Myth and Reality, Denial and Concealment: American Zionist Leadership and the Jewish Vote in the 1940s

Zohar Segev. Israel Affairs. Volume 20, Issue, 2014.

In February 1941, David Ben-Gurion, Chair of the Jewish Agency Executive in Jerusalem and later Israel’s first prime minister, reported to the Agency Executive on his recent visit to the United States. He stressed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state within the international agreements to follow World War II, then stated his own opinion on political steps that might influence Roosevelt’s government to change its policy.

He told the Executive that efforts to enlist the help of Jews in key government positions, such as Ben (Benjamin) Cohen, Roosevelt’s close advisor who later held senior positions in the American war effort, Justice Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court, or retired Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, both jurists being very important American Zionist leaders, in changing White House policy regarding Palestine was doomed to failure. Their support for the establishment of a Jewish state would be limited and inadequate to overcome President Roosevelt’s opposition, in his opinion. Inter alia, Ben-Gurion said:

The Jews around him [Roosevelt] include good Zionists—Ben Cohen, Frankfurter and Brandeis, if they have any influence on Roosevelt I don’t know. I think Cohen has some influence: this man has a very clear head and sees things clearly, his help is necessary and he fills many different roles in the government. Frankfurter is indeed a member of the Supreme Court, but I doubt if they can imbue him [Roosevelt] with belief in Palestine because I’m not sure how much belief they have themselves. Not to forget either the Jewish friends who are not Zionists and maybe oppose Zionism, some of them influential people.

According to Ben-Gurion ‘the way to enlist the American government is winning over the people, winning public opinion’. He then presented the Executive with a long-term strategy in which the Jews of the United States would act as an ethnic political group, using the Jewish vote to change the American government’s policy on Palestine.

Like Ben-Gurion, many scholars in the United States and Israel stressed the contribution of American Jewry to the establishment of a Jewish state, particularly in the face of the opposition from Presidents Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. The present article, using American Zionist documents to show how the Jewish vote was actually brought to bear in the presidential elections of 1944 and in the mid-term elections of 1946, proposes to broaden the background provided by earlier research. The article will also reveal the essential difficulties that American Zionist leaders faced in activating the Jewish vote, and how they coped with the complex challenges of ethnic politics in the United States of the 1940s.

In the latter part of the decade and in parallel with the efforts to establish a Jewish state, American Jews were also involved in the struggle to improve conditions in the European camps for displaced persons, absorbing into the United States those who desired to immigrate, as well as doing what they could to assure the economic and political status of European Jews who survived the war. Major organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the World Jewish Congress (WJC), played a central role in these efforts. As important, as difficult, and as complex as all these endeavours were, they took place behind the scenes of the political stage and did not have to make use of ethnic struggle patterns. For that reason, these efforts on behalf of European Jewry will not be included in the present discussion. The battle to establish a Jewish state, however, and the issue of the American Jewish vote in that context are an entirely different matter.

The late 1930s was a time of increasing fears of anti-Semitism in the United States, both of the home-grown variety due to the economic crisis, and from foreign racism, emanating principally from Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, there was impressive growth in the readiness to take part in Jewish, and especially in Zionist, activities in broad sectors of the American Jewish community. From the beginning of the 1930s, there was a considerable rise in the sums collected for local philanthropy and in Zionist fund drives. Hadassah membership grew, as did that of other Zionist Organizations, and their social events drew more participants. The situation of German Jewry worsened, anti-Semitism increased in central and eastern Europe, and the widening gap between official Britain and the Zionist movement, coupled with fears of anti-Semitism, combined to increase the sense of Jewish solidarity, expressed in particular in Zionist involvement.

The Allied victory in World War II and the consequent flow of information about the Holocaust intensified American Jewry’s willingness to act on the American scene as an ethnic group with definite political objectives. The individual and communal shock generated by knowledge of the Holocaust led the rank and file and their leaders to exert their full strength toward the establishment of a Jewish state as part of the post-war international arrangements. As a result, Zionism became the most powerful ideological, political, and organizational force among American Jewry. The full significance of American Zionism in the 1940s must be understood in the light of the Jewish community’s identification with the goals of the Zionist movement and, after 1948, the state of Israel, which went far beyond the limits of official membership in the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and Hadassah. The Jews were well aware that through their Zionist activities they were placing themselves at the most particularistic ethnic edge of the American scene; in this sense, they were in fact pioneering guides to other ethnic groups in the United States.

Documents of American Zionist leaders in the 1940s show that the political use of the Jewish vote, so simple, so natural to the Zionist establishment in Palestine and in the World Zionist Organization (WZO), presented a predicament for the Americans. It began with the need to cover up the very fact of its use and went on to set the political and social identity of some American Zionist leaders on a collision course with the implications of the ethnic vote in the American political arena. Despite reservations, however, the American Zionist leadership could not avoid coalescing the Jewish vote, which formed a central element in their ability to influence government activities regarding Palestine. The belief that they could sway the Jewish voter was central to these leaders’ status in the American political system. They worked for the Zionist movement and, at the same time, were active in national party politics, where they exploited their status as Zionist leaders.

