Abba Hillel Silver, Man of the Zionist Hour
The forgotten story of the arrogant, overbearing egotist who, with one speech, united the American Jewish community behind the Zionist idea and helped secure the Jewish future
Dateline: Washington, March 1948
A scant two months before Israel’s declaration of independence, it seemed the U.S. might retreat from supporting the United Nations plan to partition Palestine into two states. American Zionist leaders were desperate to reach President Truman, who refused to meet with them. So they turned to Eddie Jacobson, the president’s old business partner from Missouri, for whom the door to the Oval Office was always open. But, despite Jacobson’s plea that the president meet with Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Organization, Truman wouldn’t budge. Then his friend tried a final ploy:
I happened to rest my eyes on a beautiful model of a statue of Andrew Jackson. . . . I then found myself saying to the President, almost word for word: “Harry, all your life you have had a hero. You are probably the best-read man in America on the life of Andrew Jackson. . . . Well, Harry, I too have a hero, a man I never met but who is, I think, the greatest Jew who ever lived. . . . I am talking about Chaim Weizmann.”
Truman kept silent for a bit, then looked Jacobson straight in the eye and grumbled: “You win, you bald-headed sonuvabitch, I will see him.”
The President’s session with Weizmann proved immensely important, effectively halting the opponents of Jewish statehood. And Jacobson remains to this day something of a folk-hero for many American Jews—despite the fact that Weizmann wasn’t really his hero (he later admitted that what he told Truman was a spur-of-the-moment fabrication). But if American Jews are in search of a true Zionist hero, a champion who deserves to be not only remembered but celebrated, they need only look to Abba Hillel Silver, a Reform rabbi and Zionist leader who is today all but forgotten.
Silver’s life story—he was born in 1893 and died 50 years ago this past Thanksgiving—doesn’t fit neatly into the familiar picture of American Jewish history. Serving for decades as the rabbi of “The Temple,” a prestigious Reform congregation in Cleveland that observed the Sabbath on Sunday, he was not descended from old-line German-Jewish stock, as would befit the occupant of such a post, but a Lithuanian-born immigrant. Only fifteen years before being hired at The Temple, he was living on New York’s Lower East Side as a nine-year-old boy sporting sidecurls and speaking Yiddish. And yet he became an exceptionally successful congregational rabbi as well as a very reputable scholar.
Even more atypically, Silver was not someone whose greatness was evident at first glance—or at first hearing. To watch him in a video documentary or in one of the brief clips that have made their way onto YouTube is not necessarily to admire him. He seems stiff, artificial, almost preposterously pompous. One isn’t surprised to learn from his biographer, Marc Lee Raphael, that some people “found him arrogant, overbearing, domineering, egotistical, contemptuous, and an enemy of anyone who dared oppose him or one of his ideas.” His most readily available piece of writing, a speech delivered in August 1943 and reprinted in Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, may seem, on a quick reading, rather run of the mill.
In fact, it was anything but. As we shall see, this same speech, perhaps Silver’s single most powerful, most consequential, and most immediately effective act of public persuasion, exemplifies to a high degree the indisputable greatness of the man.
Today, in the aftermath of innumerable attacks on the American Jews for their failure to come to the aid of their European brethren during the Holocaust, it is easy to picture the community of that time as downright indifferent to the Jewish fate. And indeed many Jews, understandably fixated on America’s role in the wider war, may have preferred to remain ignorant or in denial of the specifically Jewish catastrophe. But by no means all: by 1943, activists in the Jewish community were acutely aware of the devastation that was taking place in Europe and wracked by their own inability to stop it.
This was particularly true of America’s Zionists, who a year earlier, in May 1942, had responded to the plight of European Jewry with a dramatic new initiative. Spurred by David Ben-Gurion and others, prominently including Abba Hillel Silver, 600 delegates from the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Hadassah, and religious and labor-Zionist parties declared at a conference in New York that the postwar order envisioned by President Roosevelt—an order to be built on “foundations of peace, justice, and equality”—could not be realized without a solution to the wrenching problem of “Jewish homelessness.” Calling on the British Mandatory power to open the gates of Palestine to desperate Jewish refugees, the delegates then dropped their earlier reticence on the subject of actual Jewish statehood, insisting in the conference’s final plank “that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.”
The next step was to mobilize the entire American Jewish community behind this Zionist initiative, which would come to be known (after the hotel where the conference was held) as the “Biltmore Program.” In that monumental endeavor, Silver’s role was pivotal.
It also marked something of a personal turnabout. True, he had been a Zionist throughout his adult life and even earlier. In 1904, at the age of eleven, he was one of the co-founders of the Lower East Side’s Dr. Herzl Zion Club. But upon reaching maturity he had shifted his allegiance from political Zionism to “cultural Zionism,” a movement focused on solving not the problem of the Jews—i.e., statelessness—but the “problem of Judaism.” In 1917, explaining his position to a skeptical hiring committee at The Temple, he had articulated his commitment to the creation of a “spiritual and cultural center in Palestine” that would “galvanize Jewish life the world over.” Then and later, he would repeatedly assert that “the political thrust of Zionism is for me secondary.”
