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Once Upon a Time, The Times Debated Israel and Divided Jewish Allegiance

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Justin Elliott graduated from Brown this year.  His last paper in college was about the debate over Zionism that "flared up" in the pages of the New York Times before the birth of Israel. I append the full paper, which Elliott was kind enough to send along, in the Continuation section of this post. An excerpt:

widespread embrace of Zionism among American Jews today,  it is startling to find
evidence of a vigorous, at times vicious debate between Zionist and
anti-Zionist American Jews in the pages of the New York Times during the
first half of the 20th century…. [T]he debate
focused on American Jewish identity.  The key question, in both the
years around 1920 and late 1940s, was what was sometimes referred to in the
earlier period as “hyphenism”: should there be such a thing as a
“Jewish-American” and did Zionism as a nationalist movement unduly require that
American Jews divide their loyalty between the United States and a future Jewish

I find Elliott’s paper remarkable for a couple of reasons.

1. It shows that the Times was once willing to conduct a free debate over Zionism. In the years following the Balfour Declaration (1917), Elliott reports, the paper many times gave a voice to U.S. Rep. Julius Kahn, a German Jew from San Francisco, who objected to Zionism on diverse grounds, including that “the other people
who live there [in Palestine]” might not consent to “domination by this minority.”  Elliott continues, "[Kahn] names as his principal objection
to Zionism the fact that it will create a divided allegiance among American
Jews — ‘between our country and its Stars and Stripes and Zion with its white flag with the blue
star.’” No U.S. Representative would broach these issues today, thanks to the Israel lobby. And the Times would give no space at all to the dual loyalty issue, though it is more alive than ever, especially with Walt and Mearsheimer waiting in the wings.

2. Note that Jewish assimilation in the U.S. was considered a good thing back then. Not so now, post-Holocaust and post-intermarriage.

3. I count Elliott’s dispassionate interest in the issue of dual loyalty/Jewish identity as yet another symptom of a restlessness on the part of American youth over the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

Justin Elliott is now looking for a job in journalism. Anyone need a smart independent kid?

The Zionist Debate in the Times: 1919-1948

Justin Elliott

As a source of financial and moral support, American Jews played a key part in
the success of Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, which culminated in the creation
of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948.  Given this history and subsequent developments, especially the
widespread embrace of Zionism among American Jews today,  it is startling to find
evidence of a vigorous, at times vicious debate between Zionist and
anti-ZionistAmerican Jews in the pages of the New York Times during the
first half of the 20th century.  Two key periods when this
debate flared up in the Times — in letters to the editor, editorials,
and news articles alike — were the years around 1920 and the late 1940s.
The reason the debate flared up in the late 1940s is self-evident: Zionists had
seized on the postwar Jewish refugee problem and the status of Palestine, still under British mandate until
the United Nations-approved partition in 1948, was in flux.  The years
around 1920, less famously, were also an important time in the Zionist movement
in America.
President Woodrow Wilson had declared support for a Jewish state in the
post-World War I peace talks and Congress passed a joint resolution in support
of Zionism in 1922.

This paper will look at a set of newspaper items reflecting the debate from
each period.  The debate focused not on the merits or faults of Zionism as
a mass movement, nor on the indigenous Arab population (though the
“Mohammedans” do occasionally crop up), nor even on Zionism as a potential
solution for the problems of the European Jewry.  Rather, the debate
focused on American Jewish identity.  The key question, in both the
years around 1920 and late 1940s, was what was sometimes referred to in the
earlier period as “hyphenism”: should there be such a thing as a
“Jewish-American” and did Zionism as a nationalist movement unduly require that
American Jews divide their loyalty between the United States and a future Jewish
state?  A shift in notions of American authenticity occurred between the
two postwar periods, resulting in a marginalization of the anti-Zionists and
their divided-loyalty argument and allowing for a broader notion of American
identity, at least when it came to Jews.  This sea change in the American
Zionist debate should be seen as the result of three interrelated factors: the
demographics of Jewish immigration, trends within American Reform Judaism, and
the two distinct political climates — after each world war — in the United States.

