There are few documents that have been analyzed from as many different angles as the Balfour Declaration. Countless historians have traced the gradual, behind-the-scenes coalescence of British and Zionist leaders, in the midst of World War I, around a proclamation of British support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. They have described at great length each step of this world-straddling process and assessed the roles played in it by all the major protagonists, such as Herbert Samuel, David Lloyd George, Mark Sykes, and Chaim Weizmann, to name just a few. If I am venturing to write yet another essay on this subject, it is not because I think I can shed any new light on the motivations or the actions of these important figures. I believe, however, that the standard accounts tend to overlook, or underestimate, the crucial role played at a certain point by large numbers of American Jews and not just by their leaders.
To understand the importance of what they did, it is necessary to train our focus not only on American Jewry itself, but also on the particularities of the Jewish experience of World War I in Europe. Every study of the Balfour Declaration has of course discussed how the twists and turns of the war influenced British policymakers’ attitudes toward Palestine as well as the evolving attitudes of Zionist activists toward Great Britain and other powers. Yet many of these works have given short shrift to the upheaval the war created within the Jewish world, particularly in Eastern Europe, and the way in which the catastrophe that began in 1914 contributed to the growth of the Zionist movement, especially in the United States, and thereby greatly improved its prospects. Without these European developments, and their reverberations in America, Great Britain might never have come to lend its support to the Zionists in November 1917—and Israel as we know may not have come to exist.
I. The War on Russia’s Jews
At the end of August 1914, like their Gentile peers, Jewish young men in all the belligerent nations marched off to fight and kill their enemies, including their enemies’ Jews. Jews had been fighting in European wars, of course, for more than a century, ever since they had begun to acquire the rights or at least the duties of citizenship, but never on so massive a scale. For the most part, these Jews took part in the general tragedy that struck the whole continent. Where they underwent a specifically Jewish misery was in an area where they not only served in uniform but thickly populated the battle zone, namely Eastern Europe.
The root of the problem, not surprisingly, was the Russian government. Long notorious for its hostility toward its Jewish subjects, it could nevertheless command their loyalty when it mobilized to fight against its German and Austrian adversaries, even though they accorded their own Jews far better treatment. “Custodians of the commandments of our forefathers, nucleus of the entire Jewish nation,” declared Novy Voshkod, a leading Russian-Jewish journal, in August 1914, “we, the Jews of Russia, are nevertheless united inseparably with the country in which we have dwelt for hundreds of years, and from which neither persecution nor oppression can tear us away. At this historical moment, when our country is threatened by foreign invasion, when brute force has taken up arms against the great ideals of humanity, the Jews of Russia will bravely go forth to battle and will fulfil their sacred duty.” That is indeed what they did, not without reservations, in huge numbers.
In spite of everything the Russian Jews said and did, the regime soon turned on them. The culprit was not the civilian government but the military leaders who were in virtually complete control of the “war zone”—which encompassed not just areas adjacent to the border but virtually the entire Pale of Settlement, where the overwhelming majority of Russian Jews lived. Long a stronghold of anti-Semitic prejudice, the army now outdid itself. At first, it was mostly just a matter of local commanders cruelly uprooting a limited number of Jews groundlessly suspected of disloyalty and espionage from a number of sensitive areas, with the enthusiastic support of local civilians, especially in Russian Poland. The situation worsened drastically when Russian forces crossed the Austrian border, occupied Galicia and Bukovina (territories today divided among Ukraine, Poland, and Romania), and wreaked havoc on their Jewish inhabitants, who constituted 10 percent of the region’s total population.
“All segments of Galician society,” writes the historian Peter Holquist, “suffered from the Russian army, but Jews were particularly subject to this violence. They became targets because of a confluence of several factors: the spy hysteria sweeping the military, the belief that Galician Jews were hostile to the Russian occupation, and the dissemination of anti-Semitic views among the troops by officers and the nationalist press. But there can be no doubt that Jews were the primary focus of the Russian Army’s violence.”
