At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Palestine emerged as an issue engaging the attention of world Jewry and the State Department. The rising interest in this eastern Mediterranean province of the Ottoman Empire resulted from the official establishment of the new political creed of Zionism in 1897 at Basle, Switzerland. The delegates, 204 Jews from fifteen countries, agreed that “Zionism aims at the creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine to be secured by public law” and to that end they would encourage emigration to Palestine. At the time, Arabs represented 95 percent of Palestine’s roughly half-million people and they owned 99 percent of the land.
That same year, 1897, the first Zionist Federation was established in the United States. It attracted few followers, either from the established Jewish community in America or among the hundreds of thousands of new Jewish immigrants flocking to east coast cities to escape East European anti-Semitism and pogroms. The settled and prosperous upper class Jews of German origin believed in social assimilation. Their social position and wealth proved to them that the American melting pot worked. The last thing they wanted was to embrace an ideology that advocated establishment of a foreign country specifically for Jews, thereby bringing into question their loyalty to the land that had brought them a comfortable and secure life.
By contrast, Zionism openly rejected assimilation and the whole melting pot metaphor. As explained by Theodore Herzl when he first formulated its purpose and aims in early 1896 in his seminal pamphlet Der Judenstaat: “We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted U.S.”
At its heart, this was the fundamental rationale of Zionism: a profound despair that anti-Semitism could not be eradicated as long as Jews lived among gentiles. Out of this dark vision came the belief that the only hope for the survival of the Jews lay in the founding of their own state.
Such stalwart leaders of the U.S. German-Jewish establishment as financier Jacob Schiff and Rabbi I.M. Wise instantly denounced Zionism. Wise pronounced: “Zion was a precious possession of the past…but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.” Schiff thought it was a “sentimental theory.” It came as no surprise, then, that uptown New York Jews founded in 1906 the American Jewish Committee (AJC). While not specifically formed to oppose Zionism, its establishment offered a different vision. It was an organization designed to assure that its kind of American Jews would be urbane, well educated and socially assimilated.
In this quest the elitists of AC would try to deal with the huge problems posed by the massive influx of often illiterate and isolated Eastern European Jews in a subtle and soft-spoken way. Its central strategy was to employ the medieval Jewish tradition of the shtadlan, the “court Jew” who served as adviser to goyim (non-Jewish) governments and powerful families. These were wealthy and talented Jews who had earned the trust of gentile masters and in turn could influence them on behalf of the Jewish community. This determinedly low profile approach was typified at the Jewish-owned New York Times, where Jewish-sounding bylines were disguised by substituting initials.
AJC depended on the social standing and influence of its well connected members to pursue its vision rather than on a mass membership. When one AJC officer was asked how many members the group had, he replied: “We don’t count AJC members…we weigh them.” Opposition to Zionism in America extended to Jewish socialists and workers, who disdained it as a form of bourgeois nationalism, while ultra orthodox religious groups considered Zionism “the most formidable enemy that has ever arisen among the Jewish people” because it sought to do God’s work through politics.” Not even the new immigrants streaming out of Eastern Europe were immediately attracted to Zionism, as was obvious from the fact that most of them chose to bypass Palestine in favor of going to the United States and other Western countries.
With the Jewish community so divided, the State Department dismissed Zionism as merely a minority political group and essentially an internal Jewish affair. But as Zionism gained ground in Europe in the first decade of the century, it also began attracting a select group of new converts in the United States. Though small in number, probably less than 20,000 of the 2.5 million Jewish community before World War I, the new Zionists began counting among their ranks lawyers, professors and businessmen. They were slowly becoming a group that Congressmen, particularly in the eastern cities, began to listen to, if not yet closely.
Still, up to World War I, American Zionism remained, in the words of a pro-Zionist wanted, “a small and feeble enterprise. It provided an outlet for some thousands…who met in their societies like votaries of some bizarre cult….The movement remained an ‘East Side affair,’ which meant that it had no money or influence or social prestige.”’
The State Department established a Near East Division in 1909. This was not because of an especially acute interest in Palestine and Zionism but because of America’s world-view at the time. The new division had as its bailiwick an enormous region that included Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire plus far-flung areas stretching from Persia to Abyssinia. Among such nations and the problems they posed for the United States, Palestine was not highly visible. If anything, it was becoming an annoyance. Rising Zionist demands for support of a Jewish nation were increasingly resented among U.S. diplomats, who saw such requests “as an illustration of the purely Hebraic and UN-American purposes for which our Jewish community seek to use this government,” in the words of one U.S. diplomats.
The State Department defined its chief function as protecting and promoting American interests abroad, not in endorsing or encouraging the efforts of a small group of Americans to help found another nation in a foreign land. In the eyes of the State Department, this would be interfering in another country without any obvious U.S. interest at stake and with a good chance of worsening relations. This was especially so with the Ottoman Empire, where relations were never easy and Zionist agitation against Ottoman rule in Palestine raised suspicions in Constantinople about broader U.S. policies and goals, complicating the State Department’s daily chores.
Nor did reports over the decades about the Jewish community in Palestine incline the State Department to encourage Jews to go there or to support their effort to do so. The Jews living in Palestine in the last half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century-about 25,000 among 500,000 Arabs-were generally poor, living in squalid, crowded city housing and dependent for their sustenance on donations from Jews living abroad. After small groups of Jews fleeing the Russian Pale of Settlement began arriving in the early 1880s, they tried setting up agricultural settlements but these often proved unsuccessful. A report on one settlement by the U.S. Consul in Jerusalem, Selah Merrill, who served in Palestine, with intervals away, between 1882 to 1907, said that in 1891 he found one of the largest settlements with “houses broken…and patched, windows were stuffed with rags, yards were covered with litter, outhouses and fences were neglected, crops were poorly cultivated and weeds were growing abundantly everywhere.”