The most striking statement of Jewish anti-Zionism in the 20s-era Times
was penned by Julius Kahn, a U.S. Representative of German ethnicity from San Francisco.   Several news
articles appear from the period describing Kahn’s outspokenness on the issue,
and he himself wrote a lengthy Times column in February, 1919, titled
“Why Most American Jews Do Not Favor Zionism.”  Kahn begins by noting that, to
counter the influence of the American Zionists, when “President [Wilson]
returns to the United States a committee of American Jews, representing every
section of the country and every walk of life, will without delay … endeavor
to convince the President that most of the Jews of America are thoroughgoing
Americans whose interests and devotion are unequivocally and everlastingly with
this Government. … This [America]
is their Zion, and they feel that a so-called
Jewish homeland in Palestine would be a hindrance and not a benefit to Jewry.”  Kahn proceeds to set
down a long and interesting list of anti-Zionist arguments, including that Palestine is too small,
that certain victimized Jews are not capable of self-government, that no modern
state should have unity of government and religion, and that “the other people
who live there” might not consent to “domination by this minority.”
Rooting his essay in a retelling of Jewish history and persecution, he uses the
common anti-Zionist argument that “those who have a hatred of the Jew in their
hearts” would use “a separate Jewish State” to justify further anti-Semitism
and “insist that we Jews are simply sojourners in the United States” because
they will be seen as eventually bound for Palestine.  In fact, Kahn
essentially uses this argument himself. He names as his principal objection
to Zionism the fact that it will create a divided allegiance among American
Jews — “between our country and its Stars and Stripes and Zion with its white flag with the blue
star.”  Kahn writes, “The American Jew sings ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ as
his national anthem.  The Zionist sings ‘The Hatikvah’ as his.”  Kahn
invokes the Jewish soldiers in World War I who “proved themselves good
Americans,” citing the courage of the “‘lost battalion,’ which was made up
largely of east side pushcart men, trouser makers, and buttonhole sewers.”

What is to be made of Kahn’s essay?  It seems clear that fear of an
anti-Semitic backlash was partly behind it (he ends the essay with a plea to
non-Jews everywhere for tolerance).  Still, Kahn had the genuine belief
that one could not be a good American Jew and a good Zionist, in a sense
arguing that an anti-Semitic backlash would be the logical result of the
creation of a Jewish state.  To become properly American, Kahn essentially
argued, one had to subordinate any and all identity categories to American
nationalism.  Thus Zionism led to “hyphenism,” which was a pernicious
force for the United States,
and assimilation was necessary for American Jews.   These ideas would have come
naturally to Kahn because he was a Reform Jew, a fact that goes unmentioned in
his Times piece.  In this way Kahn embodied a key
trend that shaped the debate over Zionism in the United States.

The influential classical Reform movement rose in the 19th century
and “professed an almost religious love for the United States as a promised land” —
a position, it is easy to see, that would be at odds with Zionism.  While principled
Jewish socialists rejected Zionism on anti-nationalist grounds and Orthodox
Jews were uncomfortable with the movement’s messianic rhetoric, Reform Jews
painted Zionism as an impediment to assimilation and a “regression from the
universalist principles of Reform theology.”  Thomas Kolsky explains that
the Reform movement was at odds with the view, embedded in Zionism, that
anti-Semitism was incurable (and thus the Jews needed a state as sanctuary).  Naomi Cohen
quotes the 1898 statement of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a
Reform group, that “America is our Zion.
Here, in the home of religious liberty, we have aided in founding this new Zion

. …  The
mission of Judaism is spiritual, not political.”   The statement displays the
immigrants’ desire to at once assimilate, prove their worth to the

United States

and reassure their new countrymen as to their loyalty.  These lines of
thought, which were clearly echoed in Kahn’s essay, would persist through the
1920s debate and beyond.

A six-paragraph news article a few years after Kahn’s essay, in May, 1922,
shows how much arguments like his stung American Jewish Zionists.
Headlined “Untermyer Hits Back At Critics of Zionism,” the piece details a
speech delivered at a fundraising meeting at the Washington Heights Congregation

New York

.  Among others,
noted European Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky was present.  A Zionist leader
named Samuel Untermyer delivered a heated response to anti-Zionist Jews.
He “charged that ‘insidious propaganda’ was being spread ‘by a handful of
notoriety-seeking pygmies among men of our own race’ who asserted that the
purposes and aspirations behind the Palestine Restoration Fund were
‘un-American’…”  The last paragraph of the story outlines a more
substantive argument: “Mr. Untermyer asked whether Americas of Irish descent
who contributed toward the cause of Irish freedom could be classed as
un-American, and said the attempt to brand the support of the Palestine
homeland movement as disloyal to America was ‘so mean and base that no words
can sufficiently convey one’s feeling of resentment.’”  Though it is
difficult to quantify American Jewish support for Zionism in the years around
1920, Untermyer clearly articulated a plausible notion of American identity
that allowed for support of Jewish nationalism.  And yet, the intensity of
Untermyer’s protestations reveal that this was very much an unsettled issue.
Criticisms like those of Kahn — a serious-minded Congressman and prominent
Jew — hit a nerve, and may have had significant traction around 1920. 

