance should therefore be attached to the fact that it was precisely in this speech, delivered at a time when his unifying pan-Jewish leadership was at its height and when the possibility of his aliyah to Israel was most palpable, that Silver was not content merely to reiterate his previous call for Americanization of the Yishuv but rather chose to forcefully criticize the manner in which the Yishuv defined the most basic question of Jewish nationalism.

Interestingly, prior to Silver’s critical remarks regarding Jewish nationalism, the speech actually pointed to Silver’s growing involvement with the Yishuv agenda. He spoke of the urgent task facing the Yishuv—that of forging a Jewish nation through the “melting pot”—explaining that the Yishuv’s great challenge on the road to statehood was that of merging all of the different Jewish ethnicities into a single homogeneous entity. By taking this stand, one might say that Silver had completed the process of adopting the Yishuv perspective and of identifying himself with it. He was no longer speaking as the leader of an American-Jewish minority striving to ensure its status within the non-Jewish mosaic, but rather as one preparing to emigrate to Israel and become a key figure in the “melting pot” effort so crucial to the creation of an Israeli-Jewish nation.

At the same time, however, Silver called for the shared effort of the Yishuv and various diaspora Jewries to culminate in the creation of a new kind of Jewish nation. The builders of the Jewish nation in Palestine must not, Silver proclaimed, limit themselves to nationalism in and of itself; rather, they should fulfill what he called the authentic Jewish heritage. Silver declared Zionism’s main ideological contribution as the rediscovery of an original model of Jewish belonging, one that entrusts Jews with a social responsibility of building bridges to connect with different religious and cultural groups.

Thus, in a speech that was supposed to be heralding his emigration to Palestine, Silver affirmed that the Jewish people’s hopes and aspirations were not exhausted by the project of forging a Jewish nation. The great emphasis placed by Zionism on Jewish statehood was justified, in his view, only by its absence from current Jewish reality. This absence was rooted in Jewish marginality, and as such should be combated and resolved. However, once Jewish national aspirations found their embodiment in a sovereign state, these aspirations would then have to become a means for ushering in the next stage, one that would form a basis for renouncing the excessive importance attached to them up to now.

It is well that the political phase of Jewish Messianism is coming to a close … We shall not have to lay so much stress in the future on the importance of nationalism … Many of the spokesmen of our cause were driven to extol nationalism, per se, which is after all a quite recent and demonstrably, a quite inadequate human concept. It is not mankind’s ultimate vision. Certainly, it is not the substance of our own ancestral tradition, whose motif is not nationalism but prophetism … After its national life is secured, Israel must push on to the frontiers of the new world—the world of internationalism, of economic freedom, of brotherhood and of peace.

In this latter statement, Silver quoted a 1929 article written to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death. Now that the possibility of a Jewish state had become more tangible than ever before, his reservations about placing too much emphasis on nationalism took on a subversive meaning—particularly when vocalized by an activist leader of Silver’s stature as he prepared to depart for Palestine and, possibly, to battle for his place within the Yishuv leadership. Silver’s decision to consider settling in Palestine seems to have forced him to confront the more substantive differences between the Yishuv-Zionist and the American-Zionist perspectives. As Israeli statehood inched closer to realization, Silver felt all the more compelled to question the compatibility of territorial and diaspora Zionism. This tendency, which would become increasingly pronounced, pointed to an inherent difficulty in Silver’s position. Now that a Jewish state was just over the horizon, American Jewry’s Zionist activism took its cue from the deeds and declarations of the Yishuv leadership, most of which was aligned with an anti-exilic ideology. This in turn raised real concerns for Silver—namely, that his long-held diaspora-Zionist approach would take a back seat as his own Zionist effort became focused exclusively on obtaining international recognition for the Jewish state.