Merrill’s conclusion was that “Palestine is not ready for the Jews. The Jews are not ready for Palestine.” He reported that conditions were so difficult in Palestine that at times as many Jews left as arrived.
Although Merrill regarded the Jews of Palestine with coolness, his reports were not unique. Other consuls and travelers reported on the harshness of life in Palestine, the filth and poverty of the cities and the destitution of the Jewish community. Moreover, from the State Department’s view, Palestine was foreign territory over which America had no control and in which there was already an indigenous population far surpassing in number and longevity of residence the Jews. Why create more problems with the Ottoman Empire than necessary?
Among all of its challenges around the globe, the State Department had little reason to devote much attention to Zionism or, when it did, to support Zionist goals. The aloof tone of the State Department’s attitude was illustrated in 1912 when the Zionist Literary Society sought a public endorsement from President William Howard Taft. Secretary of State Philander C. Knox turned it down by replying that “problems of Zionism involve certain matters primarily related to the interests of countries other than our own…and might lead to misconstructions.”
Paradoxically, that same year Zionism received its greatest boost in its short history in America, an event that was to become pivotal in the founding of Jewish state in Palestine. Louis Dembitz Brandeis, son of middle class immigrants from Prague, a brilliant attorney who had graduated at the top of his law class at Harvard, converted to Zionism. The date was August 1912. Brandeis was 56 years of age, a wealthy Bostonian, a political progressive, a tireless reformer and one of the most famous lawyers in the country, known as the People’s Attorney because of his successful litigation against the major financiers and industrialists. He was disliked heartily by the business establishment, including the wealthy Jewish communities of New York and Boston.
What made Brandeis’ conversion so surprising was that he was a nonobservant Jew who believed firmly in America’s melting pot and had grown up “free from Jewish contacts or traditions,” as he put it. It was not until he was in his fifties that Brandeis began paying attention to the Jewish experience. Rising anti-Semitism in America, exposure to Zionists and the new immigrants, and estrangement from the Brahmin society of Boston because of his espousal of populist causes all combined to sharpen his sense of ethnic kinship. Then in August 1912 Brandeis met Jacob de Haas, editor of the Boston Jewish Advocate and, a decade earlier, an aide to Zionism’s founder Theodore Herzl. Intrigued by de Haas’ tales of Herzl and the beginnings of Zionism, Brandeis hired de Haas to instruct him in Zionism over the 1912-13 winter.
Within two years, on 30 August 1914, Brandeis became head of the Provisional Executive for General Zionist Affairs, making him the leader of the Zionist Central Office, which had been moved from Berlin to neutral America just before the outbreak of World War I. At the time, Zionism in America was described by a historian of the movement as still “small and weak, in great financial distress, and low in morale. “To invigorate Zionism, the great man, as Brandeis was considered by many, especially among young law students, attracted to the movement a brilliant group of professionals, especially from the Harvard Law School.
With his conversion came changes in Brandeis’ idea about the American melting pot. He now embraced the “salad bowl,” a belief in cultural pluralism in which ethnic groups maintained their unique identity. Brandeis explained:
America…has always declared herself for equality of nationalities as well as for equality of individuals. America has believed that each race had something of peculiar value which it can contribute….America has always believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress.
As for the nagging question of dual loyalty, a central concern of many Jews and the gentiles’ supreme suspicion about Zionism, Brandeis insisted there was no conflict between being an American and a Zionist:
Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent…. Every American who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so….There is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry. The Jewish spirit, the product of our religion and experiences, is essentially modern and essentially American.
He linked Zionism with the early New England Puritans, declaring that “Zionism is the Pilgrim inspiration and impulse over again. The descendants of the Pilgrim fathers should not find it hard to understand and sympathize with it.” To Jewish audiences he said: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.”
Brandeis’ Zionism, clearly, was different from the passionate and messianic Zionism of Europe, driven as it was by pessimism about the enduring anti Semitism of the world against Jews. His was an ethnic philanthropic vision, a desire to help needy Jews set down in a kind of New England town in the Middle East-but with no intention of going to Palestine to live among them. This concept remained a central tenet of American Zionism and helps explain why through the years so few Jewish Americans have emigrated to Israel.
To European Zionists, it was a pale and anemic version of their life’s passion, “Zionism without Zion,” they grumbled. However, Brandeis would achieve what probably no other Zionist could have-exerting major influence in gaining the support of the United States for a Jewish state in Palestine. Brandeis accomplished this feat by using his friendship with President Woodrow Wilson to advocate the Zionist cause, and by serving as a conduit between British Zionists and the president. Wilson was a ready listener. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister and a daily reader of the Bible. Although not particularly interested in the political ramifications of Zionism, he shared the vague sentiment of a number of Christians at the time that there would be a certain biblical justice to have the Jews return to Palestine.
Wilson thought so highly of Brandeis that he appointed him to the Supreme Court on 28 January 1916, thereby enormously increasing Brandeis prestige and his influence in the White House. In turn, Brandeis resigned from all the numerous public and private clubs and organizations he belonged to, including, reluctantly, his leadership of American Zionism.