The perpetrators of this violence aimed to “drive the Jews to the Krauts,” and hundreds of thousands of them did indeed flee toward the safer parts of the Habsburg empire, including Vienna, Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary, where they created an enormous refugee problem. When the Russians themselves were in turn largely forced out of the region they had invaded, in the course of 1915, they took 100,000 people with them, half of them Jews, whom they deemed “an unreliable element” and whose conscription into an enemy army they wished to prevent. That same year, Austria and Germany penetrated deep into the Russian frontier provinces. Amid their shambolic retreat, the tsar’s forces intensified their war on the Jews, expelling, and sometimes massacring, supposedly dangerous Jews from the broadly defined war zone—ruthlessly uprooting hundreds of thousands of people and forcing them further into the interior of their own country. When this policy ran into problems, the army began to take hostages from among the local Jewish leaders, warning that they would be executed in the event of “even the smallest act hostile to the fatherland or generally, any assistance rendered to the enemy by any members of the Jewish population.” Some of them were indeed hanged.
These offenses were not committed under any veil of secrecy and were well known throughout the world. Jews in Russia and other countries did what they could to alleviate the sufferings of the victims and to resist the forces arrayed against them. It was easier to do the former than the latter.
Even in Russia, the heavily censored press revealed part of the story of what was going on. Elsewhere, the reports were far more complete, and quite harrowing. On February 4, 1915, for instance, the New York Times picked up from the New York Jewish weekly the American Hebrew the account of a German-Jewish military chaplain of what had been taking place on the eastern front. Rabbi Arthur Levy reported that
The pogroms of former days are as nothing compared to the savage destruction of Jewish homes and Jewish lives that sweeps forward and backward, like a threatening shadow, with the coming and going of the Russian hosts throughout Poland. So far, pogroms have been carried on in more than 215 places, and no end of this terror is in sight.
The many details that Rabbi Levy went on to provide, grisly as they were, might even seem innocuous in comparison to the far more thorough and harrowing account of Russian barbarity published after the war by S. Ansky (Shloyme-Zanyvl Rapoport), the author of the famous play The Dybbuk, as The Destruction of Galicia.
Ansky had been dispatched to the front to investigate the situation in November 1914 by EKOPO, the official Relief Committee of Russian Jewry, established three months earlier by Russian Jewish notables. This organization succeeded in raising large sums among all segments of Russian Jewry and providing food, clothing, shelter, education, and even employment for those who had been victimized and displaced, primarily within the Russian empire but also across the border. In Austria-Hungary, there was no one entity that played the same role as EKOPO, but a host of different organizations stepped in to supplement the government’s inadequate efforts to address the needs of the refugees who were fleeing the war zone and flooding into major cities in the western parts of the empire.
In both warring empires, local relief funds were significantly augmented by money from the American Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers (known as the JDC or simply the Joint), which was founded in 1914 to help Jewish victims of the war everywhere but soon focused mostly on assisting the Jews on the eastern front. How deeply the events in Eastern Europe affected large numbers of Jews in the United States, a majority of whom had themselves fled that region, or were children of those who had, is evident from newspaper accounts of wartime fundraising activities in this country.
On December 21, 1915, reported the New York Times, Rabbi Judah Magnes, a key figure in the JDC, presided over a mass meeting of 3,500 people at Carnegie Hall to raise funds for “the suffering Jews in the war zones.” The gathering would have been much larger if the hall could have accommodated it; there had been three times as many applications for seats as there were seats in the auditorium, and the police had to turn away more than 3,000 people, among them “many wealthy people who sought opportunity to contribute.” Speakers included Louis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee, the Protestant Episcopal bishop of New York, the New York State commissioner of education, and the president of the Central Conference of Rabbis. But Magnes, best remembered today not as an orator but as an educator and as a spokesman for binationalism in Palestine, was in full command of the audience.