Moreover, by adopting the Yishuv’s order of priorities, Silver relegated himself to a secondary role as an assistant to the Yishuv leadership, rather than that of the driving force behind American Jewry’s “emancipation.” Paradoxically, the fortification of Silver’s position as the undisputed leader of the political struggle vis-à-vis the UN underscored his marginality vis-à-vis the Yishuv leadership. This became all the more pronounced in the aftermath of the 29 November resolution, which immediately catapulted the Yishuv to the status of a sovereign state-in-the-making and, inevitably, placed the security challenges facing the Yishuv at the top of the Zionist agenda. Silver became painfully aware of this turn of events in early January 1948 when he arrived in Jerusalem to participate in a Zionist General Council meeting. In stark contrast to his exalted status in the aftermath of the historic victory in the 29 November UN partition resolution, and after having been praised by both supporters and rivals within the American-Jewish leadership as the architect of this victory, on arriving in Israel he encountered a new reality that, almost inevitably, dictated new priorities and overshadowed his own Zionist agenda. Upon landing at Lydda Airport, he was obliged to wait for the British military to authorize his travel by convoy to Tel Aviv, where he then had to wait again before traveling with a Haganah convoy to Jerusalem. The deliberations of the Zionist General Council began on 19 January, when most areas of the city were under attack and Jerusalem was faced with shortages of food and other provisions. Silver was taken aback by the situation, which gave him an all too concrete sense of the Yishuv perspective—namely, that the Jewish statehood question would ultimately be decided not in the corridors of the UN, but on the Palestinian battlefield. From this perspective, the Zionist role of Silver and American Jewry in general was simply to support the main effort spearheaded by the Yishuv leadership.

And indeed, immediately after Ben-Gurion inaugurated the deliberations with a deferential nod to Silver, describing him as responsible for the greatest political achievement in the history of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Second Temple, the discussion moved on to the enormous security challenges facing the Yishuv. In this context, Silver’s proposal raised eyebrows among some of the participants and angered others. Ben-Gurion and other participants failed to comprehend Silver’s proposal to create, under UN supervision, a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish militia, whose prospective volunteers would be motivated to aid the Yishuv by their shared identification with the UN’s progressive agenda of justice and democracy. It was obvious that most of those present at the meeting neither understood nor seriously considered this characteristically diaspora-Zionist idea. A few of the participants even ridiculed the proposal, in which they detected an exilic tone of panic, as though the Yishuv needed the Gentiles to save it from physical annihilation. Others merely insisted that Silver’s proper place was in the United States, where he could be more useful by leading the political and financial effort that American Jewry needed to undertake on the Yishuv’s behalf. It was clear from the deliberations that the Yishuv leaders viewed American Jewry’s role exclusively in terms of financial support and political lobbying; they were certainly opposed to any intimation that American Zionism might possess a valuable Zionist perspective of its own.

Silver returned to the United States in early February and, as requested by the Zionist Executive, dedicated himself to winning over American public opinion and exerting influence on the U.S. government, primarily regarding the U.S. intention to withdraw its support for the partition plan in favor of a renewed British trusteeship in Palestine. As the head of the American Zionist Emergency Committee (AZEC) and chair of the Jewish Agency’s American section, Silver unquestionably made a major contribution to the cause. He organized and participated in press conferences aimed at swaying public opinion against the Truman administration’s stance; convened local AZEC chapters across the United States and spoke at their meetings, exhorting them to pressure their representatives in both houses of Congress; recruited and deployed public figures such as Thomas Mann, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and leading Christian clerics; was responsible for inundating the White House with hundreds of thousands of protest telegrams; and took part in huge demonstrations and rallies, such as a march by fifty thousand Jewish war veterans on 4 April along Fifth Avenue in New York City, protesting the president’s announcement a week before that the United States would be rescinding its support for the partition plan. However, despite all of these activities, it was clear that his status had undergone a radical change. He was no longer the leading actor, and even in the moments when he did take center stage, he was merely the director of a lobby on behalf of the future Jewish state. During the months that remained until the British Mandate’s termination date and Israel’s declaration of independence on 14 May, Silver found that the representatives of the state-in-the-making (primarily Moshe Sharett and Eliyahu Eilat—the future Israeli Foreign Minister and the first Israeli Ambassador to the United States, respectively) had become the principal negotiators with the administration. Despite his formal standing as head of the Jewish Agency’s American Section, he was now forced to content himself with reports on the meetings that were being held; sometimes he found out about them only after the fact.