His resignation, however, did not mean Brandeis had deserted Zionism. Behind the scenes he continued to play an active role. At his Supreme Court chambers in Washington he received daily reports on Zionist activities from the New York headquarters and issued orders to his loyal lieutenants now heading American Zionism. When the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) was newly reorganized in 1918, Brandeis was listed as its “honorary president.” Through his lieutenants, he remained the power behind the throne.
In the same year as Brandeis ascended to the high court, David Lloyd George became prime minister of Great Britain and Arthur James Balfour foreign secretary. It was a change as advantageous for the Zionists in Britain as Brandeis’ appointment was in the United States. Both Lloyd George and Balfour favored Zionism though neither of them was Jewish. Balfour once had confided to Brandeis that “I am a Zionist,” while Welshman Lloyd George was a firm believer in the Old Testament’s claim to the right of the Jews to Palestine.
Both men shared a common concern for gaining U.S. entry into the war and support of Britain’s post-war goals in dividing up the Ottoman Empire, including the ambition of taking over Palestine as part of Britain’s security zone for protecting the Suez Canal, the lifeline to its colony in India. In this, they were advised by the British embassy in Washington that Britain could be helped in achieving U.S. backing by finding favor with Jewish Americans: “They are far better if organized than the Irish and far more formidable. We should be in a position to get into their good graces.”
Although that advice failed to reflect the rifts and competing power centers within the Jewish community, it was not as misleading as it might seem. There was emerging a growing consensus among Jews and other Americans in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, if not for Zionism as such, and thus a British declaration favoring such a homeland was certain to be popular among a sizable number of Americans. For instance, the Presbyterian General Assembly passed a resolution in 1916 favoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the American Federation of Labor endorsed the idea. These supporters in turn could be expected to add their influence for closer relations between London and Washington.
But there was a major problem. The State Department and its secretary, Robert Lansing, remained distinctly cool toward Zionism but not to the plight of Jews in general. Although the department was scrupulous in expending efforts to protect the rights of Jews in Palestine who were American citizens, it avoided all association with Zionists. Moreover, in the spring and summer of 1917, Lansing and his department were focused on trying to arrange a separate peace with Turkey. The thorny question of the post-war status of the empire’s various minorities was not high on their priority list.
Lansing was a proud, upright attorney from New York who had become an expert on international law before being appointed secretary of state by Wilson in June 1915. He had neither a close relationship with Wilson nor shared the confidence the president placed in Edward M. House, a reserve colonel from Texas who had no title or staff but wielded considerable influence as Wilson’s closest adviser.
At this point, the behind-the-scene actions of a Russian-born Jewish chemist living in Britain became pivotal. He was Chaim Weizmann, a persistent and persuasive leader of Zionism in Britain who later would become Israel’s first president. He was a tireless toiler for Zionism and enjoyed easy access to both Lloyd George and Balfour. Aware of their desire for U.S. support, Weizmann sought a backdoor past the State Department to the White House via Brandeis. On 8 April 1917, Weizmann cabled Brandeis, advising that “an expression of opinion coming from yourself and perhaps other gentlemen connected with the Government in favor of a Jewish Palestine under a British protectorate would greatly strengthen our hands.”
A month later, following America’s entry into World War I, Brandeis had a forty-five minute meeting with Wilson on the president’s views of Palestine. Afterwards, Brandeis was convinced that Wilson was “entirely sympathetic to the aims of the Zionist Movement” and favored a British protectorate in Palestine. However, he concluded Wilson did not want to make a public declaration because of the international complications such a statement would cause, not least of them the futile hope that Turkey still could be persuaded to quit the war.
Another attempt in mid-September by London to gain from Wilson support of a declaration backing the Zionist movement, this time of a specific draft statement endorsing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, similarly was rebuffed. Wilson ordered Colonel House to tell the British that “the time was not opportune for any definite statement further, perhaps, than one of sympathy, provided it can be made without conveying any real commitment.”
In desperation, Weizmann cabled Brandeis that it “would greatly help if President Wilson and yourself would support the text. Matter most urgent. Please telegraph.” 36 Brandeis was able to use his access to the White House to meet with Colonel House and together they assured Weizmann that from talks I have had with President and from expressions of opinion given to closest advisers I feel I can answer you in that he is [in] entire sympathy with declaration quoted in yours of nineteenth as approved by the foreign office and the Prime Minister. I of course heartily agree.
Weizmann felt more was needed to counteract anti-Zionist sentiment in Britain, where there was strong opposition to Zionism, particularly from the only Jew in the Lloyd George Cabinet, Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India. Montagu had weighed in with a strong anti-Zionist assessment by one of the greatest Arabists of the time, Gertrude Bell, a colleague of T.E. Lawrence and currently involved in British intelligence in Cairo. She wrote that
two considerations rule out the conception of an independent Jewish Palestine from practical politics. The first is that the province as we know it is not Jewish, and that neither Mohammedan nor Arab would accept Jewish authority; the second that the capital, Jerusalem, is equally sacred to three faiths, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, and should never, if it can be avoided, be put under the exclusive control of any one location, no matter how carefully the rights of the other two may be safe guardedly.
To appease the anti-Zionists, the British Cabinet drafted a revised declaration. It specifically addressed Montagu’s concerti about non-Zionist Jews living outside of Palestine by adding a final clause that said the establishment of a Jewish national home would not prejudice the “rights and political status enjoyed in any other country by such Jews who are fully contented with their existing national.
