‘Where Do You Stand?’: A 1943 Yom Kippur sermon challenged the American Jewish community on Zionism

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Seventy years ago this Yom Kippur, one of the most prominent and outspoken American rabbis of his generation gave what may have been the most poignant and far-seeing High Holy Day sermons to speak directly to what some authors have called “the Jewish century.”  Irving Reichert (1895 – 1968), the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of San Francisco from 1930 to 1947 and a leading personality of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, prophetically warned that answering the fundamental question posed by Zionism – “what shall be the status of the Jew in the postwar world?” – would indeed have grave consequences for his audience and their children and their children’s children.

The sermon was a direct response to the “American Jewish Conference” held in late August 1943, convened by the American Zionist Emergency Council, direct ancestor of AIPAC.  This momentous conference represented nothing less than the birth of what Peter Beinart labeled “the American Jewish establishment” and often less precisely and expansively referred to as the Israel lobby.  In other words, it was the dawning of a self-appointed leadership of American Jewry constitutionally committed to the first principles of Zionism, and to shaping American Jewish identity toward that end.  

Indeed, this sermon warning against the dangers posed by such an establishment could not be more timely as the Israel lobby finds itself agitating for an American war in Syria plainly and overwhelmingly opposed by the American public –an ominous conjuring of the classical anti-Semitic image of Jewish power confirming the worst fears of Zionism’s critics.  Here, then, for reflection this Yom Kippur, is the Kol Nidre sermon pleading across the generations to reject that establishment.

Where Do You Stand?

Kol Nidre Sermon of Irving Reichert – October 8, 1943

Yom Kippur is the most solemn day in Israel’s religious calendar.  This year especially, in a world at war, it brings home to us with fearful hardship and heavy sacrifice, the penalty we must pay for personal and national transgression.  We have been guilty of violating God’s moral law and must suffer the consequences in suffering and sorrow.  That is how the law of compensation works in society.  No amount of praying and fasting can save us from the penalty of our stupidity, our willfulness, and our selfishness.  Any Jew who thinks otherwise on this Yom Kippur is pathetically ill-advised.  He will be disillusioned in the still more terrible days that lie before us.  Let us be realistic about this.  Sin is rebellion against God, and never goes unpunished.  Nations as well as individuals are subject to this universal law.

Rabbi Irving Reichert of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. (Photo: Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco, Archives)

Rabbi Irving Reichert of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. (Photo: Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco, Archives)

Personal responsibility is sharply emphasized in the ritual for this Atonement Day.  God does not judge us collectively.  Before His tribunal, every man is lifted out of the protective anonymity of the group, and held to strict accountability for his decisions and actions.  This holy day reminds us that we are responsible as individuals, not only for our personal behavior, but for the conduct of the group of which we are a part.

Now in any year, a rabbi faces a very grave responsibility in deciding what message he shall bring his people on a night like this.  He is haunted by the realization that at no other time will he face so large and so representative a gathering of his congregation, in so earnest a mood.  And this year that decision has been much more difficult than ordinarily.  In such a world as we confront, in such an age when the cumulative iniquity of many decades is being expiated on global battlefields, when the problems facing Israel abroad and at home were never before so urgent and complex, so bewildering and crucial, it has been necessary to choose a subject for discussion tonight with critical and prayerful discrimination from a list of important priorities.

In the all too inadequate time at our disposal, let me invite you to consider with me a theme which – next to the winning of the war – I hold to be of transcendent and paramount importance to American and world Jewry: a subject in the determination of which every one of us bears an immediate and deep personal responsibility: What shall be the status of the Jew in the postwar world?  Let none of us admit to indifference on that question.  Depend upon it, no more serious issue will face us as Jews during our lifetime and the lives of our children.

I suspect that it is not necessary for me to remind you that this question has been the most prominent single issue before the American Jewish community during the past year.  It has headed the agenda of every important Jewish meeting in our land.  It has filled the columns of the English-Jewish press and overflowed into the news and advertising sections of the daily newspapers.  It has been discussed guardedly in Pullman smokers, argued vigorously in drawing rooms, shouted violently in metropolitan auditoriums, and thundered imperiously into continental microphones.  It is the rock upon which American Jewry has been cleft into two distinct and determined groups.  Let us try, without heat or animus, and above all, without recourse to the intemperate and abusive language which most unfortunately constituted the major vocabulary of this debate, to present the opposing views of the two schools of thought on this question.

