Lawrence Davidson. Arab Studies Quarterly. Volume 18, Issue 3. Summer 1996.
The United States and Anti-Socialism
Just after World War one, in the years 1919-1920, the United States went through a paroxysm of fear and paranoia known as the Red Scare. It was an expression of the widespread anxiety brought on by a war that had dragged the U.S. into European affairs. The war years had brought economic and social dislocations followed by post-war uncertainties. The nation’s self-image, cast in the context of isolationism and in opposition to the perceived corruption and militarism of the “Old World,” was now subject to question and debate. Under these circumstances, a movement grew around the assumed need to keep the country “one hundred percent American.” What was perceived as threatening this American character was not only continued involvement in post-war European affairs, which was viewed as dangerously innovative, but also the introduction of “un-American” ways and values.
This alleged corruption of the American way of life was in turn seen as a product of the growing number of immigrants, especially from Eastern Europe, and the ideological “disease” of socialism/communism they were thought to carry. Eastern Europe and socialism/communism fit together in the American mind because, while many of the immigrants arriving since the turn of the century had come from this area, Eastern Europe seemed to be turning to the Left. United States labor unrest of the period was consequently blamed on “communist agents” among these immigrants. Then a short spate of anarchist bombings lent panic to the sense of foreign influenced conspiracy. The government response soon reflected this growing atmosphere of hysteria. It came in 1920 in the form of the “Palmer raids” (named after the politically opportunistic Attorney General of the day, A. Mitchell Palmer) in which some six thousand alien residents were arrested and held for deportation. Most of this was done without warrants and was therefore illegal.
As the decade of the 1920s progressed, the hysteria abated. Labor relations stabilized as the overall economic picture improved. The anarchist bombings ceased. The U.S. Senate rejected Wilsonian internationalism in the form of the Versailles peace treaty thus allowing Americans to slip back into a more comfortable, if temporary, isolationism. And in Europe, socialism seemed more and more restricted to the young Soviet Union, and thus less of an immediate threat to America. Nonetheless, like a body once sensitized to an allergen, the U.S. and its people would from then on remain reactive to any perceived threat of socialism/communism. Restrictive immigration laws would be passed in part to isolate the country from alien radicals. Even domestically bred reformist ideologies would be suspect and subject to “red baiting.” And the body politic would suffer periodic relapses of fear, representing a lingering obsessive state of mind, an idee fixe, expressing itself in such cold war episodes as McCarthyism.
Under the circumstances any socialist oriented movements, especially those with origins in Eastern Europe, should have come in for condemnation. And indeed, as America’s abiding fear and loathing of the Soviet Union indicates, they usually did. That is all except one. There was, in fact, a socialist movement of this period that not only escaped America’s hypersensitivity but was actually assisted. Paradoxically, in the long run it ended up finding its staunchest ally in capitalist America. That movement was Zionism as it manifested itself in Palestine.
One can see American support for Zionism, on both the public and private level, from the moment the Balfour Declaration was issued. Woodrow Wilson consistently supported Zionism and, over the decade of the 1920s, public statements of support were made by Presidents Harding and Hoover as well as Congressmen, Senators, state legislators, etc. In 1922 the Congress passed a resolution in support of “The Recreation of Palestine as the National Home of the Jewish Race.” On a nongovernmental level, throughout this decade American Jews and others in sympathy with the Zionist movement donated millions of dollars to organizations set up to funnel funds to The World Zionist Organization (WZO) and its projects in Palestine. All of this was done in the prevailing antisocialist atmosphere described above. Yet simultaneously, in Palestine, Zionism was evolving in a manifestly socialist direction. How was this unlikely alliance possible?
The Palestinian Zionists and Socialism
There can be no doubt that Zionism in Palestine from the 1920s onward was increasingly dominated by socialists. As Walter Laqueur tells us: “Labor Zionism emerged as [the movement’s] strongest political force. Its growth and the impact of its ideas were of decisive importance, for it shaped the character of the Zionist movement and subsequently the state of Israel… .” Moreover, in the 1920s the Zionist socialists, or “Labor Zionists” were “powerfully attracted by Russian Socialism and its leaders.”
