American Zionism Finds Its Voice

Reconciling American identity with support for a Jewish homeland

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.

Ameri­can Zionism became divided. In addition to Weiz­mann-Lipsky followers and Brandeis followers, there was Hadassah, which went its own, thoroughly inde­pendent way. Hadassah’s president from 1926 to 1928, Irma Levy Lindheim, utterly refused to coordinate the organization’s actions with those of Lipsky and the ZOA, which she considered a poorly run organization. Lipsky attacked Hadassah for its indepen­dence and Lindheim for her “unwomanly” behavior when she refused to cosign a bank loan for the United Palestine Appeal of the ZOA

WWII & After

As Hitler ascended to power, the stakes rose and cooperation among these disharmonious groups became crucial. Unable to influence American foreign policy to the extent of providing refuge for those fleeing the Holocaust, American Zionists nevertheless greatly in creased their constituency. In the face of Hitler’s atrocities, the Jewish community in the United States cam to see a national home as a necessity. Even those who had most opposed Zionism became supporters. The Biltmore Program, adopted in May of 1942, made Jewish control of Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel official Zionist policy.

In the years that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948, Zionist organizations became less necessary and, therefore, less powerful. With official recognition of the State of Israel by President Truman, American foreign policy was committed to the existence of the Jewish homeland. There was, however, still a place for American Jews in supporting the newly created nation. American Jews contributed large amounts of financial aid to help Israel defend self against its Arab neighbors and against the assaults of Palestinian terrorists–more than $150 million during the War of Independence in 1948 and more than $317.5 million during the Six-Day War in 1967.

In the 1970s and 1980s support for Israel became less fervent and more qualified. Idealists were disillu­sioned by what they perceived as Israel’s aggressive behavior toward Palestinians. Other American Zionists were angered by Israel’s refusal to accept Diaspora Jews as equals within Judaism. Still, American Zion­ism has been a crucial element in the creation and continuation of the Jewish state. The horrors of the Holocaust notwithstanding, the post-World War II commitment to Israel would have failed without the American Zionist movement. Support for Israel has remained strong ever since, both among the American Jewish community and as the official policy of the United States government.

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