We begin with the Jewish nationalists.  They are organized in a society known as the Zionist Organization of America.  It has been in existence for forty-six years, has local chapters throughout the country, and is extremely active, articulate and militant.  At the annual Zionist convention held in Columbus, Ohio, last month, the official membership was announced as 67,000.  In addition, there is a Zionist Youth Group and the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, known as Hadassah, both of them auxiliaries of the parent organization.

The program of the Jewish nationalists for the Jews in the postwar world is simply stated.  It was summarized at the recent American Jewish Conference in New York by their most brilliant orator, the very able co-chairman of the American Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.  Said Rabbi Silver, “There is but one solution to our national homelessness, which is the source of our millennial tragedy, and that is a national home.”  Palestine, of course, is to be the Jewish State.  It is to be autonomous, with its own Jewish army, navy, and all the implementation of a modern sovereign national state.

But since there are presently over a million Arabs in Palestine as against less than half a million Jews, how is this to be accomplished?  The Zionists propose that Great Britain turn over to the Jewish Agency the sole control and direction of immigration into Palestine.

At this point it is highly important to bear in mind that the program for the re-establishment of the Jewish State is no longer to be regarded as a philanthropic or humanitarian enterprise.  This may be startling to many American Jews who have hitherto cooperated with the project through powerful humanitarian motives: the eager desire to provide a place of refuge for bitterly persecuted and harassed European Jews.

Rabbi Silver was very emphatic on this new orientation of Zionist principles.  In his closing address, which was described by many as the climax of the Conference, and a masterpiece of oratory, he made this declaration, underscoring it as the only point he wished to make.  I quote: “If we rely solely on the refugee-philanthropic appeal,” he said, “we shall lose our case as well as do violence to the historic hopes of our people.  On the basis of sheer philanthropy, of satisfying pressing immigration needs, Palestine has already done its full share for Jewish refugees.  It is because Palestine is the Jewish homeland that we have the right to insist upon unrestricted immigration.”  Nothing could be plainer or more frankly unequivocal.  American Jewry is now asked to support the Zionist aims, not on the basis of providing an asylum for refugees from persecution, but definitely and unqualifiedly upon political grounds.

Moreover, the Zionist claims regarding the solidarity of American Jewry behind this political program are formidable and serious.  Rabbi Israel Goldstein, who has just been elected president of the Zionist Organization of America, summarized in his inaugural address last month, the articles of faith which Zionists hold in common.  “No Jew,” he declared, “is a normal Jew who is not a Zionist.”  Furthermore, “Judaism as a religion,” he continued, “is colorless and without personality unless it is informed by Zionist content.”  And Judge Louis E. Levinthal, the retiring president of the Zionist organization, in the annual message which he delivered to the Columbus convention, made this very grave and dogmatic declaration.  I quote: “We have claimed that Zionist ideals and aspirations are shared by nearly all American Jews.  That claim has now been substantiated.”

To be sure, Judge Levinthal did not presume to base such a sweeping and categorical statement upon the figures to the convention, which disclosed that the total Zionist membership in America is 67,000 out of more than five million Jews.  What he was referring to was the resolution on Jewish nationalism, recently passed at the American Jewish Conference in New York, which claimed to be a democratically elected legislative body empowered to speak authoritatively for the entire Jewish community of the United States.

The temptation is great to challenge that claim.  I shall only do so now to the extent of saying that from start to finish that New York Conference was deliberately organized and set up in a way to guarantee complete Zionist control at every point.  At no time throughout the entire proceedings was discussion permitted from the floor.  The resolution on Jewish nationalism was never even submitted to the most important committee of the Conference, the General Committee, which contained a number of prominent non-Zionists.  And if further commentary on the democratic and representative character of this assembly is required, an assembly which claims to have honestly and authoritatively represented the Jews of the United States of America, it is only necessary to point out that more than half of the thirty-nine addresses delivered from the platform were spoken in Yiddish, and that about ninety percent of the speeches urged the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Revealing too, of the tactics that were employed, is this singular incident which is of special interest to this congregation and community.  One of the San Francisco delegates, a past president of this congregation and a non-Zionist, was unable, at the last moment, to attend the convention and never appeared.  He had volunteered his services to the United States Army and had already reported for duty.  During the Conference, an innocent comment by another member of the San Francisco delegation developed the astonishing information that Mr. Dinkelspiel was registered as being present, and that his credentials, including his vote, had been turned over to someone, who, to this day, remains anonymous.  Yet it is on the basis of such a vote, taken at such a Zionist-planned and Zionist-dominated conference that we, and the entire American public, are asked to believe that “now all American Jews share the ideals and aspirations of the Zionist Organization of America.”