It is against this background that one must understand Silver’s decision against aliyah in favor of focusing his efforts on the rebuilding of diaspora Zionism. By the time of his first visit to the new State of Israel in August 1948, he decisively ruled out this option. Although he did not rule out the option of his own aliyah at an unspecified future date, and certainly did not speak against aliyah per se, when asked whether he intended to take part in the scheduled general elections for the first legislative assembly, he answered that only Israeli citizens could participate in the elections, while he was an American citizen and wished to remain one. Clearly, in deciding against aliyah, Silver was not making a statement about the lesser importance of the Jewish state. On the contrary, his decision not to settle in Israel was one consciously intended to preserve the Jewish state’s centrality as an external, unifying symbol for American Jews, one crucial to the realization of the American-Zionist diaspora-centered vision. This was the background against which Silver and Emanuel Neumann (Silver’s loyalist and closest ally in the American Zionist movement) raised the idea of a formal distinction (hafradah) between officeholders in the Israeli government and in the Jewish Agency during the Zionist General Council deliberations of August 1948 in Jerusalem. Such a distinction would have made it possible to maintain a diaspora-Zionist agenda affiliated with, but not subordinate to, the Israeli one, and it is not coincidental that Silver put forward his hafradah initiative during the same trip to Israel in which he definitively declared that he would not be immigrating there.

A Dialogue of Equals

What, then, are we to make of Silver’s decision to focus his energies on realizing his Zionist vision in the United States, rather than in the Israeli arena? At least theoretically, this was a pragmatic step. There appears to have been a strong basis for Silver’s expectation that two opposing perspectives, which could not coexist within Israeli discourse, could nevertheless exist side by side in an American Zionist arena that encompassed both the State of Israel and diaspora Jewry. At the same time, however, the hope that a Zionist movement with more than one ideological center would ultimately emerge, reflected an unrealistic demand for radical reform of Zionist discourse as perceived and shaped by the Israeli state-oriented perspective, which was intent on demanding exclusive loyalty from anyone who sought any kind of involvement in the politics and agenda that might effect the implementation of Jewish sovereignty.

The oppositional and perhaps naïve character of this diaspora-Zionist outlook is clearly expressed in a speech that served as Silver’s flagship Zionist address from August 1948 through late 1952—a speech that posited a dialogue between diaspora Jewry and a sovereign Jewish center in Israel as the ultimate expression of pan-Zionist Jewish solidarity. Silver made it clear that he was not content merely to advocate the coexistence of two Zionist models—an Israeli and an American one; rather, he called for a dialogue of equals between the two. Thus, one might say that what Silver was unable to accomplish by immigrating to Israel, he sought to achieve by redefining Zionist discourse. He wished to see the new chapter of Jewish sovereign existence become the basis for a revolutionary outlook that extended beyond the insularity of nationalism. This in turn created an urgent ideological need for Silver to redefine the concept of Zionist fulfillment, so that it would be expressed not only in immigration to Israel but also in an internal Jewish religious awakening.

In doing so, Silver aligned himself with a longstanding American Zionist tradition. From the early years of the Zionist movement in America—the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century—many of its leaders saw Zionism as a moderating tool, which could enable Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to undergo a constructive process of Americanization and would not force them to choose between a separatist Jewish identity and an assimilated American one. Exponents of this aspiration believed it was the duty of Zionism to maintain diaspora Jewish centers—foremost the United States—alongside the center in the land of Israel. Many of them shared Silver’s definition of Zionism in terms of cultural pluralism. The function of Zionism, according to this definition, was to make it possible to nurture a distinct religious and cultural “Jewish melody,” so that it might contribute to the harmony of the larger American symphony. It was this approach that also gave rise to the famous motto of American Zionism—one that became identified with the Zionist leadership of Louis D. Brandeis—which at the beginning of the twentieth century had already proclaimed that “the more Zionist you are, the better an American you are.” Diaspora-Zionist views of this sort continued to be characteristic of American Zionism throughout its history, and became most prominent in the first years after the state’s founding. Mordecai Kaplan asserted in his book, A New Zionism, that after the founding of the State of Israel, the main function of Zionism was to become a means for American Jewish vitality. In this spirit he coined the concept of “peoplehood,” which to a large extent is similar to today’s definition of “transnationalism”—the attempt to extend the concept of nationalism beyond the territorial boarders of the homeland. Similarly, an article written in 1949 by Daniel Frisch, president of the ZOA, sought to establish a positive role for diaspora Zionism, whose adherents chose not to emigrate to Israel even while its gates were open to them. For this purpose, he called for a Jewish education that fostered a view of Jewish existence in the diaspora as a legitimate Zionist goal.