A most significant change in American Zionism particularly and in American Jewry in general was the rise of Abba Hillel Silver to leadership status in the latter half of the 1940s. Silver entered Jewish communal life in 1917 after his call to the pulpit of Tiferet Israel, a large and very important Reform congregation in Cleveland, Ohio. His exceptional success as a rabbi and a community leader is evident from his appointment despite great ideological differences with the congregation that held an anti-Zionist worldview. Cleveland became Silver’s home and his political power base throughout his public career; indeed, he performed his duties as a congregational rabbi even during his most intensive public activity elsewhere in the United States and in the Zionist movement. Silver helped found the United Jewish Appeal, which he served as chairman from 1938 to 1943, and headed the Zionist Emergency Committee and the subsequent Emergency Council. The Emergency Committee was established on 19 September 1939, out of both a fear that contact with European centres would be lost and a desire to concentrate political activity in the United States. In fact, the Committee functioned mainly as a political pressure group, working to influence the American government to support Zionist goals. In July 1943, its name was changed to the Emergency Council. Silver also represented the WZO in the United Nations and was president of the ZOA from 1945 to 1947.

Most historical discourse about Silver stresses the new model of Jewish ethnic politics he created in the United States, one whose significance goes far beyond his own times. He rode the shockwaves of the Holocaust to forge broad sections of the American Jewish public into a political force waging a titanic struggle in favour of a Jewish state in Palestine by making the Jewish vote a central factor that the American political system had to reckon with, even if the prospect of its use was purely theoretical. That many American Jews were ready to vote out of ethnic considerations in the latter half of the 1940s was an exceptional development. Silver changed Jewish ethnic political activity long after he had held office formally in American Zionist institutions. The establishment and function of the Jewish lobby and the dialogue between Israel and the United States to this day are incomprehensible without reference to the dramatic process that Silver led. He truly understood the post-Holocaust changes in American Jewry, the developments that had taken place among the former eastern European immigrants, and the fact that American society in general now accepted activities like those that Silver led.

Silver’s crystallization of American Jewry’s political activity is particularly important, given that he became the successor of Stephen Wise, also a Reform rabbi and one of the most important Zionist leaders in the country. The two men were intense personal and political rivals. As the article will show, Wise, who was active in the Democratic Party, recognized the implications of ethnically aware Jewish political power. However, he differed from Silver in being vigorously opposed to wielding it lest it harm the status of Jews in America. His opposition was also due to his own unique ties with the Democratic Party and notably with President Roosevelt. Both, he feared, could pay an electoral price for Silver’s political success.

The American Jewish Vote in the First Half of the 1940s

The difficulties of running a Jewish lobby in Washington come to light in the memoirs of Leon I. Feuer, Silver’s assistant in Cleveland and later director of the Emergency Committee in Washington. Feuer pointed out that Zionist activity in Washington was no different from that of economic, trade union, religious or other ethnic minority interest groups. Each operated in the American capital to advance its group’s interests by trying to influence legislative initiatives and presidential acts in the group’s favour. At the same time, he was keenly aware of the perceived difference between the American Zionist movement, which was operating in effect within a foreign political framework, that of the world Zionist movement in its attempts to influence American foreign policy, and other interest groups that sought to influence domestic policy and were not linked to or influenced by alien organizations. That difference was a potential basis for describing American Zionists, connected as they were to a foreign political body, as working against American interests.

An additional perspective from which one may examine Zionist influence on the Jewish vote is the political viewpoint, especially the party affinity of Zionist leaders. That they were found on both sides of the political divide was thought to make it more difficult to unite the Jewish vote. Thus, for example, Stephen Wise was a senior Democrat while Abba Hillel Silver enjoyed a similar position among the Republicans. A monolithic, clearly identified Jewish vote could influence the outcome of presidential and congressional elections and could advance the Zionists’ political struggle. At the same time, a monolithic Jewish vote would surely have aroused opposition in the rival party, causing its supporters to become hostile to Zionism. Hesitation over wielding the Jewish vote openly affected the way Zionist leaders in both parties used this means of influencing policy. Then, too, there were noticeable differences between the generally hesitant overt use of the Jewish vote and the attitude emerging from internal, usually confidential documents from American Zionist archives.

Ben-Gurion and other non-American Zionist leaders familiar with the American scene were unanimously in favour of using the vote, the economic strength, the numbers, and the community status of American Jewry in order to bring political pressure to bear on the administration. By contrast, Wise and Silver, as prominent American Zionist leaders, took more complex positions, as their concerns extended beyond immediate political gains to the future implications of exploiting the Jewish community both for the Zionist movement and for American Jewry in general. They and their following were well aware that their government’s Palestine policy and relations with the Zionist movement affected Jewish voting patterns. They saw the Jewish vote as a potent instrument that could be used for the benefit of the Zionist movement, as well as to influence the American political system in general. Unlike Ben-Gurion, who came out clearly in favour of enlisting that vote, American Zionist leaders knew of the difficulties that could arise from doing so. Hence, they tried to conceal its potential without forgoing the political advantages it offered.

Wise had been aware of the importance of the Jewish vote even in the mid-1930s. He believed there were unique Jewish voting patterns and that his political and communal activity as a Jewish leader influenced the way Jews would vote. Thus, in a letter to Justice Frankfurter, Wise averred that he was prepared to devote his full time and effort to Roosevelt’s election in the 1936 presidential campaign. He noted previous occasions when he had come out in Roosevelt’s favour and asked Frankfurter whether it was worthwhile do so again at the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia. Clearly his efforts were to be directed at the Jewish community as a Zionist leader whose public acts and pronouncements influenced this community’s voting patterns, particularly in New York, where he lived.