Once again, Weizmann turned to Brandeis to help get Wilson’s endorsement of the new text. In a long letter on 7 October, Weizmann wrote that “I have no doubt that the amended text of the declaration will be again submitted to the President and it would be most invaluable if the President would accept it without reservation and would recommend the granting of the declaration now.[Italics in original.]
When the British Foreign Office sent the draft to Wilson at about the same time, he turned it over to Brandeis for his comments. The Justice and his aides redrafted it in slightly stronger and cleaner language, substituting “the Jewish people “for the Jewish race”-thereby muting the vexing question of who’s a-Jew-and making the final clause read that there would be no prejudice to the “rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country,” thus assuaging the concern of assimilated Jews about dual loyalty.
Colonel House sent the revision onto Wilson, but, in the midst of world war, he felt no urgency about the matter. It was not until 13 October that he sent a memo to House saying: I find in my pocket the memorandum you gave me about the Zionist Movement. I am afraid I did not say to you that I concurred in the formula suggested by the other side [Britain]. I do, and would be obliged if you would let them know it.
Thus, in the most off-handed way possible, Wilson lent the enormous weight of the United States to supporting the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in Palestine. He did this without informing Lansing or seeking the advice of the State Department, a snub they were not soon to forget. Although Wilson declined at the time actually to make a public endorsement, his private agreement provided Lloyd George the backing in the cabinet that he needed to issue a declaration. Wilson’s seemingly casual action was to have a profound effect on Middle East history and on the daily lives of Palestinians.
Its immediate result came on 2 November 1917, when Britain issued the fateful statement that was to become known as the Balfour Declaration. It came in the form of a personal letter from Foreign Secretary Balfour to a prominent British Jew, Lionel Walter, the second Lord of Rothschild:
Foreign Office, November 2nd, 1917 Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
Arabs and anti-Zionists could not help noting the totally pro-Zionist content of the declaration. It failed to mention Christians or Muslims, Arabs or Palestinians, even though they remained by far the majority population in Palestine. At the time, there were about 55,000 Jews and nearly 600,000 Palestinians in Palestine. Yet, the Balfour Declaration spoke of a Jewish homeland, which was widely understood to mean a Jewish state, although many Zionists continued to deny that was their goal. Also, it pledged actively to help Jews while merely promising to protect the rights of “the non-Jewish communities.”
Lansing and the State Department had been humiliated by being bypassed. Insult was added when Wilson waited until 14 December to inform his secretary of state of his support of the Balfour Declaration. The occasion was prompted by a letter Lansing had sent the day before to Wilson reporting that there was mounting pressure from Zionists for the United States to issue its own declaration supporting a Jewish homeland. Lansing included a detailed analysis of the issue:
My judgment is that we should go very slowly in announcing a policy for three reasons. First, we are not at war with Turkey and therefore should avoid any appearance of favoring taking territory from that Empire by force. Second, the Jews are by no means a unit in the desire to reestablish their race as an independent people; to favor one or the other faction would seem to be unwise. Third, many Christian sects and individuals would undoubtedly resent turning the Holy Land over to the absolute control of the race credited with the death of Christ.
For practical purposes, I do not think that we need go further than the first reason given since that is ample ground for declining to announce a policy in regard to the final disposition of Palestine.
The next day Wilson handed back to Lansing his letter. Lansing filed it with a note: “The President returned me this letter at Cabinet Meeting. December 14, 1917, saying that very unwillingly he was forced to agree with me, but said that he had an impression that we had assented to the British declaration regarding returning Palestine to the Jews.”
Nonetheless, Wilson continued to refuse to make a public endorsement of the Balfour Declaration, with the result that Lansing continued to act as though the president’s private support had no weight. On 28 February 1918, Lansing wrote to Wilson opposing a request by the Zionists to be issued passports to take part in a Zionist commission sponsored by Britain to tour Palestine. In his letter, Lansing wrote that the United States never had accepted the Balfour Declaration and should not sponsor an organization with distinctly political goals. Wilson agreed with his secretary of state.
By this time Wilson was being hailed among Jews around the world as a lover of Zion on the basis of leaks about his private support of the Balfour Declaration. But, in fact, pro-Zionism was not official U.S. policy nor had Wilson yet uttered a single public word of support. It was only after a personal meeting with crusading Zionist Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in August 1918 that Wilson finally took the plunge, albeit in a very circumspect way. It was in the form of a Jewish New Year’s greeting to the Jews praising the work of a Zionist commission currently investigating conditions in Palestine.
I have watched with deep and sincere interest the reconstructive work which the Weizmann Commission has done in Palestine at the instance of the British Government, and I welcome an opportunity to express the satisfaction I have felt in the progress of the Zionist Movement in the United States and in the Allied countries since the declaration by Mr. Balfour on behalf of the British Government, of Great Britain’s approval of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and his promise that the British Government would use its best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of that object, with the understanding that nothing would be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish people in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in other countries.
While Zionists exultantly hailed this letter as America’s commitment to the Balfour Declaration, the State Department denied that it expressed official policy. The department had not taken part in its drafting and therefore in its view the letter was little more than an expression of Wilson’s personal sentiments. As diplomatic historian Frank E. Manual observed: “[Such presidential letters] have a peculiar status in American foreign policy. They are expressions of [presidential] attitude, and the degree to which they may be formal commitments of any sort, especially when they do not pass through the State Department, remains dubious.”