“We are here tonight,” he declaimed, “not so much because you Jews are suffering along with others, terrible as that may be; we are here because the Jews are suffering in so far as they are Jews.” To clarify the situation on the ground, he cited a number of members of the Russian Duma, including a representative from Siberia who publicly bore
personal witness to the immeasurable brutality with which the Jews are expelled from the province of Radom, for example. The whole population was driven out in the night within the space of a few hours. At 11 o’clock they were informed that they must leave immediately and those found behind by daybreak would be hanged, and in the night the Jewish population started for the nearest town, Ilsah, lying at a distance of 30 versts. The old, the sick, and the paralyzed had to be carried in arms, as no means of conveyance was obtainable.
Such was the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Magnes observed. And there was worse.
Along the whole line of battle, for example along the line from Lublan [sic] to Rovneh, along that whole line there was pogrom after pogrom. . . . Countless pogroms have been practiced without our hearing a word of it, without the rumor having come to our ears, and along the line of battle in Lublan, and all the cities, the name of which I cannot recall now, but those of you who have come from there know what they are and where they are, of rabbis hanged to telegraph poles, men and women shot down, the wives and the daughters and the mothers of men in the army ravished, women running to the synagogues, taking hold of the horns of the altar for safety, and not being protected; synagogues shot through and burned down, the rolls of the Torah desecrated, every possible indignity, every possible brutality practiced, not upon one family but upon a whole people, upon thousands, upon millions of your people and mine.
We must come to their aid, Magnes urged his fellow Jews. We need to raise one million dollars immediately, and we’ll have it if we raise $600,000 here tonight, since we’ve got four anonymous donors who will each give $100,000 if we do. They quickly raised the money, as the Times reported, even though it meant that some gave literally their last dollar, like the man who “sent a dollar bill with a note saying that he had with him only $1.05 and needed the 5 cents for carfare home.”
This is a stirring account of but one of many such gatherings at the time. But sending money wasn’t the only thing Jews could do to help their brethren. For the soldiers of the Central Powers there was, of course, a more forceful alternative: defeat of the tsar, which would at the very least take away the military’s rationale for terrorizing the Jews, and possibly end tsarist rule in Ukraine, Poland, and other territories where Jews were concentrated. And for countless Jews in the Austrian as well as the German armies, World War I was a war against the barbaric enemy of their people as well as of their fatherland. While a number of Russian Jews famously joined revolutionary movements, the vast majority remained loyal and only a few of them dared to criticize their government openly, or tried to convince it to leave the Jews alone. But Jews in states allied with Russia, like France and Great Britain, and those in neutral countries, like the United States (until April 1917), did have a choice other than philanthropy. They could try to influence the Russian government, through their own economic power or through the mediation of their own governments, to act more acceptably.
But they weren’t eager to do this. In France, most Jews shared the views expressed by Rabbi David Berman in L’univers Israélite in February 1916: “It is in vain that one objects to our alliance with Russia. It is a boon to France and every bit of assistance is welcome. Whoever wishes for the triumph of our country must wish for that of our allies, without exception.” In other words: to make trouble in wartime for a vital ally merely because of its treatment of its Jews would be an unpatriotic act.
In Great Britain, matters were somewhat more complicated. Jews there felt the same pressure as French Jews to support their country’s vital ally, but their leadership nevertheless managed to take indirect action on behalf of their Jewish brethren in Russia. Lucien Wolf, the secretary of the Conjoint Foreign Committee—a coordinating organ of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association—and thus, in effect, the foreign secretary of British Jewry, had long been staunchly anti-Russian. (At the time, the memory of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, and similar events in the years that followed, was still fresh.) Once the war began, he understood the necessity of bringing his actions completely into line with British foreign policy, and considerably muted his critique of Russia’s treatment of its Jews. But, as Mark Levene has shown in his exemplary book on the subject, Wolf was resourceful in behind-the-scenes support of a policy that he could not openly pursue.
Wolf played a significant role in conveying to influential British government figures what he himself considered to be unwarranted fears that American-Jewish bankers, upset by Russia’s wartime oppression of its Jews, would continue to stand in the way of financial assistance to the Allies if Russia did not treat its Jews better. “They in turn,” writes Levene, “impressed the point on the Russian finance minister, P.L. Bark, in his spring and summer visits to the West [in 1915] in search of economic aid. Eventually the message got back to the Russian Council of Ministers.”