Only in the dire circumstances of the Nazi era did Silver come to understand that there would be no achieving Zionism’s cultural and spiritual aims without Jewish political independence—whereupon he tirelessly threw himself into helping to promote that overriding end. The chance came to form a united front on the issue came in August 1943, fifteen months after the Biltmore conference, as delegates representing virtually all of American Jewry assembled at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York.
A significant majority at the Waldorf conference were affiliated with Zionist organizations, thus improving the odds of obtaining a full-throated call for a Jewish state. Still, there was strong opposition to be overcome. Judge Joseph M. Proskauer, influential president of the non-Zionist American Jewish Committee, was pushing for a watered-down resolution demanding removal of the British-imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine but omitting any mention of statehood. Several prominent Zionists were of similar mind. Even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, co-chair with Silver of the American Zionist Emergency Council, had cold feet; as Raphael writes, Wise “explicitly urged the delegates not to adopt the Biltmore program’s final plank.”
Silver himself had not been allotted speaking time at the Waldorf conference, but the militantly Zionist delegates of the American Jewish Congress had arranged to send him to the platform. No audio recording exists of the speech he proceeded to deliver—which may be just as well since we’ve lost the taste for his style of high public oratory. On this occasion, however, his words, which were in no sense overblown, are sufficient in themselves to convey their profound impact on those listening.
“The reconstitution of the Jewish people as a nation in its homeland,” Silver declared,
is not a playful political conceit of ours. . . . It is the cry of despair of a people driven to the wall, fighting for its very life. . . . . From the infested, typhus-ridden ghetto of Warsaw, from the death-block of Nazi-occupied lands where myriads of our people are awaiting execution by the slow or the quick method, from a hundred concentration camps which befoul the map of Europe . . . comes the cry: “Enough, there must be a final end to all this, a sure and certain end!”
How long is it to last? Are we forever to live a homeless people on the world’s crumbs of sympathy?. . . Should not all this be compensated for finally and at long last with the re-establishment of a free Jewish Commonwealth?
Is not this historic justice, and is this world today not reaching out so desperately and so pathetically for a new world order of justice?. . . Are we not deserving of it?
Are we going to take counsel here of fear of what this one or that one might say, of how our actions are likely to be misinterpreted; or are we to take counsel of our inner moral convictions, of our faith, of our history, of our achievements, and go forward in faith?
In the judgment of the Israeli historian Ofer Schiff, these words of Silver’s, which “overwhelmed the hundreds of delegates at the congress and brought many of them to tears,” reflect “the principled, American democratic meaning that Silver lent to the demand for the establishment of a national home.” I’m not so sure. It’s true that, in earlier speeches, Silver had explicitly linked the creation of a Jewish state to the overall American war aim of fostering a new world order. But there is a simpler explanation for why he electrified his audience at the Waldorf: he made them feel the agony of the Jews caught in Hitler’s web, preparing them for the climactic moment when he would hammer home the only logical answer to their kinsmen’s desperate predicament:
We cannot truly rescue the Jews of Europe unless we have free immigration into Palestine. We cannot have free immigration into Palestine unless our political rights are recognized there. Our political rights cannot be recognized there unless our historic connection with the country is acknowledged and our right to rebuild our national home is reaffirmed. These are inseparable links in the chain. The whole chain breaks if one of the links is missing. Do not beguile yourselves. Do not let anyone beguile you. . . .
The speech won the day. Weeping delegates rose to sing Hatikvah, over and over again, and then resoundingly moved to endorse the resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth. Rabbi Elmer Berger, the director of the newly formed American Council for Judaism—an anti-Zionist rump of the Reform movement—tried to make light of the event. (“No one could say that in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1943, the Jewish ‘people’ had asked for a Jewish state.”) But Tamar de Sola Pool, the president of Hadassah, better understood what had been accomplished:
We have now won over not merely individuals; we now have at our side whole national organizations with thousands and hundreds of thousands of members. . . . They are now flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone. All that we stand for, all that we struggle for, has become for them, too an integral ideal.
Uniting the great majority of American Jews behind the Biltmore program did not, of course, bring that program to fruition. In the aftermath of the conference, the Zionists’ major task, in the words of Rabbi Israel Goldstein, the new president of the ZOA, was to “win the wholehearted approval of the American Government and people.”
The effort to obtain that approval, and then to sustain it, is not the most exciting part of the Zionist saga during those years, but it is nonetheless of central importance. After World War II, had the American government not become involved in the Palestine question and done what it did for the Zionist movement, a Jewish state would most likely never have come into being.
Ronald and Allis Radosh have made this abundantly clear in their recent A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, a book in which Abba Hillel Silver naturally plays a major role. The Radoshes do not dwell at length, however, on the crucial work performed by Silver in the period prior to the Truman administration. It was in those few years that he laid the basis for what was to come.