Such is the position, which I have tried to state in the identical language of its authorized spokesmen, of Jewish nationalism.  Let us now examine the position of those who dissent from these views.

Their attitude is represented by an organization known as the American Council for Judaism.  It was organized a few months ago at the suggestion of about ninety Reform rabbis who, for a long time, had as individuals rejected the philosophy and opposed the program of Jewish nationalism.  In recent weeks, the organization has established headquarters in Philadelphia and announced a national committee, under the presidency of Mr. Lessing Rosenwald.  Despite the terrific abuse and misrepresentation to which it has been subjected (including a ban of excommunication), the American Council for Judaism is growing with astonishing rapidity as American Jews are learning of its existence, and becoming acquainted with its principles.

The central conviction of the American Council is that the basis of unity among Jews is not political nationalism, but religion.  The Council contends that Jews should and do consider themselves nationals of those countries in which they live, and those lands their homelands.  It sees the Jewish problem, tragic and appalling as it is, in the last analysis a part of the world problem.  Eventually it will have to be settled in those countries where Jews reside.  The creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, the Council maintains, will not solve the problem of Jews living in other countries.  On the contrary, it may well aggravate them.

It will not even solve the problems of the Jews in Palestine.  Certainly it will not contribute to an amicable or just or democratic settlement of the friction between Arabs and Jews.  In this connection the Council calls attention to the fact that the serious restrictions against Jewish immigration into Palestine resulted from a long series of riots, assassinations and bloody clashes between an intensified Jewish nationalism and a defensive Arab nationalism.

What is the attitude of the American Council toward Palestine?  This has been so grossly misrepresented that clarification is urgently needed.  The American Council supports whole-heartedly the cultural, economic, industrial, agricultural and religious development of the Holy Land.  It regards as discriminatory and unfair the British White Paper which proposes to freeze the Jewish population of Palestine at its present level.  But it believes that it is not alone unjust, but injurious to the best interests of Jews generally and the best interests of Palestine Jews especially, to demand that regardless of their minority status, they be given control of the country and established as a political Jewish state.

It believes that Jews and Arabs working harmoniously together in Palestine, under a democratic form of government, democratically arrived at, which shall afford equal protection and opportunity to all men regardless of race, nationality or creed, represents an equitable solution of the problem in harmony with the ideals of the Four Freedoms for which we are fighting.  The Council maintains that Palestine is one of the countries to which Jews ought to be permitted to immigrate if they desire.  But at the same time, it calls upon the United Nations to liberalize the opportunities for all persecuted and uprooted peoples of Europe to re-establish themselves in their former homes if that is what they want, or to find homes after the war in other lands if they wish to emigrate.

This differs very significantly from the Zionist position.  Speaking at the American Jewish Conference in New York, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, one of the most influential Zionist leaders, revealed the official Zionist mind on this question.  “Whatever else we demand of the world tomorrow,” he said, “equality of rights, protection of minorities, punishment of criminals – is not specifically Jewish.  It is the application of the elementary principles of democracy to the Jewish people.  There is one specific demand we have to make today – and that is the demand to end the anomalous position of the Jewish people and to allow us to live as a normal people.”  Now the American Council is not asking for such exceptional privileges and favors for Jews.  It will be content, quite content, with, in Mr. Goldmann’s own language, “the elementary principles of democracy” to protect the civil, economic, and religious freedoms of all men, Jews as well as non-Jews, in the postwar world.

Moreover, the American Council does not subscribe to the principle, so fundamental in Zionist thinking, of the “homelessness” of the Jewish community.  Even if it were true, which it is not, that we all regard ourselves as being in “galut” – in exile – certainly a Jewish state would not solve the problem.  According to the Zionists’ own estimates, after the war the probable total Jewish population in the world will be about fourteen million.  Five million of them are in America.  Do we consider ourselves homeless?  Do we wish to be reconstituted in Palestine as a nation?  Another five million are in Russia. Are they homeless?  Do they wish to be reconstituted in Palestine as a nation?  Do the Jews of Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, Holland, Belgium, France, Turkey, the South American nations, South Africa, consider themselves homeless?  Do they want to be reconstituted in Palestine as a nation?