From the published minutes of the Council’s meeting we can see that Bark’s warning made an impression, and even contributed to some minor adjustments in government policy in September 1915. These included, most significantly, a temporary suspension of the boundaries of the Pale of Settlement, something of a relief to Jews who had been expelled from one corner of the Pale only to be compressed into other corners, where there was no room for them. But the civilian government’s worries were generally ignored by the military, which remained in control of the areas where most Jews resided, and the provisions of the September decree were not effectively enforced. Any fundamental improvement in the condition of Russian Jewry was out of the question.
In the United States, individual Jews, including most notably the financier and philanthropist Jacob Schiff, refused, as Lucien Wolf had known, to participate in large-scale loans to Russia until it treated its Jews in accordance with “the principles of humanity and justice.” Other Jews protested publicly. On April 14, 1915, for instance, representatives of the United Hebrew Trades, the Jewish National Workers Alliance of America, the Jewish Socialist Party Poalei Zion of America, the Jewish Socialist Federation of America, and the Workmen’s Circle, representing, according to the New York Times, 300,000 workingmen, issued a statement condemning “the Russian Government for alleged persecution of the Jewish race in Russia and for atrocities declared to have been committed by Russian soldiers in the present war.” American Jews did not make any attempt, however, to enlist the U.S. government in a campaign to put pressure on a foreign power with which it was not even allied and which had in the past often proved impervious to its calls for change.
The hostility of American Jews in general toward Russia remained a matter of concern not so much to the Russians themselves as to their French and British allies. Believing that the Jews had an outsize influence on the formation of American foreign policy, the French and British were eager to win their sympathies, if not their active support. If Washington could be convinced to join the war on the side of the Allies, or at least lend material support, the tide of the war would likely turn in the Allies’ favor. French and British efforts to woo the Jews, however, were severely hampered by the alliance with Russia. It was their attempts to overcome that obstacle that gave birth to the idea that the solution lay in adopting a favorable stance toward Zionism, which had suddenly mushroomed in popularity among American Jews.
II. Building Zionism in America
In the years between its inception in the 1880s and the outbreak of World War I, the Zionist movement had not flourished in the United States. It had existed from early on, but it remained small and marginal, the concern of a mere handful of intellectuals among the veteran American Jews and a scattering of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe for whom the goldene medina did not seem to provide all the answers. Estimates for the size of the movement in 1914 range between 8,000 and 12,000 members. By 1919, however, the number was over 176,000.
You can’t begin to account for this sudden and rapid growth without pointing to the man who made the greatest difference: Louis Brandeis. The nationally renowned “people’s lawyer” had spent most of his life far from Jewish concerns, but he gravitated toward Zionism in the years before World War I, not least because he believed that a “Jewish renaissance in Palestine” would “help us make toward the attainment of the American ideals of democracy and social justice that large contribution for which religion and life have particularly fitted the Jew.” On August 30, 1914, he was elected chairman of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs, a position that was tantamount to the leadership of American Zionism.
When he took the helm, Brandeis’s highest priority was to enlarge the movement. “Organize! Organize! Organize!” was his plea, “until every Jew in America must stand up and be counted—counted with us—or prove himself, wittingly or unwittingly, of the few who are against their own people.” And this effort worked, albeit not quite as well as Brandeis had hoped. The back pages of the official organ of American Zionism, the Maccabaean, provided a monthly overview of what was taking place: in January, new Zionist societies were being formed in Bangor, Maine; Newport News, Virginia; Bayonne, New Jersey; and other far-flung places. On February 28, which was Purim, the first Zionist Flag Day was held. Reports from 64 cities across the United States showed “an unusual Zionist propaganda.” On March 7, the Los Angeles Zionists arranged a “large mass-meeting . . . over which Nathan Straus of New York presided and at which Oscar S. Straus spoke; $2,300 was pledged for Palestine relief. A number of Zionists pledged $100 per month while the war lasts.” In March, “for the first time in the history of the Nashville YMHA a Zionist affair took place in its auditorium.” And so on and so forth, throughout the year and the country.
