Jewish Immigration from Eastern Europe

Mass Jewish immigration to the New World.

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Jewish Choices

Economic pressures, opportunities for social promotion, the cult of liberty and individualism--all these contributed to the disintegration of Orthodox Jewry. How, for example, could one join the American race for succe­ss while observing the Sabbath? Nevertheless, Reform Judaism, although it remained dominant, did not encompass the entire American community. Rivalry between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism was a major contribution to the emergence of a religious pluralism unique to American Jewry.

All these ideological movements, social tensions, religious currents, institutions, and organizations, however, did not prevent the development of solidarity and a strong group consciousness among American Jews. Charitable organizations constituted a pivotal axis for identification with the entire community. Between 1895 and 1920 many of these bodies formed large "federations" which eventually became the most influential factors in community consolidation, as well as a symbol of Jewish continuity.

Problems Abroad & At Home

The avalanche of disasters that befell East European Jewry during World War I and its aftermath precipitated this development of American Jewish charitable organizations. The principal Jewish aid organization, "the Joint" (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), established in November 1914, organized large-scale financial, medical, and social relief for their Jewish brethren in Europe, whereas the American Jewish Committee, the oldest Jewish defense organization in the U.S., afraid of being accused of dual loyalty, was content to practice a policy of discrete diplomacy.

The same postwar period witnessed the growth of the American Zionist movement which was developing a spirit entirely different from the radical brand of European Zionism. Led from August 1914 by Louis D. Brandeis, it combined Zionist allegiance with respect for American pluralism and for the democratic and progressive ideals of American culture at large.

Anti-Semitism began rearing its ugly head in America in the 1890s. The well‑established white Christian community despised the masses of poor immigrants who flocked to the United States, including the East European Jews, and regarded them as a threat to the American way of life and mode of government. The success of the German Jews, on the other hand, aroused envy and antagonism. A prolonged propaganda campaign with strong anti-semitic undertones led to the 1921‑1924 legislation that drastically limited immigration and revealed an explicit preference for the "Nordic race."

Yet the fundamental characteristics of American society were too strong to permit the arrest of integration, and Jews continued to advance in every field. Bankers, scholars, judges, artists, and writers continued risingto prominence and making their impact on American life.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University