Now it may be that the Zionists are correct in their sweeping assertion that political nationalism represents the goal and ideal of practically all the Jews in the world.  It is possible that the American Council for Judaism is deluding itself when it denies that claim, particularly as far as American Jewry is concerned.  But in any case, the problem is not as simple as the expertly facile pen of Maurice Samuel slants it in the September American Mercury.  The article opens with consternation at “the bewildering spectacle of Jews banded together to prevent other Jews from acquiring a national homeland in Palestine.”  Might one suggest that a little more historical perspective and a little less hysterical invective would bring the really “bewildering spectacle” in this situation into proper focus?

For here is an astonishing paradox with no parallel in history – ninety-six percent of a people who are all nationals of other countries demanding a separate state for themselves, when practically none of the ninety-six percent remotely intends or desires to live in it!

One might think that the Zionist claims of homelessness would surely apply, of all people, to the persecuted and tortured Jews of Poland.  The savagery and brutality of the Nazi slaughter of Polish Jewry, where probably more than one million people were exterminated, is of all the black pages in the record of this war the foulest.  By the same token, when the history of this struggle is written, one of its noblest paragraphs will be devoted to the gallant resistance of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto against the German troops.  William Zukerman, who for twenty years was the Chief European Correspondent of the New York Jewish Morning Journal, tells that story in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine.  By April 19th of this year, the more than six hundred thousand Jews crowded into the unspeakably vile ghetto of Warsaw, had been reduced by famine, epidemics and mass murder to 35,000.  Those remaining Jews obtained arms secretly through underground channels.  At a prearranged signal they offered open resistance to the Nazis.  For one long month the struggle raged until nearly every house in the district had been razed to rubble, and from twenty to twenty-five thousand Jews had been slain.

Now, surely one might think that if there were Jews anywhere in the world who considered themselves homeless, and passionately desired a Jewish state of their own, they could be found among this heroic remnant. Listen to William Zukerman on this point:

The heroic men and women who died on the barricades of Warsaw belonged to a section of Jews who held that their home was in the countries where they had been born, had worked, and had contributed to wealth and culture.  They passionately resented the claim of Hitler and other anti-Semites that the Jews were aliens everywhere and that the solution of the Jewish problem lay in the removal of the Jews from their present homes to a national home or state of their own.  To them the future of the European Jews after the war lay in Europe, in the homes which they had loved and fought for.  They always opposed the various plans made by their charitable brothers overseas for their evacuation after the war.

There you have it.  Nothing could be more completely devastating to the Zionist contention of Jewish homelessness.

I said at the outset of my address that this holy day charges us with the obligation to assume personal responsibility for our conduct and decisions.  The postwar status of the Jews is a concern that affects deeply and intimately and permanently the lives of every one of you here tonight, and of your children and children’s children.  You cannot be silent and indifferent on this issue!

I do not plead with you tonight on behalf of either of these two important movements by which American Jews are identifying their loyalties.  Let me confine my appeal to the moral obligation that rests upon every one of you to make a decision in this matter and to take your place on one side or the other.  If you believe in the homelessness of the Jewish people, that nationality and race are the determining and unique features of Judaism, that the Jews ought to have their own state and army, and that such a political arrangement will solve the Jewish problem, then I urge you by all means to register your convictions where they will be effective, and join the Zionist Organization of America and the Hadassah.

But if, on the other hand, you believe that the Jews ought to be and are nationals of those countries in which they dwell, that we are essentially and uniquely united by a common historic faith and a deathless allegiance to religious values, that the Jewish problem is part of the world problem and can only be solved by the just application of democratic principles which shall give to all men civic and religious freedom, regardless of race or creed, and that the Jewish community in Palestine ought to be encouraged and aided to work out its relationship to the Arab and Christian Palestinians on the basis of these democratic principles, then you should join the American Council for Judaism and make your opinion effective through that organization.

I do not believe that the sixty-seven thousand members of the Zionist organization are qualified to declare that they represent the settled and responsible convictions of the five million Jews of America.  I challenge the claim that the American Jewish Conference, which displayed the Zionist flag at equal size and prominence as the American flag, which conducted much of its proceedings in Yiddish, with hardly a word of prayer or a religious reference, and very little concern for any of the problems besetting world Jewry other than a Jewish political state in Palestine, mirrored the true sentiments of the five million Jews of America.  I protest as a misleading and dangerous distortion of truth the implication that American Jews are fighting and dying, not so much to secure a just and lasting peace under the Four Freedoms for all men everywhere, not so much for love of America and devotion to it as their homeland, as for special rights and favors and privileges for Jews that go beyond “the elementary principles of democracy.”

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