What explains this success? The historian of American Zionism Melvin Urofsky pointed, among other things, to Brandeis’s capacity to free the latently Zionist immigrants of the fear that allegiance to the cause would cast doubt on their loyalty to the United States. When they heard Brandeis insist that Zionism and “Americanism” were compatible, they no longer felt it impossible to support the movement while remaining “real” Americans. But Ben Halpern, a Labor Zionist activist-turned-historian, rejected Urofsky’s explanation. It was, he wrote, “unquestionably the emergency of the war years, 1914-1918, which was the operative factor in Zionist growth.” The lead editorial of the July 1915 issue of the Maccabaean, published in the aftermath of a large, important, and highly successful Zionist conference that had just been held in Boston, certainly supports Halpern’s contention:
The echoes of the Boston Convention still reverberate throughout the United States. In every Jewish community, and among the non-Jewish public, the word Zionism now stands for a powerful progressive practical force in Jewish life.
A great deal of this interest in Zionism, the reciprocal interest which has made Zionism the foremost idea in Jewish life, may be attributed to the war. Facing a great catastrophe, seeing thousands of our brethren ruined, and witnessing the collapse of hundreds of Jewish communities, the Jews not directly affected were made to feel that in Zionism they had the one constructive program which gave them hope, courage, and vision.
Thousands of Jews, overwhelmed by the calamity, had remained indifferent to the situation, for they felt that all human effort was useless to influence the perpetrators of the offenses against Jewish life: they saw nothing that could be done by puny individuals to relieve a calamity which seemed to be the work of superior malevolent forces. In Zionism, however, many hitherto impervious to Zionist appeals have found an outlet, have found something to make them feel that at least when the war is over, salvation is possible.
The war galvanized the Zionist movement in America. If its spokesmen thought that what they had to offer was “the one constructive program” that could help the beleaguered Jews of the East, they had good reason. Immigration to America was virtually impossible during the war, and there was mounting resistance all over the country to permitting it to resume when the conflict ended. Political reform in the war zone was on their agenda too, but about that it was hard to be as confident as they were of the possibilities in Palestine. And, as the Maccabaean noted, Zionism supplied its American adherents with a program that not only seemed feasible but was also inspiring, the fulfillment of a vision—one that had been articulated in antiquity by the prophet Isaiah and most recently, for them, by the man many called “Old Isaiah,” Louis Brandeis.
American Zionists did not seek to exploit the conflict for their own purposes. They didn’t try to hitch their cause to anyone’s wagon in the expectation of earning the Jews a territorial reward in Palestine. Until the spring of 1917, when the U.S. entered the war on the side of Allies, Zionist leaders in the U.S. made every effort not to appear as favoring any of the belligerent nations. They declared neutrality as formal policy in 1915, and, as Urofsky has written, “the Maccabaean went out of its way to delete any article or statement that might be interpreted as favoring one belligerent camp or the other.” The movement’s foreign-policy agenda consisted mainly of calls for the election of an American Jewish Congress that would present demands for minority rights for East European Jews and the recognition of the Jewish national interest in Palestine to a postwar peace conference. Yet its enthusiasm for Zionism would bear unexpected fruit sooner than that.
III. The Palestine Idea
While the American Zionists focused on the end of the war as a time when “salvation” might be attained, they were being watched from 1915 onward by others who had more immediate and concrete concerns with regard to the prosecution of the war and their relevance to it. In France and Great Britain there were many who continued to eye the American Jewish community anxiously, convinced (unwarrantedly) that it could have a powerful influence on the direction of the nation’s foreign policy. They knew that American Jews’ intense hostility toward Russia made them unsympathetic to the Allied cause in general and were looking for a way to assuage their concerns. If, as had become clear, the Russian government would not significantly modify its policy toward its own Jews, then maybe there was something else that the Allies could do that might alter Jewish feelings in America and get them to support the war.