As late as 26 May 1922, the head of the Near East Division, Allan W. Dulles, later to become one of America’s spymasters, wrote: “Ex-President Wilson is understood to have favored the Balfour Declaration, but I do not know that he ever committed himself to it in an official and public way.”
Such divisions and confusion between the State Department and the White House and Congress as well were to remain a distinct feature of U.S. policy toward Palestine. While the politicians over the decades were quick to issue vague letters and declarations of support for various Zionist enterprises, the experts of the State Department resisted change and clung to a strict interpretation of policy. The resulting confusion more often then not left all sides in doubt about what U.S. policy at any one time actually was.
The final achievement of Brandeis and American Zionism in the post-war period was the passage by Congress on 11 September 1922 of a joint resolution favoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The words of the resolution practically echoed the Balfour Declaration.
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of tile United States of America in Congress assembled That the United States of America favors the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of Christian and all other non-Jewish communities in Palestine, and that the Holy places and religious buildings and sites in Palestine shall be adequately protected.
The Zionists loudly trumpeted the resolution as another Balfour Declaration, evidence that their quest had official support. After all, it had been sponsored by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Representative Hamilton Fish and signed by President Warren G. Harding. However, during the debate leading up to passage of the resolution, a number of speakers had emphasized that it was merely an expression of sympathy by the Congress and that the resolution in no way would involve the United States in foreign entanglements. This was the interpretation adopted by the State Department. Like Wilson’s 1918 letter endorsing Balfour, the department simply ignored it. When an Italian diplomat directly asked a State Department officer whether the resolution represented the official policy of the United States Government, the diplomat merely smiled.
Passage of the congressional resolution was the height of Brandeis’ brand of American Zionism, and also the end of its heroic period. Under Brandeis the Zionist membership had burgeoned tenfold, reaching around 200,000 after the heralded victory of the Balfour Declaration. The momentum of that historic event carried over into the halls of Congress and resulted in the joint resolution. But a year before the resolution became a reality, Brandeis himself was swept from power in Zionist councils in a showdown with Weizmann. Brandeis’ tepid form of Zionism was simply too emotionless and sterile for the crusader from Pinsk. the Russian town Weizmann called his birthplace. In a final confrontation in the spring of 1921, Weizmann declared: “There is no bridge between Washington and Pinsk.”
Under Weizmann’s assault, Brandeis’s leadership was repudiated by the American Zionist Organization at its 24th convention in Cleveland in June 1921. Brandeis quit the movement, taking with him some of his most brilliant lieutenants, among them his protégé Felix Frankfurter, who was to become a justice on the Supreme Court. Brandeis’ participation in the internecine politics of Zionism was at an end, although not his avid interest in the goals of Zionism. He remained committed to a Jewish home in Palestine until his death at age 84 in 1941.
The blow to American Zionism caused by Brandeis’ ouster was devastating. By 1929, there were no more than 18,000 members left in the ZOA. It was not until the rise of Hitler and then the horrific stories of his “final solution,” which began leaking out of occupied Europe in the early 1940s, that American Zionism again became a potent force, this time far stronger and more influential than Brandeis-much less the experts at the State Department-ever could have envisioned.
Zionists were quick to impute anti-Semitism to explain the enduring opposition to Zionism by the State Department and succeeding secretaries of state, both Democratic and Republican, during the first half of the twentieth century. While no doubt some American diplomats reflected a distrust of Jews prevalent among the genteel society of the time and some few even might have harbored anti-Semitic emotions, the department’s attitude was grounded in rational geopolitical reasons beyond racism.
Foremost, the State Department believed it had no business supporting the narrow political platform of a small sect that sought foreign territory. In effect, the Zionists were pursuing their own foreign policy. To take two major examples: It was not in U.S. interests to anger Constantinople during the war years when Washington was seeking a separate peace with Turkey. Nor, as the economic importance of oil grew, was it in Washington’s interests to anger the Arabs. Yet, the Zionists not only pressed ahead with their program to establish a Jewish state in Palestine but they repeatedly sought to pressure through flattery or threat the president, the Congress and the State Department to support them.
There was also the question of Americans sending money overseas to aid a foreign project. As State Department lawyers observed: “It requires little discussion” that the proper function of government does not include “encouraging its nationals to deplete the national wealth by contributions of funds or investment funds in foreign countries.” Implicit in this observation was the troubling question of dual loyalty.
Clustered with the issue of dual loyalty was the romance of the American melting pot. As the Civil War brutally had proved, the majority of Americans believed their nation was indivisible and should share a common cultural milieu. Religious diversity was a right, but ethnic exclusivism was widely perceived as a threat to the common fabric holding together a nation of immigrants. The Zionists’ desertion of the melting pot for a salad bowl of ethnic groups was an affront to many Americans, including the traditionalists who guided the State Department.
Finally, there were the troubling facts about Palestine. The Arabs were the majority community, and had been for well over a millennium. Palestinians were a recognizable separate people with their own institutions, traditions and cultural uniqueness. Yet, Zionists were proposing not only to deny Arabs their Wilsonian right of self-determination-a cherished U.S. ideal-but to displace them as the major ethnic group. It was clear to nearly all observers that this could happen only by force, yet it was equally obvious that war and instability in the region were not in America’s interests.
It was from these analyses that the State Department’s coolness to Zionism derived. Policymakers were not necessarily anti-Semites, as Zionists charged, just because they believed support of Zionism was not in U.S. interests. Nonetheless, the Zionists were not mistaken in feeling a resentment and even hostility against them in the State Department.