Right after the Waldorf-Astoria conference, writes Rabbi Leon I. Feuer, Silver’s Washington deputy, “Dr. Silver asked me (drafted me would be more accurate) to take a year’s leave of absence from my Toledo congregation, which generously consented, to take charge of the office of the Emergency Council which was to be opened in Washington and which would have to become the focus of our activities.” Before settling in the capital, Feuer spent some weeks in New York City organizing roughly 150 “active and enthusiastic local committees” dedicated to mobilizing Jewish opinion and action around the country. The extraordinary labors these activists would perform made them, for Feuer, some of “the unsung heroes of the struggle for the founding of Israel.”
Once in Washington, Feuer put together a core team that, under Silver’s leadership, strove
a) to inform and educate congressmen and other government officials and such other persons outside of government—reporters, editors, former government officials—who might be able to exert some influence on American policy, about the urgency of the Jewish situation in Europe as well as about the justice and legality of the Zionist cause; b) to develop as much opposition as we could in the same quarters to the  British White Paper [reneging on the Balfour Declaration and strangling Jewish immigration to Palestine]; c) and finally to focus our efforts either on the introduction and passage through Congress of a resolution expressing opposition to the British White Paper, or to go the whole way and try to put the Congress on record as favoring the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine after the war.
Feuer’s 1976 reminiscence, The Birth of the Jewish Lobby [sic!], gives due credit to Silver’s inspirational role but doesn’t say enough about the extent of his direct involvement in day-to-day affairs during this formative period. That story appears in an earlier book by Feuer, A Personal Memoir (1967). There he recalls how, “during the hectic period of the 1940s, when he was leading the Zionist campaign for American support,” Silver “was compelled to spend nearly every week from Monday to Thursday in New York and Washington.” He would then return home to Cleveland almost every weekend “to meet with his confirmation class, which he disliked missing, and to occupy his pulpit on Sunday mornings.”
Silver’s devotion to the task was, Feuer tells us, “simply indescribable.” He “traveled constantly, addressed literally hundreds of meetings, interviewed scores of prominent personages, and fought like a tiger to make the cause and his judgment of events prevail.” Feuer had known Silver and looked up to him from the time he was a teenager; his recollections of the man, if not exactly lyrical, help us not only to see him better but to understand the kind of admiration he was capable of exciting in the right company.
Harry Truman was not among that company. In fact, he couldn’t stand Silver, and his refusal to meet with him in early 1948 is one of the reasons why the Zionist leaders, at the end of the day, required the services of Eddie Jacobson. But the great leader of American Zionism deserves to be better remembered than Truman’s admittedly helpful buddy.
He also deserves to be better remembered than another man with whom he might be more appropriately compared: Judah Magnes. The California-born Magnes was one of a number of Reform rabbis who had broken early with the movement’s anti-Zionist outlook. An associate rabbi for a time at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, and a leader of American Jewry in the 1910s, Magnes had left the U.S. in 1922 for Palestine, where he became president of the newly founded Hebrew University.
Like Silver, Magnes was above all a cultural Zionist. He differed with Silver, however, in seeing the political thrust of Zionism as not merely secondary but altogether expendable. “I should be willing,” he announced after the murderous anti-Jewish Arab riots of 1929, “to yield the Jewish ‘State’ and the Jewish ‘majority’” in favor of a bi-national, Jewish-Arab government. Under such a regime, he believed, it would be possible to create “a spiritual and intellectual center for Judaism and the Jewish people” without depriving the Arabs of Palestine of their legitimate rights.
This was a position from which Magnes never deviated. Nothing that happened subsequently, either in Europe or in Palestine, led him to reassess his view. During World War II, he led the opposition to the Biltmore program; after the war, he lobbied actively in Washington against the establishment of a Jewish state. As late as May 1948, after Eddie Jacobson had done his work, he was still urging President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall to replace the UN partition plan with a UN trusteeship over all of Palestine.
Magnes was not benighted; perhaps worse, he was an idealist. “Obstinate and single-minded,” in the words of the historian Arthur Goren, he was “a preacher turned political man who refused to accept the dichotomy between the moral and the real worlds.” This last aspect of his character, indeed, is what has made him a latter-day object of admiration among some Jewish intellectuals disaffected from the state of Israel and the Zionist cause. One shudders to imagine how things might have unfolded had Magnes possessed the talents and influence of Silver, a no less obstinate and single-minded preacher-turned-politician. Fortunately, he did not.
At a time of great crisis, Abba Hillel Silver saw very clearly that the immediate imperative was Jewish independence, and that in the absence of this, all dreams of Jewish cultural renewal in Palestine, let alone the fates of untold numbers of Jewish survivors and refugees, would go forfeit. He set aside everything else—everything—in order to fight tooth and nail for that overriding imperative. Only after independence had been won did he return to his earlier preoccupations as a rabbi and scholar, concerning himself in his later years with what he never ceased to see as Zionism’s task of preserving “the integrity of our spiritual heritage,” and transmitting it to the rest of the world.
Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.