Although Wise knew about Jewish ethnic voting patterns and used them for his own political ends, in public he denied there was such a thing as the Jewish vote and spoke against attempts to treat the Jewish electorate as a monolithic bloc. Thus, in the 1940 presidential contest between Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, Wise maintained that the Jewish vote did not exist. There were, he said, both many Jewish supporters and many non-Jews who supported Roosevelt for a third term because of the way he led the Democrats against the forces of reaction. Furthermore, he maintained that the mistaken impression that there was a Jewish vote was in the Republican interest. The Republicans understood that many Jews supported Roosevelt and so tried to enlist them in support of the Republican candidate. Wise went as far as to call Jews who backed the Republicans against Roosevelt terrorists, because their purpose was to gain Jewish support for Willkie despite an understanding and internal agreement in the Jewish and Zionist community. At the end of his talk Wise denied the existent of the Jewish vote and said that the Jews should not form a single political bloc that could hinder their absorption into the larger American society and return them to the ghetto.

Writing to Benjamin Cohen, Roosevelt’s adviser, Wise modified his position. He no longer claimed there was no Jewish vote but opposed its use against Roosevelt. He attacked the underhanded means and secret agreements designed to prevail on Jewish voters to vote against Roosevelt and the forcible efforts being made to gain their votes for Willkie. Wilkie’s supporters, he maintained, took outrageous advantage of the Jewish public and that would be remembered as a scandal; nonetheless, he was sure Roosevelt would win the election.

Writing to Frankfurter about the New York election campaign, Wise not only recognized that there was a Jewish vote, but also called for using it in Roosevelt’s favour. He foresaw a Democratic defeat in New York without the solid support of the Jewish community for all the party’s candidates. An analysis of election results showed that the support of other ethnic minorities would not have assured a Democratic victory without the Jews. Wise even expressed pride and joy over the judgement and political wisdom of his fellow Jews in the way they cast their votes.

The importance of the Jewish vote came to the fore once again in the 1944 presidential elections. Wise now no longer merely stopped denying the existence of a Jewish vote: he did his best to influence and direct it. In a secret letter to Samuel Rosenman, a senior adviser of Roosevelt and his speech writer, Wise wrote:

I may say to you in confidence that it would be definitely helpful to THE Cause if we could see the Chief [Roosevelt] with the least possible delay, and get from him a statement that would be little more than one of assent to the plank in the Democratic platform, together with some word that would indicate that either in this or his next term of office he will do what he can to translate that platform declaration into action together with the British Government. Believe me, my dear Judge, that I would not press this as I do if I did not have reason to fear that fullest advantage might be taken of the Chief’s failure to speak on this at an early date. It would be a mistake to let that word come just before the election, the sooner the better, as you well understand.

Though regarding the Jewish vote as vital, Wise tried to hide its existence and the use that could be made of it to influence election results. Nonetheless, when Roosevelt’s policy seemed to fall short of Zionist expectations and was distancing Jewish voters, Wise once again opposed attempts to organize the vote even if this meant that it might have swung in the Republican direction.

Wise was not alone during the 1940s in trying to deny that a Jewish vote existed. So did Silver, who, though he identified with Republican sympathizers, also opposed introducing the Jewish issue in the 1940 elections. Following a newspaper article naming 40 prominent Jews said to support Willkie, Silver publicly opposed mentioning that they were Jewish. In so doing, he said, the impression might be conceived that there was a Jewish vote and that all Jewish citizens of the United States would vote the same way in the attempt to establish a political bloc. To gainsay this impression, Silver offered resolutions passed by Jewish community institutions in Cleveland. Judging by all recent elections, and particularly the present he said, clearly a Jewish vote does not exist. Like all other American citizens, Jews vote as individuals in accordance with their differing views and interests. Any attempt to create a political or ethnic bloc runs contrary to the essence of life in the United States and to the unity of the American people.

Despite avoiding involvement in the election campaign, Silver as a rabbi and as an American citizen wished to discuss the election issues of 1944, for issues of faith and race had arisen, such as the attack on the Jewish labour leader Sidney Hillman, who was playing a leading role in Roosevelt’s campaign. Silver said that a political leader may expect attacks from his opponents; however, the propaganda against Hillman was different, highlighting as it did his foreign birth. Pointing to a public figure as an immigrant was un-American, Silver charged, a Nazi act that exploited anti-Semitic feelings while detracting attention from the main issues. The use of Nazi methods was a bad sign, he warned, and hoped no irreversible damage had been done to American society and that the issue would die down after the election campaign. Concluding the outspoken sermon, he stressed again that there was no Jewish issue in the campaign and that the Jews of the United States would vote not as Jews but as American citizens. Their first goal as such was to prevent intolerant, un-American activities against themselves; it was for this reason, he advised, they had to vote as American citizens, for the interests of the United States.