Among the main leaders of this Zionist socialist phenomenon was David Ben Gurion. For Ben Gurion it was Palestine’s destiny to be “developed as a socialist Jewish state.” Here the model was the early Soviet state. “We are following a new path,” Ben Gurion explained in 1921, “which contradicts developments in the whole world except Russia.” This led him to pay homage to the Soviet Union for “her great spiritual influence on our movement and our work in Palestine.” In these years Ben Gurion came to “idolize Lenin” and “he even adopted the dress of the Soviet leaders—a quasi military uniform of rough wool.”
Behind Ben Gurion was a growing and well organized Zionist socialist organization. It began as a group called Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) based largely in Eastern Europe and Palestine. From this beginning it merged in March of 1919 with like-minded Zionist organizations to form Adhut Ha’avodah, a socialist party that largely controlled the Jewish immigrant absorption process in Palestine and would come to dominate the Histadrut, the labor federation that would eventually organize and control much of the Jewish economic structure in Palestine and, later, Israel. Under Ben Gurion’s leadership Adhut Ha’avodah evolved as a party that “followed the Russian model”.
The evolving socialist nature of Zionism in Palestine was ultimately accepted and actively supported by most of the leaders of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Men like Chaim Weizmann, who were not themselves socialists or communists, nonetheless became convinced that it would only be by a socialist line of economic development that all available resources could be directed toward the rapid absorption of a maximum number of Jewish immigrants. In the early 1920s, Weizmann observed that middle- and upper-class Jews from Europe or the United States were not moving to Palestine in significant numbers. Only the Jewish working class of Europe had the desire to immigrate in numbers high enough to “upbuild” Palestine and make it Jewish. Those Jews with money to invest who did immigrate behaved like good capitalists and hired the cheapest labor they could find. This turned out to be the local Arab population and not their fellow Jews. In other words, the capitalist priority of maximizing profit actually stood in opposition to the Zionist priority of providing work and acceptable wages for the greatest number of Jewish immigrants. Further, because working class immigrants were largely without resources, the WZO would have to subsidize them in Palestine by job creation and the maintenance of high pay scales. This would be necessary because without the maintenance of European living standards for the workers, emigration would soon outstrip immigration. To maintain this level of subsidization required a socialist-style control of resources and profit. “The halutz [worker] must know,” Weizmann insisted, “that when he builds the Ruttenberg project [a hydroelectric project in Palestine] or the roads, that he will build it in such a way that not a ha’penny goes into the pocket of a private person, but into the pocket of the nation.” Eventually, even the leaders of the Jewish middle class community in Palestine accepted the need to subsidize socialist development if the country was ever to become Jewish. Thus, in August 1928, an official WZO statement conceded that, “even one who is not a socialist must support the wishes of the Jewish laborer even if it entails many concessions, since he is still our main support. He is the most loyal and the symbol of the devotion of our national ideal in the country.”
The American Zionist Position
Only two groups objected to this line of reasoning, and by doing so sought to block the transformation of much of Jewish Palestine into a socialist society. One was the Revisionist faction within Zionism, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, whose devotion to capitalism was tinged with overtones of fascism. And the other was the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) led by Louis Brandeis.
To understand Brandeis’ position one must keep in mind the experimental nature of the Zionist endeavor. For the American leader, as with Ben Gurion also, Palestine seemed a “frontier” land where one might create a new society that would redeem a European Jewry whose lives were worn down by ghettoization and persecution. In the process, a new Jewish personality would be born. But unlike Ben Gution, who envisioned the new Jew as something akin to the “new Soviet man,” Brandeis identified the ideal with American values. He declared as early as 1915 that “it is democracy that Zionism represents. It is social justice which Zionism represents, and every bit of that is the American ideal of the twentieth century.” Thus, he concluded, “the ideals for America should prevail in the Jewish state.” And he pictured Zionism as a movement akin to the Progressivism he himself espoused. The socioeconomic experiment that Zionism represented in Palestine should operate “‘in Jewish life” along the same lines as “Progressivism does in general American life.” The identification of Zionism with American values, contributed to the clash that ultimately erupted between Brandeis and Chaim Weizmann. As leader of American Zionism right after World War I, Brandeis protested the heavy subsidization of the socialist endeavors in Palestine. Putting forth the Nineteenth Century liberal argument that was nonetheless also very American, Brandeis resisted that “too much aid will demoralize the people.” WZO funds should only go into “profitable investments,” only immigrants with investment capital should be encouraged to go to Palestine and strict accounting practices should keep track of every penny spent. In the end, Brandeis lost this battle and the WZO alliance with socialism continued and grew. Brandeis was removed as leader of the ZOA in June of 1921, but remained an active and ardent Zionist, heading a private organization called the Palestine Development Associates. It sought to promote private sector development in Palestine and the introduction into that country of “business men and industrialists whether they were Zionists or not.”
