American Zionism Finds Its Voice

Reconciling American identity with support for a Jewish homeland

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Reprinted with permission from the
American Jewish Desk Reference
(The Philip Lief Group).

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, a very old dream became new again in the hearts of the world’s Jews. The yearning for a national home in the ancient homeland of Palestine acquired a name–Zionism. In the United States, however, emotion were mixed. 

Many German Jews had lived for three or four generations in the New World. They wanted to be seen as Americans, with the rights and loyalties of Americans. They did not experience in this country the deep and abiding hatred that Jews of the Diaspora lived with in Europe. In fact, they often thought of the United States as a new Zion.

american zionismEven many Orthodox and Conservative Jews rejected the idea that redemption lay in regaining Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], and members of the Reform movement were adamant in their opposition to Zionism. For most Jews of the time, being a Zionist and being an American were fundamentally incom­patible. The Federation of American Zionists, the largest Zionist coalition in the United States, had a membership of only 12,000 out of a Jewish population of two and one-half million in the years leading up to World War I.

New Leadership

This situation began to change when Louis Bran­deis assumed leadership of the American Zionist movement during the war. A coalition of groups formed the Provisional Executive Committee for Gen­eral Zionist Affairs, otherwise known as the PEC, with Brandeis as chair. He proceeded to declare that a Jew could be loyal to both America and Zionism and that, indeed, the two were simply different expressions of the same basic values. He also propounded a new view of America in which the goal of assimilation was replaced by one of maintaining cultural heritage within a larger unity. Brandeis’s influence went far in persuad­ing Woodrow Wilson to support a Jewish homeland and pressure the British government into making the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

By making Zionism acceptable to Americans, Brandeis had made it too bland for European Jews who fiercely opposed his secular vision. To them, the national home was not to be simply a refuge for perse­cuted people, but a distinctly Jewish homeland. In 1921, the European view won the day at the World Zionist organization convention under the leadership of Chaim Weizmann and the American Louis Lipsky, head of the Zionist Organization of America.

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