The foregoing indicates the extreme caution with which he related to the Jewish vote and Jewish voting patterns. Using Hillman as an example was no coincidence. Silver, like many of his listeners, had been born outside the United States; and to relate to this labour leader as an immigrant, not as an American citizen, could adversely impact on the social status of many American Jews. These concerns may explain the sharp differences in relation to the Jewish vote between the public utterances made by Silver and other American Zionist leaders, who downplayed or even denied its existence, and the use they made of it behind the scenes.

From Silver’s sermons one learns of his fears of growing racist and class-conscious tendencies. He paid particular attention to a long list of anti-Semitic assertions regarding American Jewish influence on the American government, causing him to fear that political activism by the Zionist movement or a Jewish lobby in Washington, and the use of the Jewish vote could easily become a weapon for anti-Zionists and anti-Semites and strengthen these tendencies in American society. He pointed out that racism and class consciousness was directed against other minorities, not only against Jews, and that it constituted a structural problem of American society.

The depth of the problem made it hard to combat the fear that Jews might be considered not as citizens with equal rights, but as an ethnic group of doubtful loyalty, explaining why Silver and others in the American Zionist establishment tried to conceal the use of the Jewish vote. Exploiting this political tool, at least overtly, may be able to bring about political achievements for the Zionist movement, but it could also turn American Jews in general and the Zionists in particular into a group whose loyalty was of a chiefly ethnic religious nature. As will be shown later, since the Jewish vote and a Jewish lobby in Washington were the only means the Zionists possessed to influence policy on Palestine, the Zionist leadership would soon face serious dilemmas as to the vote issue.

Notwithstanding his public denials of exploiting the Jewish vote in the early 1940s, Silver did just that in secret, for example when he met with Judge Rosenman. He told the judge that the government’s negative approach to Zionist demands and the State Department’s lack of response to the White Paper was forcing the American Zionist movement into an uncompromising anti-government campaign. It could easily have been avoided, Silver said, by a change in policy regarding Palestine in the spirit of Zionist demands.

The contrast between Silver’s declared policy on the Jewish vote issue and what he actually did was manifested, too, in connection with the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, Sol Bloom. Passing pro-Zionist resolutions in the House and in the Senate was a central goal of Silver’s political activity in the first half of the 1940s, and this required Bloom’s help. Silver, then, did not hesitate to threaten to use the Jewish vote, pressuring Bloom to promise energetic support of a pro-Zionist resolution in the House. Writing to his associate Louis Segal of the US branch of the Zionist labour organization Poalei Zion, Silver noted that he had learned from the Yiddish press that a dinner was tendered in Bloom’s honour during his election campaign with the participation of Segal himself, other Poalei Zion leaders, and much of the Jewish and Zionist leadership of New York. Furthermore, Silver remarked, many participants had contributed to Bloom’s campaign fund. Although he did not object to Bloom’s re-election, the Zionist leaders who supported him should have known that Bloom had as yet made no clear promise to employ his full strength and his position to assure the passage of pro-Zionist resolutions. Silver accused Bloom of pretence, of a lack of integrity, and of not keeping his promises to the Zionist leaders. Worse, his behaviour was causing serious damage to Zionism in preventing the passage of pro-Zionist resolutions in the House. Bloom, Silver charged, only pretended to support these resolutions when in fact his interest was that they should fail. The only way to commit Bloom to actual and effective support of Zionist aims was to apply political pressure before the elections. Before they continued to support him, Silver advised, the Zionist leaders should ascertain that Bloom would work after the election to pass the resolutions in the Congressional committee he headed.

Nor was a promise from Bloom sufficient for Silver, who demanded that the resolution be passed by August or by September at latest. It was a tactical error on the part of New York’s Zionist leaders, Silver insisted, to support Bloom before he promised his political support. Moreover, he demanded that Segal and the other Bloom supporters in the Zionist camp send the Congressman personal letters as soon as possible setting forth Silver’s demands. Although Silver maintained that he would not oppose Bloom’s re-election, he conditioned this on the representative’s concurrence with the demands of the Emergency Committee and in particular on his support for the pro-Zionist resolution in Congress. Silver said that since Bloom’s re-election depended largely on support from New York Zionist leaders, Silver wanted this dependence expressed in political achievements for the Zionist movement, and he instructed the Zionist leaders how to bring this about by exposing Bloom’s political manoeuvring and meeting the Zionists’ demands.

In Bloom’s case, both Wise and Silver overtly used the Jewish vote, though in opposite directions that reflected their respective political loyalties. Silver, who was not close to Bloom, thought not re-electing him would advance Zionist interests in the House of Representatives and, at the same time, hinder Roosevelt’s re-election bid for a fourth term, which he opposed. Wise, by contrast, was part of the Democratic establishment, particularly in New York, and thought that Bloom’s activity in the House Foreign Affairs Committee interfered with passing the pro-Zionist resolution; Wise, therefore, supported his re-election.

Despite Silver’s involvement in the 1944 election campaign, he accused Wise of complicity with the Democratic Party, maintaining that some leaders of the American Zionist movement were more committed to the Democratic Party than to Zionist interests. He had received reports on Wise’s heated addresses in support of Roosevelt and his activation of the press on the president’s behalf. According to Silver, Wise’s activities were contrary to the decision of the Emergency Committee regarding neutrality in the presidential campaign, and he demanded to know whether it was right to support Roosevelt but wrong to support Thomas Dewey. Silver had declined an invitation to address a Republican rally in Madison Square Garden because of his position as head of the Emergency Council. As will be shown later, Silver’s responses reflected Zionist response patterns in the various election campaigns. Officially, Silver chose neutrality in the 1944 elections, while behind the scenes he was active on behalf of Republican candidates. It is scarcely conceivable that Silver was unaware of the similarity between his own activity patterns and Wise’s at the time. One may assume that criticism of Wise was motivated by internal Zionist politics, as part of the struggle between the two leading Reform rabbis.