Evident in Untermyer’s rhetorical question about Irish-Americans is the
paramount importance of the immigrant status of Jews in the Zionist
debate.  Cohen notes the dramatic statistic that roughly two million Jews
came to the

United States

between 1880 and 1914, a number that was eight times the American Jewish
population in 1880.  While most of the new immigrants were from

Eastern Europe

, they were not unitary in their
politics.  Cohen points out that some immigrants were already Zionists,
but others identified first as socialists or cultural naturalists.  Like
members of any other ethnic group fresh off the boat, the Jewish immigrants
displayed an anxiety about their status as authentic Americans.  Rather
than focusing on Zionism or the fate of the Jewish people around the world,
Cohen writes, the immigrants “desired first and foremost to become Americans,
to enjoy the benefits of political freedom and economic opportunity which the
promise of


held out. …  Their social and cultural institutions—synagogues,
newspapers, landsmanschaften [immigrants’ mutual benefit societies] and
charities—developed rapidly and served as agencies of both cohesiveness and of
Americanization.”  These eager-to-assimilate
immigrants became the interlocutors in the debate over Zionism in the pages of
the 1920s-era Times.  And the potency of the Reform Jews’
pro-American, anti-Zionist message was rooted in the presence of this large
mass of recent immigrants.

A succinct expression of this pro-assimilation immigrant stance came from one
Robert K. Guggenheimer of




in a letter to the editor of the Times in May, 1921.  Guggenheimer wrote: “… Dr.
[Chaim] Weizmann desires 50,000 Jews residing in


to return to


during the next year.  Dr. Weizmann must have a very keen sense of
humor.  In the first place, the great majority of us are not ‘Jews
residing in


,’ but
American Jews … and it is the City of


that inspires our loyalty, not


Why can’t these wandering Zionists learn once and for all that Americans of
Jewish faith are 100 per cent American …?”  Again there is a fierce
resentment of any movement that would hinder Jewish immigrants’ assimilation
efforts or cast doubt on their patriotism.

An official Times editorial from the same era articulates a notion of
American identity similarly hostile to any possibility of divided loyalties
among Jews.  Unsigned but written in the voice of a non-Jew, “A Dangerous
Movement” addresses the “so-called Zionist resolution” then making its way
through the House of Representatives.  Both the fact that Zionism is a
religious issue unfit for Congressional consideration and the fact that
representatives are catering to “what they believe to be the ‘Jewish vote,’”
the editorial asserts, “are offensive and dangerous.”  The author stakes
out a kind of middle ground, expressly declining to take a position on Zionism
itself, while declaring that the Jewish nationalist question has no place in
Congress: “… the United States has had too long and painful experience of the
evils of hyphenated citizens to think without impatience and dismay of adding
to their number. … [American Jews] would be the ones to suffer most from the
bitter prejudice which might be roused by bringing a religious question into
politics, or by even seeming to countenance separation between them and the
rest of their fellow-Americans
[emphasis added].”  There is evident in
the editorial a strong resistance to any putative dilution of American Jews’
American identity.

The tack taken by the Times editorial in opposing Zionism must be seen
in the context of the post-World War I political climate in the

United States

During and after the war, according to Cohen, there was a predictable surge in
nationalism and demands for conformity pressed down on recent immigrants.
A clear manifestation of the “hyper-patriotic” climate was Congress overriding
in 1917 a presidential veto of a literacy test for immigrants.  It is not
difficult to understand why Zionism would be seen as an encroachment on
full-throated American nationalism.  In addition, Jewish liberals like
Kahn had substantive reasons after the war to favor assimilation.  In
their eyes it was a key moment, a time when Jewish contributions to the
American effort World War I were fresh.  They believed vocal Zionists
jeopardized potential gains for Jews in the

United States

.   But on the other side of the
debate, nourishing the pro-Zionist American Jews, was the newly minted ideology
of Wilsonian internationalism.  It was in fact Wilson himself who helped
intensify the debate seen in the Times by supporting the Zionist aims at
the postwar peace conference.  When Rep. Kahn presented a petition to the
president opposing grants of land to the Jews in


, he was part of a larger
anti-Zionist mobilization, particularly among Reform groups.