To understand why some French and British observers were so invested in courting American Jewish opinion, it’s important to realize the sense of frustration and urgency in both countries. Almost from the very beginning, the war seemed to be going disastrously. The Allies had lost hundreds of thousands of lives but had failed to make any substantial gains against the Germans on the Western Front; the 1915 attempt to open a new front at Gallipoli had ended in calamity; in the same year the Russian gains of the first months of the war had been reversed completely. Convinced that any additional help might make a difference, Allied diplomats endeavored tirelessly to recruit small powers like Italy, Romania, and Greece to join the war, and to keep pro-German countries like Bulgaria neutral. (The Central Powers were doing the same.) T.E. Lawrence’s famous efforts to stoke an Arab revolt against the sultan was yet another example of the scramble for new allies. But the big prize was America, where public opinion tended to combine sympathy for the Allies with a desire to stay out of the war.
The idea that the Zionists could supply the key to winning over American Jews first surfaced among some of the members of a French governmental “Committee for French Propaganda among Jews in Neutral Countries,” established in 1915. They proceeded to share their views with Lucien Wolf, who despite his hostility toward Zionism nevertheless took them up. Acknowledging in a December 1915 memorandum that he deplored the Jewish National Movement, he reluctantly admitted that “in any bid for Jewish sympathies today, very serious account must be taken of the Zionist movement.” In view of the regrettable fact that “in America the Zionist organizations have lately captured Jewish opinion, and very shortly a great American Jewish Congress will be held virtually under Zionist auspices,” it was time “for the Allies to declare their policy in regard to Palestine.”
Wolf stopped short of calling for an independent Jewish state, but he stressed the need for “reasonable facilities for immigration and colonization, for a liberal scheme of local self-government for the existing colonists, for the establishment of a Jewish university, and for the recognition of Hebrew as one of the vernaculars of the land.” He concluded by expressing his confidence that if the Allies would declare their support for these things, “they would sweep the whole of American Jewry into enthusiastic allegiance to their cause.”
Wolf evidently gave his British patriotism priority over his anti-Zionism. His memorandum generated a surprising amount of support in the higher reaches of British officialdom, which had recently cast aside a proposal—formulated by Herbert Samuel, the first Jewish member of a British cabinet—to support the establishment of “a Jewish center” in Palestine after the war. “The Foreign Office,” the historian David Vital has written, now “saw nothing to object to in Wolf’s formula,” and was even “in favor of going a good deal further.” It proposed holding out to the Jews “the prospect that when in the course of time the Jewish colonists in Palestine grow strong enough to cope with the Arab population they may be allowed to take the management of the internal affairs of Palestine (with the exception of Jerusalem and the Holy Places) into their own hands.” The French government, however, quickly shot down both versions of what was called at the time “the Palestine Idea,” which was at odds with the plans for an international condominium over Palestine spelled out in the famous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was just then being drawn up.
Sir Mark Sykes, the British signer of that agreement, had been involved in the attempt to get the French to agree to the “Palestine Idea,” and despite the failure of this effort he remained attached to it. Although he had not previously been a supporter of Zionism, he was by early spring of 1916, as the historian Jehuda Reinharz put it, “utterly convinced of the worldwide importance of Jews and Zionists.” It was Sykes who then went on to reinvigorate the rather dormant contacts between the British government and the Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann, that were eventually to culminate in the Balfour Declaration.
Had Sykes not put his finger on the scales, things might never have reached this point. Prior to their encounter with him, the Zionists around Weizmann had been focused, like their American counterparts, on obtaining support, in their own country, for Zionist goals at a postwar peace conference. And they had not made very much progress. But now a path to something more concrete and immediate was opening up. There was still a long way to go, a lot of obstacles remained to be overcome, and overall circumstances would alter greatly in the period prior to November 1917, but Lucien Wolf’s patriotic attempt to win American Jews’ support for his country’s side in World War I had an indirect but decisive impact on the course of events.