The Struggle for the Jewish Vote in 1946

Roosevelt’s death in 1945 and Truman’s ascendancy to the presidency exacerbated the struggle within the Zionist movement over the Jewish vote. As Truman had less political clout than Roosevelt, the weight of that vote increased and was considered significant in the approaching presidential and congressional campaigns. Although Roosevelt was thought to have understood the Palestine problem better, Truman would be more in need of the Jewish vote. This situation would in all likelihood enable the Zionist movement to advance its goals through applying political pressure on the new president.

The increased power of the Jewish vote was shown in practice in Solicitor General James McGrath’s remarks to Benjamin Akzin, director of the Emergency Council in Washington. McGrath was convinced that the Zionist movement in the United States had erred in conducting its struggle in Washington: Zionist leaders should have used political rather than technical means to obtain the support of Truman and his administration—‘political means’ connoting the Jewish vote. Akzin’s response reflected the Zionist leadership’s attempt to conceal the existence of a policy supporting the use of such means. He made a point of informing McGrath that the phenomenon of a Jewish vote did not exist and that the American Zionist movement was not engaged in organizing a unified Jewish voting bloc. Nonetheless, in contrast to this official pronouncement, their conversation shows that both men were aware of the political power of the Jewish vote and were prepared to use it to influence government policy.

Akzin maintained that many American Zionists felt they had been deceived by Democratic administrations that never kept their promises to act in favour of the Zionist cause. He anticipated that angry disappointment with the Democrats would lead to a reaction, drawing away votes in favour of Republican candidates. So great was that disappointment, he stressed, that the only way to halt the swing of the Jewish vote to the Republicans was a swift, sharp change in government policy—before the elections. Akzin, moreover, asked McGrath how the Jewish vote could be used to pressure candidates while avoiding the appearance of an organized homogenous voting bloc. McGrath suggested meeting individual candidates and exerting pressure behind the scenes. Akzin or the Emergency Council members should concentrate on candidates for the Senate or for the governorship in key states with a large body of Jewish voters, who could endanger the outcome if they voted for the rival candidate. At a second stage, McGrath continued, candidates who felt endangered by the Jewish vote would meet with the president and other prominent persons in the administration to emphasize the need for a change of policy to avoid endangering their chances of re-election. Such pressure on candidates might force the government to change its Palestine policy. McGrath, then, was in effect translating the American Zionist strategy of using the Jewish vote while denying its existence. The basis of this strategy was to threaten its use rather than employ it in actual political practice. This would bring about the desired results without revealing a thoroughly organized Jewish voting pattern motivated by an independent, separate Jewish political agenda.

From Akzin’s meeting, then, it is clear that the Jewish vote had emerged as a political tool of the American Zionist movement. However, it was used clandestinely and its very existence denied in order to counteract possible criticism of attempts to influence government policies in opposition to American interests and to avert the potential accusations of dual loyalty that shadowed Zionists in the United States throughout the 1940s. The goal was to demonstrate a common American and Zionist interest in the Middle East.

Discussion of the Palestine issue accelerated, and the internal struggle in the Zionist movement intensified in 1946 just as the contest between Democrats and Republicans was building up. In the mid-term elections, the Republicans won a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928. Most significant were the Democratic defeats in New York with its numerous Jewish voters, where Dewey the Republican Governor was re-elected and former Democratic Governor Herbert Lehman was defeated in the race for the United States Senate. The importance of the Jewish vote increased, exacerbating argument over its use ahead of the presidential campaign in 1948. Zionist leaders and American politicians alike were more than ever of the opinion that the Jewish vote could influence that election outcome. And Zionist leaders were more willing to exploit this vote, given its increasing weight, to pressure the government into resolving the Palestine question in a manner compatible with Zionist interests.

The assumption, prior to the 1946 mid-term elections, that the Jewish vote could significantly influence voting results led to tension between the party allegiance of Zionist leaders and their role in the movement. This was particularly evident in the case of Wise, as the activity of the Emergency Committee against Democratic candidates stood in contradiction to Wise’s own support for that party and for its most senior candidate. A letter from Silver to Wise discloses that the Emergency Council decided to attack Democratic candidates by means of the Jewish vote in order to pressure the administration and to show the power of that vote. Silver related to Wise’s opposition to an Emergency Council resolution that he, Silver, had sponsored by telling Wise to just carry it out. However, since Wise had not yet agreed to the resolution, Silver’s letter demanded that he clarify whether he intended to act against it in regard to political activity in Washington. Silver rejected alternative activities that Wise proposed, including initiatives for meetings between Zionist leaders and senior administration officials. Only after the American Zionist movement had accumulated significant political power by using the Jewish vote, Silver asserted, could it resume and maintain its contacts with the government. Furthermore, he argued, if the power of the Jewish vote is proved, then government officials themselves would seek out Zionist leaders in an effort to gain the support of Jewish voters, allowing the Zionists to act from a position of strength that could lead to significant political achievements. By contrast, attempts to influence the administration without proven evidence of the strength of the Jewish vote would not lead to any government activity in the interests of Zionism.