Despite this long tradition, Silver soon realized that any attempt to “use” solidarity with the act of national rebirth as a means of countering Israel’s exclusive control of the Zionist agenda would be highly problematic. Paradoxically, the main difficulty was Silver’s own identification by American Jewry with the unifying external symbol of Jewish statehood. This association meant that any time Silver strove to counter the Israeli perspective he was effectively undermining his own diaspora-Jewish leadership mandate. This difficulty came to the fore in early July 1948, during the fifty-first ZOA convention in Pittsburgh. The convention opened just a month and a half after Israel had declared its independence; however, rather than the atmosphere of exhilaration that might have been expected in the wake of that historic achievement, a sense of divisiveness prevailed regarding the hafradah initiative that Silver and Neumann were advocating ahead of the Zionist General Council meeting scheduled for August of that year. Silver and Neumann proposed that the Zionist movement in the diaspora should henceforth function on a completely separate basis from the State of Israel; in order for this to happen, it would be necessary to reorganize as a “Friends of Israel” movement that would merge all of the American-Zionist political parties into one large and cohesive federation.

The American-Zionist parties that Silver and Neumann wished to subsume within a larger whole were for the most part, during this period, branches of the Israeli-Zionist parties; the proposal thus sought to reorganize the American-Zionist movement as a diaspora movement and on the basis of an American-Jewish agenda that would engage the Israeli-Zionist agenda in a dialogue of equals. However, the proposal was perceived by many American Jews as antagonistic to the State of Israel and therefore as illegitimate. Instead of the unification around an American-Zionist agenda that Silver had hoped to achieve, the inner Israeli political disputes carried the day, and for the first time since the Silver-Neumann leadership had taken over the ZOA during the latter half of 1945, a substantial opposition to it emerged. Members of the opposition took Silver to task for trying to interfere in the sovereign Israeli government’s internal affairs and thereby raising the question of dual loyalty on the part of American Jewry.

Silver painfully discovered that for most American Jews the great attraction of solidarity with the State of Israel was its monopoly on Zionist and Jewish nationalist discourse. As long as the Zionist agenda could be regarded as an external, non-American phenomenon “belonging” to the State of Israel, and as long as Silver’s Zionist leadership could fall under the same rubric, his Zionist leadership could continue to serve, for the majority of American Jews, as expressions of Jewish legitimacy within American society. By contrast, when Silver attempted to undermine Israel’s monopoly on Zionist discourse, he was perceived as trying to drag the external unifying Zionist symbol into the internal disputes of American Jewry.

Moreover, the young state’s political leadership, in particular that of its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had now become the foremost embodiment of that unifying symbol. Silver, who had fulfilled this function in the past, now came to realize that his very identification tied his hands and made it difficult for him to oppose or express disagreement with the Israeli leadership. This inability to oppose the State of Israel within the American Jewish and Zionist arena became strikingly evident in early 1949, when Silver was ousted from his various positions in the Zionist movement by the Israeli-Zionist leadership under Ben-Gurion. A series of dramatic confrontations culminated in Silver’s loss of control over the United Jewish Appeal; this in turn doomed any effort to maintain an independent American-Zionist agenda that would be capable of engaging in a dialogue of equals with its Israeli counterpart. Silver thus found himself obliged to resign from his leadership positions in the Jewish Agency and AZEC. Despite the widespread support that he still enjoyed among American Zionist activists, he refused to advocate any public campaign against the Israeli leadership. At this point, it was clear to him that there could be no struggle for an autonomous American-Zionist agenda if American Jews perceived that agenda to be in conflict with the State of Israel. During his farewell meeting at AZEC, Silver declared that, despite the unjustifiable Israeli interference in internal American-Zionist affairs, he himself could not endorse insubordination to the acknowledged representative institutions of Jewish sovereignty.