Twenty-five years later, the Zionist debate was again in the pages of the Times.
An anti-Zionist organization called the American Council for Judaism and its
leader, Lessing J. Rosenwald, was much in the news responding to the potential
establishment of a Jewish state in


A Jan. 18, 1948, dispatch from the ACJ’s conference in

St. Louis

, which drew just 200 delegates from
28 states, quotes Rosenwald at length.  It cannot be said that he lacked a
sophisticated and well-articulated argument: “Whether we like it or not, the
term ‘Jewish’ has come to be applied to both a religion and an alien ‘nation,’
‘nationality,’ or ‘people.’  We are the victims, not the authors of that
ambiguity.”  Rosenwald’s primary objections to Zionism are essentially the
same as Kahn’s from several decades before: it would create divided loyalties
and risk inflaming anti-Semitism.  His rhetoric, however, seems more
muted.  Rosenwald told the ACJ conference: “If we act as if, in fact, we
had overpowering attachments to, and concerns for, the destiny of a nation
other than our own United States, no device of law or language will make a
difference.  We will be judged by the reality—not protestations.”

The January 18 article elicited a letter to the editor from Dr. A. Leon
Kubowitzki, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress in

New York

(which in turn elicited a response
letter from Rosenwald).  Kubowitski dismisses questions of
double loyalty.  He writes, “And though one can only by the greatest
stretch of imagination conceive a conflict between the United States and the
Jewish state-to-be, one is bound to remember that millions of Americans of
German, Italian and Japanese descent found themselves not so long ago in such a
tragic dilemma which they overcame with gallantry and moral fortitude.”
Given the recent occurrence of Japanese internment, this statement may have
been truer than he knew.  But, for our purposes, it is most significant
that Kubowitzki calmly refers to the divided-loyalty questions of the ACJ as
“an issue which has been repeatedly passed upon, disposed of and set at
rest.”  Note the marked change in tone from the shrill 20s-era
denunciation of the Jewish “pygmies” using the very same argument. 

The post-World War II American political climate helps to explain the character
of the exchange between Rosenwald and Kubowitzki — and why it was different
than the post-World War I debate.  International developments in the run
up to World War II, specifically the stubborn growth in anti-Semitism but also
the decline of liberalism, contributed to increased pro-Zionist sentiment.  Whereas a
Reform anti-Zionist would have previously argued that anti-Semitism would wane
with emancipation, assimilation and religious tolerance, that argument seemed
not to be borne out by the events in


By 1945, information about the Holocaust was becoming increasingly known to
American Jews, and this was the moment when the ACJ mounted its anti-Zionist
campaign.  The fact of the Holocaust did much to vindicate the Zionists’
contentions about anti-Semitism.  Thus the hope of sanctuary offered by
the Zionists gained a sense of urgency and the ACJ’s more conservative arguments
became difficult to swallow for many American Jews.  Kolsky points to the
“dispassionate style” and “restrained and rational” approach of the ACJ as
further reasons for failure in the face of the impassioned Zionists.  The leaders of
the ACJ were essentially holdovers from the old Reform way of thinking.
The Holocaust did not alter their fundamental attitude that anti-Semitism was
ultimately manageable and conquerable.  For the ACJ, assimilation as well
as full and equal political rights for Jews would always be the top
priorities.  And like most anti-Zionists the ACJ promoted the idea that
Judaism should be exclusively a religious matter.  The small (yet vocal) membership
of the ACJ provoked a huge response from the Zionist organizations, including
anti-ACJ literature and the establishment of


unity societies.  Ultimately, Cohen argues, the
ACJ’s biggest role may have been as a useful counterpoint for the Zionists.

Two other significant developments in the American Jewry had occurred in the
years between the wars.  On the immigration front, the late 1940s were
markedly different than the post-World War I period.  The

United States

had imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration in the early 1920s.  Thus, unlike
the earlier period, there was no large influx of new Jewish immigrants involved
in the Zionist debate in the 1940s.  The Jewish community was far better
established and far less anxious about proving its American authenticity than
it had been in the World War I period.  This helps to explain the ease
with which Kubowitzki dismissed the anti-Zionist “duel loyalties” attack in his
Times letter.  The second development was the acceptance of Zionism
by the mainstream Reform organizations.  The Central Conference of American
Rabbis, for example, changed its decades-old anti-Zionist stance in1935,
declaring that rabbis could consider the issue individually.  Soon after,
major Reform organizations became squarely pro-Zionist.  For many Reform
Jews, Cohen writes, “faith in universalism and rational progress” had become
insufficient in the face of totalitarianism.”