Though Brandeis was replaced as head of the ZOA by men who were more capable of working with Weizmann, his identification of Zionism with the American way of life would in fact continue to be promoted in the United States. Other well known Zionist leaders such as Louis Lipsky, Bernard Rosenblatt, Judge Julian Mack and Rabbi Stephen Wise, as well as a host of local Zionist leaders (who made up an active element of the constituencies of many leading American politicians) reinforced the idea that Zionism incorporated American values. As will be seen below, they no less than Brandeis, asserted that “Zionism is the Pilgrims’ inspiration and impulse all over again. The descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers should not find it hard to understand and sympathize with it.”
The level of success American Zionists had in promoting this image can be seen in the fact that thousands of American Jews, many of them middle- and upper-class people who would never have dreamt of knowingly contributing to a socialist movement, continued to generously contribute to Zionist efforts in Palestine. It is also evident in the 1922 endorsement of Zionism by the U.S. Congress. During the hearings of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the resolution submitted by Congressmen Hamilton Fish of New York supporting “the Recreation of Palestine as the National Home of the Jewish Race,” there was general disbelief that Zionism could evolve in a socialist direction. This is most event in the response made to Dr. Fuad Shatara, a Palestine-born American surgeon from Brooklyn, who testified before the Committee about the “Bolsheviki” element among the Jewish colonists. The Congressmen scoffed at the notion and asserted that their influence must certainly be minuscule. Representative Henry Allen Cooper of Wisconsin expressed the general point of view when he replied to Shatara, “do you think the Jew … proverbially a believer in private property, would circulate any law that would destroy private property?”
Thus if Zionist ideals were, as the American Zionists insisted, compatible with American values, a socialist Zionism was a contradiction in terms. As Cooper’s statement above suggests, a stereotypical view of the Jew as devotee of private property, reinforced this belief. It is within this perceptual context that in a 1923 speech Congressman Fish was able to describe the Zionist goal of a Jewish state in Palestine this way,
I see a vision that if such a state is created … there will be a great republic, built on democratic principles standing between the two great Mohammedan worlds—that of Africa and Asia—standing between those warlike races as a guarantee to the peace of the world. They will fashion their government after the ideals of ours and believe in our flag … because it represents freedom, liberty and justice and that is what we want to see eventually in Palestine.
If we ask ourselves how is it that in the midst of a period of anti-socialist/communist feeling sometimes approaching paranoia, so much American support could have been rendered to Zionism, part of the answer lay in the fact that its Palestine based socialist nature lay hidden from view. What Ben Gurion and his fellows were thinking and doing were masked by the capitalist oriented, patriotically postured American picture of the movement. And it was not just the American Zionists who created and maintained such an effective facade. The American press in its coverage of Palestine also reinforced the Americanized, Brandeis picture of Zionism.