Simply in terms of human relations, shorn of all questions of anti-Semitism, the department had ample reason to distrust the Zionists. The success of Brandeis and the Zionists in gaining the ear of the president and the Congress for projects opposed by the department was at best irritating. The diplomats did not consider it gentlemanly or fair for the Zionists to go behind their back and manipulate vote conscious political leaders. As in the case of Wilson’s support of the Balfour Declaration, this often occurred without the department even knowing what was going on until after it had already happened. Such tactics raised the ire of the proud diplomats, who perceived the Zionists as meddling in their elitist preserve, which of course it was.
Probably no tactic employed by the Zionists caused greater resentment than their efforts directly to intimidate the State Department and its staff. One such effort serves to demonstrate the Zionist technique. It was a highly effective tactic, and continues to be, and it goes far in explaining why the professionals at the State Department and successive secretaries of state harbored various degrees of animosity towards the Zionists.
The case involved an urbane and highly successful diplomat, Hugh Gibson. At the age of 36 in 1919 he was the newly installed ambassador to Poland, or to use the grandiose title of the day, the envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. Post-war Poland was home to one of the largest and least assimilated Jewish communities in Europe and their troubles were trumpeted by the Zionists as an example of ruthless anti-Semitism. In fact, anti-Semitic incidents were common, but not as common in Gibson’s view as claimed by American Zionists. To his mother he wrote: “These yarns are exclusively of foreign manufacture for anti-Polish purposes.”
Gibson’s skeptical reports to the State Department about the troubles of Polish Jews came to the attention of Brandeis. On 24 June 1919, Gibson was called by Colonel House to a meeting with the fabled justice and his protégé, Felix Frankfurter. Gibson not only was at a disadvantage because of Brandeis exalted status but also because his appointment as ambassador to Poland had yet to be confirmed by the Senate.
In Gibson’s words, the two Zionists opened what the young diplomat later called the “prosecution” by saying that
I had done more mischief to the Jewish race than anyone who had lived in the last century. They said…that my reports on the Jewish question had gone around the world and had undone their work….They finally said that I had stated that the stories of excesses against the Jews were exaggerated, to which I replied that they certainly were and I should think any Jew would be glad to know it.
Frankfurter claimed that Gibson “had no right to make reports to the department in regard to Jewish matters and should have ‘refused’ on the ground that I could not possibly learn enough about them to make even general observations.” Frankfurter then hinted that if Gibson continued his reports that Zionists would block his confirmation as ambassador to Poland by the Senate.
Gibson was so furious by the confrontation that he wrote a twenty-one page letter about it to his friends in the State Department, including Frankfurter’s claim that Gibson should not report on Jews. Nothing is more disconcerting or insulting to a diplomat than to have his reporting questioned, much less to be advised that he had no “right” to report on certain matters. Reporting is the secret heart of the diplomat’s art, a talent especially valued in Washington where officials in those pre-television days depended on it as their window to the world beyond.
Frankfurter could hardly have raised a more sensitive question or one more certain to raise the hackles of diplomats. Gibson went further in his letter than just describe his encounter. He also shared his suspicions of what the Zionists were trying to accomplish-a conscienceless and cold-blooded plan to make the condition of the Jews in Poland so bad that they must turn to Zionism for relief.” The State Department in those days was a far more closed and clubby establishment of upper class scions than after 1945. This attack on one of its own was highly resented. A rising star of the foreign service had been humiliated and threatened by a justice of the Supreme Court acting as a spokesperson for a narrow Jewish group not even accepted by most Jews. Rancor was particularly strong in the Warsaw embassy, where it lingered for years. In 1923, Vice Consul Monroe H. Kline reported: “It is common knowledge that this race of people [Jews] are continually and constantly spreading propaganda, through their agencies over the entire world, of political and religious persecution.” He added: “The Jew in business oppresses the Pole to a far greater extent than does the Pole oppress the Jew in a political way.”
One of the consequences of the Gibson case, and similar if less dramatic ones over the years, was that Zionism would have few good friends, high in the State Department until Henry A. Kissinger became Secretary of State in 1973. As for Gibson, he went on to serve honorably as an ambassador in various posts until his retirement on the eve of World War II. Despite his early promise, however, he never became one of the department’s principal officers.
American Zionism awakened from its long slumber in 1935 with Stephen S. Wise’s assumption of the leadership of the Zionist Organization of America. An immigrant from a notable family in Budapest, Wise was a tireless reformer, a crusading liberal and a rabbi well respected among Christians. In his youth he had met Theodore Herzl and been inspired by his vision. But when Brandeis left the Zionist organization in 1921 Wise was one of the brainy members who went with him. Wise’s return to organized Zionism marked a period where American Zionism again began regaining respect and influence, although most of America’s four million Jews still rejected the political creed. Wise was very much in the Brandeis mode in terms of quietly promoting the cause with influential political leaders. In this he was highly successful because he enjoyed the friendship President Franklin D. Roosevelt and, like Brandeis before him, had easy entree into the White House.
The State Department in the pre-war years remained opposed to Zionism, although Roosevelt himself was a supporter for most of his presidency until his ideas changed toward the end. Roosevelt actively encouraged the British to remain committed to the Balfour Declaration and not to cut back on Jewish immigration into Palestine. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he even considered a plan to place all of Palestine under Jewish control and move the entire Palestinian population to Iraq. In a February 1940 meeting with Weizmann, Roosevelt reportedly said to the world leader of Zionism: “What about the Arabs? Can’t that be settled with a little baksheesh?” Weizmann took his meaning to be that the Palestinians should be paid off as an incentive to leave the land.