A 1945 Times brief, headlined “Rosenwald Disputed,” provides two
interesting numbers relating to the ACJ.   Dr. Felix A. Levy of the Zionist
Organization of America is reported to have said that, despite a publicity
blitz by Rosenwald, there were only 8,000 ACJ members, compared to 400,000
enrolled Zionists in


.  While the
numbers of a partisan must be viewed cautiously, a short article from July,
1948, provides more evidence that most American Jews were by that time
Zionists.  Dr. Israel Goldstein, chair of the
United Palestine Appeal, reported to the Times that American Jews
contributed more than 75 percent of a staggering $125,172,517 spent in


in 1946-7 for
immigration and development.

While the numbers do not tell the whole story — it’s impossible to know, for
example, how many American Jews contributed to the cause — Zionism had clearly
gained wide support among American Jews in the years between 1920 and
1948.  This shift seemed to coincided with a shift in notions of authentic
American identity.  A comparison of the two periods is instructive: The
anti-Zionist divided-loyalty argument was energetically voiced in the years
around 1920 by a prominent Jewish Congressman and the editorial page of the New
York Times
, among others, and was met with a fierce response from the
Zionists.  By the late 1940s, the American Council for Judaism was using the
same argument, but the rhetoric had cooled down, the argument was taken less
seriously by the Zionists, and the ACJ was, demonstrably, on the margins of the
debate.  The change in the Reform outlook between the wars, the
stabilization of the Jewish immigrant community in


, and the new political
climate with regards to American Jews — centering on the plight of the Jews in
the Holocaust rather than the anti-alien sentiment after World War I — all had
a part in shaping the new debate.  No Times editorial denouncing
Zionism or “hyphenism” among the Jews could be found in the period after World
War II.  When


declared independence in 1948, it was widely accepted that an American Jew
could successfully balance American and Jewish nationalisms.

[Apologies, but I seem to have dropped the footnotes in my formatting changes… –Weiss]

Jews Against Zionism:
The American Council for Judaism 1942-1948
, by Thomas A. Kolsky.





1990. For information on Kahn’s biography, see page 84.

“Why Most American Jews Do
Not Favor Zionism / Their Allegiance to This Country Is the First Reason, and
They Object to a Union of Church and State in Palestine or Elsewhere,” By
Julius Kahn. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times; Feb. 16, 1919.
Page 70.

Assimilation is a
problematic and difficult-to-define term.  There are at least two issues:
How, exactly, could an assimilated American be identified?  And how could
an ethnic group’s (in this case, Jewish) own influence on mainstream American
culture/life be incorporated into the equation?

Kolsky, page 84.

Kolsky, page 2.

Kolsky, page 2.

American Jews and the
Zionist Idea
, by Naomi W. Cohen. KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1975. Pages

“Untermyer Hits Back At
Critics Of Zionism / Says ‘Notoriety-Seeking Pygmies’ Spread ‘Insidious
Propaganda’—Appeal for funds.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York
Times; May 3, 1922. Page 32.

Cohen, page 4.

“To A Zionist Appeal,”
Robert K. Guggenheimer. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times; May
20, 1921. Page 11.

“A Dangerous Movement.”
ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times; May 28, 1922. Page 28.

Cohen, pages 19-20.

Essays in American
Zionism 1917-1948,
edited by Melvin I. Urofsky. Herzl Press,

New York

, 1978. Page 97.

Cohen, page 21-22.

“World Challenge Stressed
To Jews / L.J. Rosenwald, Judaism Council Head, Says Cohesion as Americans
Comes First,” by William M. Blair. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York
Times; Jan. 18, 1948. Page 28.

“Position of the Jews /
Issue of Conflicting Loyalties Said to Be Imaginary,” by A Leon Kubowitzki.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times; Jan. 27, 1948. Page 24.

Kolsky, page 3.

Kolsky, page 5.

Kolsky, page 4.

Cohen, page 62.

Kolsky, page 32.

Cohen, page 43.

“Rosenwald Disputed / Dr.
Levy Says 80% of American Jews Favor Zionism.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers,
The New York Times; Oct. 5, 1945. Page 2.

These numbers are
confirmed in Cohen, page 62.

“Aid To




Jews Listed / They Gave 75% of $125,172,517 Spent There in 1946-47, Dr.
Goldstein Notes.” ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times; July 11,
1948. Page 12.


Philip Weiss

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