The Role of the Press
Consider the New York Times, the American newspaper that covered Palestine in the most consistent and detailed fashion in the 1920s. Of the 452 articles published by the paper that decade dealing with Palestine, only twelve of them mention socialist activities in the Jewish community. Just as labor unrest in the U.S. was attributed to Bolshevik agents, these few pieces transformed socialist activity in Palestine as the work of similar troublemakers. Having infiltrated the Holy Land from Russia, these “Bolsheviki” were blamed for the Arab-Jewish riots of 1921 as well as antigovernment demonstrations in 1928. However, Americans refused to believe that the “Palestinian Reds” constituted the leadership of the Jewish labor movement. American Zionist leaders uniformly denied such a possibility. Typical of their position was a May 1926 letter to the New York Times from Emanuel Neumann, National Director of United Palestine Appeal, in which he explained, “It is not true that the labor organizations in Palestine are communistic. The Communists are a mere handful, for the most part paid Soviet agents and have not made any impression on the large number of organized workers,” Nonetheless, Sir John Chancellor, the British High Commissioner in Palestine at the end of the decade, thought it necessary to comment that the Jewish labor movement, particularly in its growing agricultural settlements, was mostly a set of “communal experiments … bound to rely on a continuous flow of funds from abroad to cover deficits.” This emphasis on socialist development in agriculture was being sponsored by Ben Gurion and funded by the WZO with, in part, American donations. Thus, Samuel Untermeyer, who headed Keren Hayesod, the American based Palestine Foundation Fund, initiated a three million dollar fund raising campaign in Philadelphia in May of 1922 by declaring in the New York Times that without the Fund’s campaign “the work of construction [of Jewish Palestine] would be seriously curtailed, if not destroyed. Many of the agricultural settlements would languish or go out of existence. Immigration would practically cease.” He did not elaborate on the fact that, as a student of the period has put it, “the goal of funding forms of agricultural employment that would be suitable for Jewish labor … cannot be separated from the socialist and Zionist ideology of the Jewish immigrants. As socialists they sought to create a Jewish working class in the new land, not another Jewish bourgeoisie.” Did American Zionist leaders, if not the individual donors, know the socialist nature of many of the projects they subsidized? There can be little doubt that they did. As Brandeis’ position testifies, the issue of such support was openly debated in the WZO and American Zionists took part in that debate.
However one would not have gotten a picture of this unlikely partnership of American money and socialist development from the press, and thus from the overall public image of Zionism in the United States. The prevailing image was rather one of a great experiment in “upbuilding” in which a land, found supposedly stagnant and unproductive, would under a capitalist form of Zionism “take its place among industrial nations.” The New York Times correspondent T. Walter Williams, who visited Palestine in 1921 wrote, “It is understood that the development of Palestine from now on will be carried out by private enterprise by practical men and there is a good future for the country under those conditions.” In such a way would Jerusalem be transformed into “a humming mart of modern trade.” Headlines such as “Palestine Industries Thriving, Capital and Settlers Needed” periodically appeared over articles printed by the New York Times, but often written by Zionist leaders such as Dr. Arthur Ruppin, head of the Zionist Department of Colonization in Palestine, who in 1922 told the paper’s readers:
There is room for capital and men in Palestine—more than that there is a demand. Take an instance which will appeal particularly to the American—namely real estate. The American has the reputation of being the best developer of land values in the world. In Palestine there is room for real estate experts. Land can be bought either to be developed into urban quarters or garden cities. In both cases investment will pay.
This was not a completely accurate picture. As early as 1901 the WZO had established the Jewish National Fund to acquire as much of the land of Palestine as possible and hold it in public trust as “the inalienable property of the Jewish people.” Thus the private ownership of land, which Ruppin seemed to be encouraging, was something strongly opposed by Weizmann and the WZO if only because it led to land speculation and thus drove up prices. Ruppin, of course, knew this. He was a high ranking official in the WZO and a staunch backer of the founding and subsidization of socialist agricultural communes. Essentially, the WZO leaders were adapting their message to the audience. Articles like Ruppin’s were designed to encourage a view of Zionism in Palestine that was compatible with American capitalist ideology.
Members of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) cooperated in this image building process by contributing their own articles to the press. For instance, Bernard Rosenblatt who was the American representative on the Palestine Zionist Executive, and so was fully aware of the nature of socialism in Jewish Palestine, wrote two articles for the New York Times in 1922. He described Zionist settlers as “the Jewish Puritans” and their colonies as “the Jamestown and the Plymouth of the new House of Israel.” The Zionists were “building the new Judea even as the Puritans built a new England.” They and their leaders were just like “Daniel Boone” and the “American settler” and like them had crossed an ocean “to face the dangers of Indian warfare.” Tel Aviv could “well be compared to one of our booming Western towns.” The image presented here was of Palestine being modeled not after the new Soviet Union butt after early America. Certainly Ben Gurion and his “labor army” of socialist workers would have been hard pressed to recognize this Americanized Palestine. Rosenblatt ended on a note not very different from that of Ruppin, “Now the Jews can purchase in the open market, at reasonable prices, all the lands necessary for their future development.”