Wise’s papers show that Silver’s letter actually increased the former’s opposition to making use of the Jewish vote in the 1946 elections. To Frankfurter, Wise wrote that a deliberate attempt was being made to prevent Jews from voting for Democratic candidates because of Truman’s Palestine policy, especially since the president had not succeeded in assuring free immigration. Despite his unwillingness to deal publicly with the issue of the Jewish vote, Wise did bring it up in a sermon at his synagogue in New York. Silver and his political aide and close friend, Emanuel Neumann, had left him no choice, Wise felt. In the sermon, he defined as tragic the attempt to create a Jewish vote, pointing out the inherent danger if Jews considered only the Jewish viewpoint on all questions when they cast their votes.

Another indication of the importance of the Jewish vote in 1946 comes from a letter written by Bartley Crum, a lawyer in Truman’s inner circle, a member of the Anglo-American Investigation Committee, and a supporter of Silver, to Robert Hannegan, chairman of the Democratic Party’s national council, who was also close to Truman and who at the time served as Postmaster General of the United States. The letter was part of an ongoing discussion between the two about the Palestine issue and its influence on the American political arena.

Crum suggested two necessary courses of action that the Democratic administration should take to clear the air and win back the support of American Jewry. In the short run, the president should insist that the British government act at once to resolve the problem of displaced persons in Europe by opening the gates of Palestine—on a humanitarian basis with no connection to a general resolution of the Palestine issue. In the long term, Crum continued, President Truman and his senior advisers should intensify their contacts in London and clarify to their British counterparts that the Americans were interested in a successful conclusion to the issue as speedily as possible. Crum raised the possibility of partitioning Palestine, advising that the government should devote energy in this direction. Crum wrote:

It is my opinion that our Government should make it clear to Britain that the American government wants to do everything in Its power to bring about the permanent solution of the problem. Having transmitted as our Government did, the proposal of the Jewish Agency for the establishment of a viable Jewish State in an adequate area of Palestine, it would seem to me to follow that we must back up the Agency in every way possible to make the negotiations a success. Under the circumstances, it is expected that our government will make full use of its resources and influence to bring a satisfactory outcome of the negotiations now proceeding in London.

Crum was well aware that the purpose of the administration’s support for the Zionists was to enlist the Jewish vote. Hence, he had to rally the majority of the Zionist leaders behind the partition plan or lose political justification for government support of the idea. On the basis of trustworthy information, he stressed that even Silver, who was said to oppose partition, would support political steps assuring the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine. More important from Crum’s perspective, Zionist agreement to the partition plan would assure a united front of American Jewish support for the Truman administration. Crum wrote that the result of such a position by the President ‘would be to put heart into the more than 5,000,000 citizens of Jewish block in the United States who are now most disheartened’.

Crum’s letter, marked strictly confidential, shows clearly how Silver and his staff wanted to wield the Jewish vote. Crum maintained close contact with Silver as noted above. The letter to Hannegan, written with the prior agreement of leaders of the Emergency Council, was intended to tone down the political use of the Jewish vote where outsiders were concerned. That is the reason that Silver applied to Hannegan and other heads of the Democratic establishment indirectly. Crum could be seen as turning to them on his own initiative, not as the result of an official act on the part of American Zionist institutions. Publicly expressed, positions like those set forth in the strictly confidential letter would have caused Zionist leaders serious embarrassment.

Neumann’s letter to Crum just a few days after Crum’s to Hannegan reveals the coordination on the Jewish vote issue. Neumann, Silver’s close aide, stated that he was setting forth his most secret thoughts and plans before Crum with complete candour. The Jewish leader maintained that applying pressure on Truman, as Crum himself and other American political elements had recognized, was the only way for the American Zionist movement to achieve political gains in Washington. Thus, it was important that the Democratic Party should now feel, on the eve of elections, that Truman’s Palestine policy was politically harmful. Any pre-election show of Zionist support for the Democratic administration would weaken the political pressure that Neumann and Silver sought to exert. Neumann was worried that support would be voiced for the administration at the approaching American Zionist convention in Atlantic City, coming to Truman’s rescue at the last moment and interfering with Silver’s and Neumann’s plans. Crum was to be the guest speaker at that convention, and Neumann wanted to make sure that what he said would coordinate with the general effort to exert pressure on the president. Neumann, fully aware that this tactic was highly problematic, given the close personal ties between Crum and the president. advised the Postmaster-General not to attack Truman directly but to talk against the State Department’s Middle East policy This approach followed the line of criticizing the Democratic administration but avoiding a personal attack on Truman.

Neumann dwelled on the difficulty of enlisting Democrat supporters who were Zionists to act against the government. So staunch was the support of some Zionist Democrats that they not only refused to oppose the Democratic Party but also acted to thwart Zionist initiatives in that direction although this was the only way to further Zionist interests in Washington. He stressed that Zionist action against the government was not intended to transfer Jewish votes to the Republicans, but at the same time the Zionists could not afford to allow Democratic policy continue unhindered.