The recognition of his inability to oppose the Israeli leadership within the American-Jewish arena had indirect repercussions regarding Silver’s potential immigration to Israel. The possibility of aliyah arose in a serious way on just one additional occasion, in early 1952, when the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was seeking a suitable candidate to replace Professor Selig Brodetsky as its president. It is possible that from the vantage point of an academic, removed from everyday Israeli political concerns, Silver would have been able to give coherent expression to his American-Jewish worldview, even as an Israeli citizen. Had such a scenario emerged, Silver might well have fulfilled the function of a domestic Israeli critic in a manner similar to that of Judah Magnes during the latter’s tenure as president of the Hebrew University. Perhaps in such a position Silver could have ensured the university’s status as an autonomous cultural center, while securing for himself a “prophetic” role in Israeli society—preaching a universalistic version of Jewish nationalism. Although Silver took the offer seriously, by this point (three years after his ouster from his positions within the Zionist movement) he had fully acknowledged that in order to maintain his independent approach he needed, paradoxically, recognition and legitimacy from the Israeli leadership. He therefore made his acceptance of the Hebrew University offer conditional on Ben-Gurion’s public support; when Ben-Gurion declined to become involved and actually expressed reservations regarding Silver’s candidacy, this opportunity of settling in Israel came to naught as well.

For his part, Ben-Gurion’s objection to recognizing the legitimacy of any separate Zionist ideology that could threaten complete Israeli control of the inner Zionist discourse was exemplified most vividly in the memorandum of understanding reached in August 1950 between Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, the head of the non-Zionist American Jewish Committee. In this document, Ben-Gurion was ostensibly willing to agree to all the principles to which he was adamantly opposed when it came to a possible understanding with the American Zionist movement. In his letter to Blaustein, Ben-Gurion recognized that American Jews owed loyalty only to the United States, and promised that Israel would refrain from intervening in the internal affairs of American Jewry. However, as a number of observers have already explained, this declaration did not constitute a retreat from Ben-Gurion’s ideological views. On the contrary, because this was not part of the inner Zionist discourse, Ben-Gurion was able to regard the understandings with Blaustein as a tactical move designed to secure the economic and political support of American Jews for the State of Israel. In his eyes, the memorandum of understanding with the non-Zionists was part of a pragmatic policy that took into account the possibility that Zionist propaganda for immigration would lead to friction with the masses of American Jews who were not Zionists, and therefore would needlessly threaten the economic and political support of non-Zionists. In contrast, an ideological dialogue with the American Zionists required legitimizing the existence of the diaspora-Zionist ideology, which Ben-Gurion firmly opposed.

As Silver saw it, the external focus of solidarity that the State of Israel represented for American Jewry had a dual function to fulfill: it had to be both a source of authority and unity for American Jewry as a whole and a source of inspiration for an internal American-Jewish awakening of solidarity and creativity, with its own agenda and mission. Now that the Israeli Zionist viewpoint was threatening to monopolize the entire Zionist agenda, there was a real concern that the State of Israel would become a point of identification that, while fostering American-Jewish pride and cohesion, nevertheless suppressed any possibility of autonomous American-Jewish creative endeavor. Silver’s decision not to emigrate to Israel, and instead to focus his efforts on forging a new foundation for his Zionist leadership, would thus become a story, with continuing relevance, of a search for a new balance between a deep commitment to Israel and an equally urgent need to turn this commitment into a force for intra-Jewish awakening, distinct from the Zionist agenda emerging at that time in Israel.