The image building did indeed work. American Jews poured money into Keren Hayesod and other Zionist charities. At the same time some wealthy Americans, following Brandeis’ lead, privately and apart from WZO efforts, invested in Palestine creating and maintaining a small private sector within the otherwise officially sponsored socialist Jewish economy. Thus everyone, whether aware of the socialist line of evolution in Jewish Palestine or not, could come to believe and support the press image of “Jews Reclaiming Near East Desert” and “Holy Land Emerges from Stagnation.”
The Attitude of the U.S. State Department
While American Jews, politicians and the press saw what they wanted to see in Palestine, one would have expected a more accurate analysis from the U.S. State Department. And in fact the State Department did pay casual attention to the Zionist socialists. However, the Department (which American Jews have traditionally seen as an arch-enemy of Zionism prior to the establishment of the State of Israel) did little with the information they gathered and never used it to stigmatize or otherwise oppose the Zionists. Indeed, the consular reports on this subject were most often superficial and incomplete. The information they did gather was often ignored when it reached Washington.
The consulate in Jerusalem began its reporting on Palestine’s Zionist socialists in 1920. In a 5 May memorandum to the State Department the socialists in Palestine were divided into three groups of “comparably small number.” These were,
- “International Socialist Zionists” who were described as “intellectual socialists who wish to use their racial connections to promote Socialist organization.”
- “Bolshevist Zionists” who were “ultra radicals who find it impossible to pursue their ends within the other groups.”
- “Palestinian Zionists” who were socialists of “old Spanish-Jewish (Sephardic) origin, more familiar with Arabic, good Hebrew, and the ways of the orient.” This category did not constitute a separate group but “were scattered through the others” and “ambitious of control.”
This picture raises serious questions about the quality of State Department intelligence on this subject right after World War I. For instance, no mention was made of the various Jewish socialist political parties that had recently merged (in March 1919) into a single party (Adhut Ha’avodah) so as to better control the immigrant absorption process through the creation of its own economic enterprises. Nor did these early State Department reports ever get detailed enough to identify socialist activists by name.
By 1922, consular officials did draw the conclusion that if the number of “Bolshevik sympathizers” increased “there is bound to be a radical and perhaps undesirable change in the current reasonably placid methods of life in this country.” This was also the opinion of the Executive Committee of the Arab Palestine Congress, whose president Musa Kazim Husseini wrote a letter to the American Secretary of State dated 8 May 1921. In it he stated that “we have repeatedly notified the Governments of the Allies that the Jewish immigrants are introducing and spreading in Palestine the spirit and principles of Bolshevism, but unfortunately these notifications were not given due consideration.”
The Department of State took little note of either the Jerusalem consulate’s projections or Husseini’s letter. What they did remark on was the consular officials’ tendency to blame “Bolshevik sympathizers” for the troubles between Arabs and Jews. Here, at least, Department officials accurately observed that “there is a tendency to lay blame for the disturbances upon the Bolshevik sympathizers, known to be in Palestine among the Jewish colonies. The real cause, however, for unrest is the antagonism of the Arab population against Zionism and its aims.” While this conclusion was certainly insightful, what is significant here is that no concern was shown by Washington as to the activities of “Bolshevik sympathizers” within the Jewish economy,
By late 1923, the Jerusalem consulate identified “the Jewish cooperative labor association” (the Histadrut, which Ben Gurion and his party controlled) as “the most important economic organization in Palestine.” Yet while the “cooperative movement” (this term now tended to replace “Bolshevik”) would from now on be frequently referred to in the dispatches, its socialist nature was not analyzed or emphasized. Soon it would just be seen as a part of the economic landscape occupying “as important a place in the economical life of Palestine as does the privately owned industrial development.” There was no recognition that this movement was dominated by men who sought to emulate Soviet leaders like Lenin and Trotsky. And there was no recognition, either by the Jerusalem consulate or the State Department in Washington, that the WZO had made a strategic decision to acquiesce in and subsidize a socialist direction of economic development in Palestine.