On 4 October Truman’s declaration on the Palestine issue and the refugee problem was published. It announced the government’s support for the partition plan and the demand for the immediate admission of 100,000 displaced persons to Palestine. Neumann was convinced that the president’s declaration demonstrated the success of the Emergency Council’s policy, emphasizing that such a pro-Zionist stance would not have been possible without the threat of the use of the Jewish vote, a step, he added, that was supported by key individuals in American politics, such as Bernard Baruch, who had been a close adviser and a personal friend of Roosevelt.

To oppose the administration and most certainly to support the Republicans was particularly difficult for Zionist leaders who were Democrats. Such acts amounted to a betrayal of personal and political ties with that party’s establishment, as well as of central elements of their political strength in the Jewish community and the American arena in general. In addition, these leaders felt that by taking a broad view, the Zionist interest would be better served in the long run if the Democrats continued in power. The Democrats had fought against the Nazis, and their social and political views were closer to the spirit of the Zionist movement than Republican views were.

Stephen Wise, as previously noted, had explained his opposition to using the Jewish vote as a political weapon in a 1946 sermon in his New York synagogue. In the social and political reality of American Zionism and of the American Jewish community, he declared, there is in fact no such thing as the Jewish vote. The Jews were free voters, not a flock of sheep led to the polling station. American society was composed of numerous ethnic and religious groups, so it was of prime importance to avoid identifying a particular group with one political party. For the sake of unity in American society, the utmost care had to be taken to assure that ethnic and religious groups were non-partisan or, at the very least, did not support only one party. Wise knew he was identified with the Democratic establishment, and so his declared opposition to the use of the Jewish vote in 1946 was a matter of principle; it was not to be used against the Democratic administration. In fact, he would have opposed the use of the Jewish vote even to help the Democrats. Throughout his community career, he stressed, he never used the Jewish vote to advance the Democratic Party. When he enrolled in support of Roosevelt, he had sought the support of all American citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, for he believed that Roosevelt’s election would benefit the interests of the United States. Catholics, Jews, and Protestants were obliged to vote in elections, not on the strength of their religious affiliation, but as Americans.

Despite his declared opposition to coordinating the Jewish vote, Wise, later on in his address, sought to persuade his congregation, as Jews, to vote the Democratic ticket for Zionist and Jewish reasons. It was ingenuous to pretend that the Jewish vote was directed against the administration and not in favour of the Republicans when, in the reality of the American two-party system, to oppose one party was to support the other; hence, all American Zionist activity against the Democratic administration in fact supported the Republicans. Directing this line of reasoning to the Jewish voter shows that, contrary to his declarations, Wise did, in fact, want to organize a pro-Democratic Jewish vote. He agreed that the administration had failed to show sufficient determination on the Palestine issue. Still, he stressed, it would be wrong and unjust to hold the government responsible for the failed efforts to bring 100,000 European refugees into Palestine. The main culprit was not the White House and not the State Department, but the British government, whose hands held the keys to Palestine. According to Wise, Truman had failed in the matter of the 100,000 prospective immigrants because he lacked the necessary political skills, not because he ignored the refugees’ plight or opposed their immigration.

Wise again tried to conceal his attempt to enlist the Jewish vote on behalf of the Democrats by declaring that Palestine was dear to the hearts of American Zionists, and they would not allow their vote to be turned into an exclusively religious–ethnic issue. The use of ethnic and religious political thinking was unwise and possibly harmful to the Zionist movement. He opposed asking the Jews of the United States to weigh only Zionist reasons when voting, without considering domestic issues or other aspects of American foreign policy. It would be a grave error, he warned, to turn the American Zionist movement into a player in the field of American party politics.

Wise’s sermon reveals the tension between his Democratic Party affiliation and the possible use of the Jewish vote against the Democratic establishment from Zionist motives. Organizing Jewish voters to pressure the government might help the Zionist movement, but it could also harm the Democratic Party. Wise opposed this step in principle, for it bore dangerous consequences, as well: it might interfere with the integration of Jews into American society and reinforce adverse racial and religious tendencies that could in the long run jeopardize the Jewish community. Nevertheless, his strenuous opposition to organized use of the Jewish vote in 1946 stemmed from the harm it might cause the Democratic Party, his political home. He tried to resolve the contradiction between what was good for the Zionists and what was good for the Democrats with the theory that lay at the basis of his political credo: a Democratic victory would better serve the future interests of the Zionist movement and American Jewry, whose political and social outlook was closer to that of the Democrats.

The attitudes of Zionist leaders toward the Jewish vote issue, then, combined two lines of thinking. The first was to use the Jewish vote for political ends, for the benefit of both the Zionist movement and their own social and political connections in American society. The second was to conceal the existence of Jewish voting patterns being amenable to organized direction in order to avoid any adverse influence on Jewish integration into American society. Taken together, these two views gave rise to internal contradictions and discrepancies between declarations and deeds. Ambiguous language and veiled implications became necessary to play down the use of the Jewish vote even when it was the main subject of discussion. The American Zionist leadership found itself in a dilemma. Despite the potential political and social damage that it could cause the Jewish community and the American Zionist movement, the Jewish vote could not possibly be overlooked as a political tool of prime importance within the American political system.