At about the same time, a voice harsher than Wise’s began to be heard in American Zionism. It was Abba Hillel Silver, a former protégé of Wise, who began speaking out in uncompromising words demanding Jewish rights. In 1940 he declared a “maximalist” Zionist position: “We’ll force the President to swallow our demands! The gentle, patient and personal diplomatic approach of yesterday is not entirely adequate for our days.” He also advised: “Put not your faith in princes.” It was a tone usually missing from the rhetoric of American Zionists and it soon caught attention, propelling Silver into the national realm of Zionist politics.
Silver was an aggressive and pugnacious native of Lithuania who arrived in America at age nine, son of a rabbi and a future rabbi himself in the prestigious Congregation Tifereth Israel in Cleveland. He was a fierce foe of assimilation and, in fact, preached the opposite creed-to be “more” Jewish rather than less: “We are going to respond to every attack upon our people, to every libel and every slander, by more Jewishness, by more schools and synagogues and by more intensive and loyal work in Palestine.”
While Silver’s stirring oratory and defiant ways brought Zionism great victories, it left him largely unloved even among his followers. Roosevelt did not like him and Truman despised him so much that he barred him and all Zionists from the White House. As Nahum Goldmann, one of world Zionism’s leaders, said: “He was an Old Testament Jew who never forgave or forgot….He could be extremely ruthless in a fight, and there was something of the terrorist in his manner and bearing.” Silver’s belligerent, in-your-face Jewishness strongly contributed to the emergence of Zionism’s “loud diplomacy” that has since marked the ugly.
The cheering delegates gave Silver a standing ovation, broke into the Zionist anthem of atikvah and endorsed the Biltmore Declaration by a vote of 480 to 4 with others abstaining Silver emerged the hero of the meeting and a power in American Zionism challenging the dominance that only Wise had enjoyed in recent years. When Wise encountered Silver in a corridor, he pleaded: “Rabbi Silver, I am an old man, and have had my moment in the sun. You are a young man, and will have your proper share of fame. It is not necessary for you to attack me.” Silver walked away without a word.
While Silver was not loved and “rarely recognized peers,” in the words of one of his employees, he was considerate of his staff and a superb organizer, as the emerging Jewish lobby proved. Silver’s spurt in prominence brought him to the co-chairmanship with Wise of the American Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs (AECZA), an umbrella group representing the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah and two smaller groups representing religious and labor Zionists. Silver immediately became the dominating force, changed AECZA to AZEC, the American Zionist Emergency Council, and energetically embarked on what his public relations aide Si Kenen called without exaggeration “a political and public relations offensive to capture the support of congressmen, clergy, editors, professor, business and labor.”
In the process he created the modern Israeli lobby, the most pervasive and powerful special interest group in foreign affairs in the United States. AZEC’s budget soared from $100,000 to $500,000 and activists were instructed that “the first task is to make direct contact with your local Congressman or Senator.” Others were targeted too: union members, wives and parents of servicemen, Jewish war veterans. Form letters were provided so local activists could commend, or condemn, newspaper articles and editorials. Schedules of anti-Zionist lecture tours were provided so the events could be picketed or otherwise opposed.
Zionist action groups were organized at the grassroots with more than 400 local committees under seventy-six state and regional branches. These volunteers carried out the local campaigns and even funded groups to visit Washington where they met with Congressmen. When called on, they flooded with letters the White House and State Department. Millions of leaflets and pamphlets poured out of the Zionist offices. Books, articles and academic studies, often by non-Jews, were funded by the AZEC, including Walter Clay Lowdermilk’s Palestine, Land of Promise, which became a bestseller in 1944. Massive petition and letter-writing campaigns were undertaken. One such petition, supporting the Baltimore Declaration, was signed by more than 150 college presidents and deans and 1,800 faculty members from 250 colleges and universities in forty-five states.
Christian support was actively enlisted. The American Palestine Committee, an elitist Protestant group, was revived with secret Zionist funds, eventually reaching $150,000 in 1946. “In every community an American Christian Palestine Committee must be immediately organized,” ordered Silver’s headquarters. Another group, the Christian Council on Palestine, was formed among clergymen. It grew to 3,000 members by the end of the war. The aim of both groups was to “crystallize the sympathy of Christian America for our cause,” in the words of an internal AZEC memo. How completely they were controlled by the Zionists became clear when the Christians felt it necessary to complain that AZEC was making statements in their names without prior consultation.
The support of American labor also was enlisted through the founding of the American Jewish Trade Union Committee for Palestine. Its honorary chairmen were the heads of the CIO and AFL and the vice chairmen numbered nearly every important labor leader in America. The chairman was Max Zaritsky, president of the Hatters Union, who later would testify before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs: “American organized labor-twelve million strong-unreservedly and unequivocally supports the aspiration of the Jewish people for the establishment of their homeland in Palestine.”
Newspaper ads were taken out to support the cause, massive demonstrations held-including at New York’s Madison Square Garden-and even pageants produced. Playwright Ben Hecht, a radical Zionist who thought Silver too moderate, wrote a 1943 hit called We Will Never Die. He enlisted Billy Rose to produce, Moss Hart to direct and Kurt Weill to do the music and such stars as Edward Robinson and Paul Muni to act in it as well as a young upcoming actor, Marion Brando. The play toured the country, drawing in big crowds; in Washington Eleanor Roosevelt and most of the Supreme Court justices attended. Such activity was not exclusively the work of Silver and his AZEC group but all of it was motivated by the broad spectrum of American Jewry supporting a homeland. Membership in major Zionist groups soared, more than doubling to 400,000 by 1945. The results of their efforts were impressive. By 1944 more than 3,000 non-Jewish organizations ranging from the Elks to the Grange passed pro-Zionist petitions and backed them up with petitions and letters to Washington. Such distinguished Protestant theologians as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr actively supported the Zionists. Statements of support came from 411 of the 535 members of the Senate and House.