Why did Zionist socialism prove so immune to American hypersensitivity to the socialist/communist phenomenon? Why was it largely ignored by the press and State Department, and treated as non-existent by U.S. politicians who otherwise ardently supported American Zionism? There are four likely reasons.
The first reason has to do with the fluidity of the situation in Palestine in the first decade of the British Mandate, and the official U.S. government attitude toward it. On the one hand, the British appeared firmly in control. On the other hand, the Jewish process of colonization was only beginning and the mix of forces contributing to that process did not appear clear to the superficial observer. In the 1920s, the position of the State Department as put forth by Allen Dulles, the head of the Near Eastern Division, was that the United States had only a few specific interests in Palestine among which were “philanthropic and commercial interests as well as capitulatory and other rights.” Zionist activity was not among these interests. The Zionists were just “a noisy group” with “sentimental appeal.” But in reality “the cold fact remains that the Jews in Palestine constitute about 10% of the population.” Palestine was clearly a British sphere of influence and it was the U.S. intention to “let alone the political and territorial phases” of the Palestine Mandate. If there were Bolsheviks among the Jewish 10%, the British could no doubt handle the situation. It is likely that this attitude, as it concerns the Zionist socialists in Palestine, was shared by the Congress and press.
The second reason has to do with the fact that American Zionists and the U.S. press consistently emphasized the capitalist aspects of the Palestine Jewish economy. The American Zionist and non-Zionist supporters of a Jewish Palestine did so because many of them had an ideological faith in the private sector’s ability to prevail and/or because they naturally chose not to emphasize those Zionist activities that would be alienating to Americans. The press did so because either its major sources of information were American Zionists or, when they had reporters on the scene, they displayed an a priori assumption of the long term superiority of private sector development.
The third reason has to do with the fact that socialism simply did not fit the stereotypical American image of the Jew in the 1920s. Oscar Handlin in an article entitled “American Views of the Jew at the Opening of the 20th Century,” tells us that the American view of the Jew prevailing into the 1920s was that of an entrepreneurial, money-making personality. It is quite possible that American politicians, as well as State Department personnel, could not imagine a Jewish movement like Zionism and its colonization of Palestine adopting a socialist model. As Senator Copper’s reaction detailed above suggests, such a picture was just too antithetical to the stereotype. Thus, what socialist or “Bolsheviki” activity was noted was interpreted as anomalies or temporary phenomena. This is perhaps also the reason why Jewish socialist organizations in the United States (Poale Zion had some 3,000 members in the New York City area) seemed not to have been singled out for anti-Semitic attack during the Red Scare years.
Finally, the fourth reason has to do with incomplete investigations of Zionism carried out by both the press and State Department. Knowledge of the internal debates and policy decisions within the WZO was poor. Unlike the ZOA, the WZO was not closely covered by the U.S. press. Nor was the WZO a focus for State Department intelligence after the war. Thus neither the public, nor it would seem the government, was aware of the alliance between the WZO and staunch Zionist socialists like Ben Gurion. Such ignorance, along with the other reasons given above, created the context that so easily allowed socialist activity in Palestine to be masked behind claims that Zionist ends were compatible with American values.
As is so often the case, perception and customary belief take reality and subject it to reformulation. As the long and painful road of Jewish colonization began in Palestine, Zionism was supported not only by American Jewry, but also by American politicians and the press. They did so because they believed Zionism in Palestine was compatible with American ideals and values. In truth, as conceived of by those Zionist elements increasingly dominant in Palestine, it was not. In the 1920s their model was the young Soviet Union, not the U.S. A.
But reality did not matter. It lay hidden behind a facade of American idealism projected onto Zionism by the American Zionist leaders and reinforced by stereotype and superficial press reporting. This facade was critical to the development of American support for the Zionist movement. Given the atmosphere of the 1920s, the truth would have been fatal. Thus from the Balfour Declaration onward, the American image of Zionism in Palestine provided a strong enough illusion of capitalism and American values to generate on-going U.S. support for what was in truth socialist development.