IV. A Fuller Picture of Zionism
While historians of the Balfour Declaration have taken note of the British efforts to woo American Jewry, they have nonetheless tended to overlook the aspirations and activities of American Zionists. Take for instance Leonard Stein’s seminal 1961 The Balfour Declaration. Stein dedicates ample space to Lucien Wolf’s attempt at the end of 1915 to advance British interests by appropriating part of the agenda of the American Zionists who had, to his dismay, “captured” U.S. Jewry. But his 700-page volume gives short shrift to the American Zionists themselves. In a slim chapter on American Jewry, he noted that up to 1914 “only a negligible proportion of American Jews had identified themselves with the Zionist movement.” He insisted, however, that “the immigrant masses were not as indifferent as they seemed,” and that there was among them “a vast fund of inarticulate sympathy waiting to be drawn upon when the time came for the Zionists to appeal to American Jewry for support in the light of the new situation arising from the War.”
When the outbreak of fighting posed a dire threat to the Jewish community in Palestine, Stein notes, “a good many American Jews who had, before the War, shown little interest in the abstractions of the Zionist ideology found themselves moving in a Zionist direction.” These terse observations are true enough, as far as they go, but, as I hope I have shown, they fall short of providing a full picture of the way in which the war across the seas sparked the rise of American Zionism.
In a much more recent, and highly praised, book on the subject, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Jonathan Schneer also has a lot to say about Lucien Wolf’s surprising tilt toward Zionism in 1915 as a result of his concern with American Jewish public opinion, but he omits from his summary of Wolf’s December 15, 1915 memorandum to Robert Cecil any indication that it represented a response to what Wolf fretfully described as the American Zionist organizations’ “capture” of the minds of American Jews. American Zionism is in fact almost entirely absent from his narrative. He does refer here and there in his book to actions taken by Louis Brandeis and a few other American Zionist leaders, such as Felix Frankfurter, but says nothing to identify or to explain the movement to which they belonged and the degree of influence it had obtained within the American Jewish community.
Finally, Walter Russell Mead, in his admirable new book The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People speaks very briefly and dismissively of American Zionism during World War I as a “young and fragile” movement, one to which the British attributed far more influence than it really possessed. In their effort to win its support, and thereby that of American Jewry in general, he writes, the British made the mistake of “[d]rastically overestimating the power of the American Jewish community, and completely misreading its attitude toward Zionism.” That such an overestimation occurred is quite clear, and there was certainly a misreading here, too—but it was manifestly much less than complete.
Stein, Schneer, and Mead, along with numerous other historians, have relegated American Zionists to the sidelines of the story of the Balfour Declaration. All I want to do is to bring them back a little closer to the center, to their rightful place. They mattered. Had they not been on the scene, in their highly visible masses, things might have played out very differently. Granted, they wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t been organized, organized, organized by Louis Brandeis and his comrades. A relatively small cadre of engaged activists played a crucial role. But one can easily imagine circumstances under which the words of these leaders would have fallen on mostly deaf ears. What took place instead was the rise of a mass movement. This movement may not really have “captured” the American Jewish community at this time, and it certainly didn’t do so for long. But it loomed very much into view at a crucial moment, and as a consequence made a palpable difference in the way that the historical process unfolded, even if it did not do so exactly in the way it hoped to.
In the years before World War I, American Jews had already stood up in defense of their overseas brethren on numerous occasions. They had attempted, with little success, to induce the governments of some foreign countries to accord better treatment to the Jews within their borders. With considerably more success, they had used their influence to keep the doors of the United States open as widely as possible to Jews fleeing those countries for America—despite the disdain that many of the more established members of the community often felt for these people when they arrived. In 1914, immediately after the war broke out, the American Jewish community mobilized to dispatch vital aid to the Jews living and suffering in the war zone. At the same time, a sizable portion of the community organized itself into a mass movement, the American Zionist movement, that was able to have a measurable, positive impact on the direction of Jewish history almost immediately. We don’t know whether the unnamed man at Carnegie Hall reported by the Times to have donated the last dollar he had to the war victims was a Zionist, but we have a good idea how many of America’s newly minted Zionists felt the way he did. They raised their voices in a call for action, were seen and heard, and they evoked a very important response. They marked out a path that others have followed, albeit intermittently and somewhat inconsistently, for more than a century, a path that their heirs must continue to pursue.
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