Silver’s unpublished autobiography relates to the political activity of American Jews under his leadership. He rejected the view that the status of an American Jewish leader in general and of a Zionist leader in particular was determined by that individual’s relations with the White House—that the more welcome a person was in the White House, the better was his leadership status and that the contrary also held true. He pointed to a contradiction: On the one hand, when President Truman was elected in 1948 Silver’s own position in the Zionist movement became weaker because he was ‘persona non grata’ in the White House; by contrast, when the Republican Dwight Eisenhower began his presidency in 1953, he was once again thought to have political power. On the other hand, his political achievements on behalf of the Zionist movement and, after 1948, the state of Israel were far greater under Truman than they were when Eisenhower was president and when he had close association with key Republicans in the administration, such as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

Silver’s autobiography and his and Wise’s documents reveal the confusion of concepts that lay behind the activity of American Zionist leaders in the 1940s. Blurred boundaries between the Zionist and general American arenas were evident in Wise’s case, but this situation held true for Silver and his adherents as well. The latter well knew that his political achievements had been gained only because the Republican leadership wanted to change Jewish voting patterns and to distance the Jewish community from the Democrats. Silver, though, did not seem to be troubled by the circumstances; and even though he did not support Dewey, the Republican presidential candidate, in either 1944 or 1948, he maintained close contact with other Republican leaders such as John Foster Dulles. Reduced Jewish support for Roosevelt and the Democrats did, though, dovetail with Silver’s political strategy. His opposition to a third and then a fourth term by a president as a danger to American democracy and his desire to end the blanket Jewish vote for Roosevelt and the Democrats were the motivations in his design to employ the Jewish vote, which he viewed as a valuable and powerful political weapon. Silver’s proximity to the Republicans rather than the incumbent Democrats ironically made it easier for him to exact political gains for the Zionist movement.

The prevailing belief in American political circles that the Zionist leaders could influence the Jewish voter was central to their personal status in their respective political parties and in American politics. The political power held by the two Reform rabbis, Silver and Wise, each acting according to his own political views, in the 1940s established patterns of Jewish activity within the American political system that combined two struggles: for both particularist Jewish-Zionist and general American interests. The unique status of the two personalities as Jewish community leaders within the American political system enabled them to attain ethnic Jewish and general American goals at the same time, even if one goal had priority over the other at times, according to political circumstances.

It is difficult to imagine what Silver would have done had his Zionist activity run contrary to his endeavours in the general American arena. An indication of his possible reaction, though, may be inferred from his opposition to American policy in Europe after World War II, when he supported compromise in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. This stand aroused angry opposition in much of the Jewish community, diminishing his position on the Zionist scene and the ability to wield the Jewish vote according to his needs. Nonetheless, he did not retreat from the position and was prepared to pay the political price for his unpopular views. By contrast, Wise’s political contacts were with the party in power in the 1940s, making it difficult to work against the government. He was convinced that this did not impede his loyalty to Zionist causes. On the contrary, he was sure that his position served Zionist interests well, in addition to the interests of the future Jewish state and of American Jews.

Using the Jews as a political force in favour of an ethnic Jewish agenda in the United States was thoroughly unique in Zionist politics and on the Jewish scene in general. Just how unique is evident from the response of Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization until 1946, to such an agenda. Weizmann recognized that American government support was essential to the establishment of a Jewish state within the post-war political arrangements. At the same time, he strenuously opposed the patterns of political activity developed by Ben-Gurion and Silver in the United States. His model was his own success in the complex process that had led to the Balfour Declaration in 1917. A political dynamic that meant motivating a large Jewish public to put political pressure on the US administration seemed to him not only futile but also hazardous to the Zionist cause.

Weizmann apparently failed to perceive that the unique situation in the United States from 1944 to the end of the decade allowed the Zionist movement, for the first time in its history, to alter previously accepted norms of political activity. This was due to a combination of factors: the shock to the American Jewish public following the Holocaust, American society’s willingness to countenance ethnic political activity, and the improved socioeconomic circumstances of American Jewry. These factors, together with Silver’s charismatic leadership, combined to develop the Jewish vote as an effective political instrument in the second half of the 1940s.

American Jews were willing to function as an ethnic group by using their vote to change government policy for a short but highly significant time. From a political standpoint, their activity on the America scene contributed meaningfully to the possibility of establishing a Jewish state within the political arrangements that followed World War II. But the importance of the Jewish vote went way beyond that particular goal. The successful ethnic politics of American Zionists and their leadership in the late 1940s increased their unity, reinforced their ethnic identity, and helped establish them as an ethnic group that could and would organize in a struggle for its own goals, as well as for non-Jewish issues with which it identified. All this differed sharply from the accepted perception of the way American Jewry and its leadership functioned in the context of the Holocaust in Europe. In the future, in contrast with the 1940s, most American Jews would follow ethnic voting patterns, whose unique features, however, were linked to these voters’ varying world views as Americans.

The success of American Zionists in activating the Jewish vote in the late 1940s led to recognition of how salient the issue was in the complex relationship involving the state of Israel, American Jewry, and the US administration even after 1948. From that time on, Israel was not the crucial issue for the great majority of American Jews in deciding how to vote. The question thus arises: why does the Jewish vote continue to constitute a central presence in the public debate even when most Jews in the United States no longer follow ethnic voting patterns as they did in the 1940s?