In 1944, for the first time, both political parties had planks endorsing a commonwealth in Palestine. The Republicans called for unlimited Jewish immigration and the establishment of “a free and democratic commonwealth” while the Democrats were more specific and mentioned a “Jewish commonwealth.”
Zionism, fueled by the horrors of the holocaust against European Jews, had come of age in American domestic politics. Yet this development appears to have had little impact on President Roosevelt’s ideas about Palestine and the Jews. It was the broader strategic realities that captured his attention. As the war years went by and the support of the Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia and its oil, became more important, Roosevelt’s concern about the negative geopolitical implications of Zionism grew. By 1943 he appears to have deserted the Zionist platform in favor of a scheme by which the holy land would be controlled jointly by Arabs, Christians and Jews. A report to the State Department from Colonel Harold B. Hoskins, a presidential agent who served as Roosevelt’s private adviser and intelligence gatherer on the Middle East, said Roosevelt told him:
This concept to be successful would, he realized, have to be presented as a solution larger and more inclusive than the establishment of an Arab state or of a Jewish state. He realized that this idea, of course, required further thought and needed to be worked out in greater detail, but at least that was the line along which his mind was running.
That same year Roosevelt privately assured Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations that the United States would not act on Palestine’s future without consulting with both Arabs and Jews. These assurances were not leaked by any of the Arab countries or Washington. It was not until after Roosevelt’s meeting with Saudi King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud on 14 February 1945 in the middle of the Suez Canal aboard a U.S. warship, the cruiser Quincy, that he repeated his promise of prior consultation. He officially put it in writing in a letter to his “great and good friend” the king on 5 April 1945:
Your majesty will recall that on previous occasions I communicated to you the attitude of the American Government toward Palestine and made clear our desire that no decision be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews. Your Majesty will also doubtless recall that during our recent conversation I assured you that I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people.
The letter was made public six months later by the State Department at the urging of Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately for anyone trying to make sense of U.S. policy on Palestine, only the month before, on 16 March, Roosevelt had bowed to Zionist complaints about his meeting with Ibn Saud and authorized Rabbi Wise to issue a public statement that the president continued to believe in both unlimited Jewish immigration and establishment of a Jewish state. Now, with Roosevelt’s pledge to Ibn Saud, the State Department was left trying to reconcile Roosevelt’s contradictory pledges. An internal State Department memorandum written on 6 April, the day after Roosevelt’s letter to Ibn Saud, laid out the problem:
We secured the President’s approval to a message to our Near Eastern posts explaining that while the President did authorize Rabbi Wise to make this statement, it referred only to possible action at some future date and that the President of course had in mind his pledges to the Arabs that they as well as the Jew would be consulted. This reply will probably not satisfy the Arabs, but it seemed to be the only constructive course of action open to us. In our opinion the situation is so serious. and the adverse effect upon our long-term position in the Near East so likely, that we should reconsider the entire position, adopt a definite policy on Palestine, and obtain the President’s concurrence, with the hope of averting any future misunderstandings as to what our policy actually is…Of course, if we were actually to implement the policy which the Zionists desire, the results would be disastrous.
The memorandum reflected a pattern of conciliation by an anxious bureaucracy trying to wed presidential political statements to statecraft and American interests. For the diplomats this was an essentially hopeless effort, because the reality was that presidents did not understand the true dimensions of the Palestinian question and, moreover, were blinded to it by the lures of domestic politics. They treated the Zionist dream at best as a ticket to election and in some cases overladen, as with Wilson, with a Christian sympathy for the Jewish association with the holy land. They failed to understand the enormous complexities of Zionism’s international ramifications, and certainly none of them understood or sympathized with the unique predicament of the Palestinians.
Despite his sophistication, Roosevelt, like the presidents before and after him, suffered this myopia. For Roosevelt, his eyes were opened to Arab concerns during his meeting with Ibn Saud. It was the first meeting between a U.S. president and an Arab leader, and it shed a new light onto the issue.
Roosevelt came away from the session deeply impressed by the profound hostility of the Arabs to Zionism and the certain belief that a Jewish state could not be founded without force. On the way home, Roosevelt confided to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius that he “must have a conference with Congressional leaders and re-examine our entire policy in Palestine.” In an address to Congress, he said that “I learned more about that whole problem, the Muslim problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” He summoned Judge Joseph Proskauer of the American Jewish Committee and told him to try to dampen Jewish hopes for a homeland because such an effort would certainly lead to war or a pogrom. In the circumstances, he added, a Jewish homeland was absolutely impossible at the present time.
On the last day of his life, l2 April 1945, Roosevelt sent telegrams to both Iraq and Syria repeating his pledge about consultation. A similar message was sent by the secretary of state to Lebanon. Three hours after his last telegram was cabled, Roosevelt was dead at age 63.
Now the vice president, Harry S. Truman, not only would inherit the presidency but also the attention of a Zionist lobby determined to marshal all of its vast resources and energies to secure a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
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