David Ben-Gurion's 1940 Mission to Rouse the Fighting Spirit of American Jews

As millions of Jews fell under the Nazi yoke, Zionism’s foremost leader came to America with one goal. He didn’t achieve it.

David Ben-Gurion in 1960. Keystone/Getty Images.

David Ben-Gurion in 1960. Keystone/Getty Images.

In 1940, as millions of Jews came under Nazi control in the countries conquered by Hitler, and as the route to safety in Palestine remained closed by the British Mandatory power, three of Zionism’s greatest leaders traveled to America. They came at different times, on separate missions, but all three—Chaim Weizmann, the president of the Zionist Organization, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement, and David Ben-Gurion, the Labor Zionist leader who headed the Jewish Agency in Palestine—shared a single goal: to win support in America for a Jewish army to fight the Nazis alongside the British.

This article focuses on Ben-Gurion, the last to come. Writing to his wife Paula before leaving London for the United States, he said he wanted “to see with my own eyes what we can expect from America in wartime.” In particular, he wrote, “I want to know the extent of the contribution America’s Jews are prepared to make for the life of their own people.”

Ben-Gurion would remain in America for four months, on a visit that—like those of his two predecessors—would reveal a great deal not only about American Jews but also about their Zionist visitors. The following brief account draws on Ben-Gurion’s diary, translated into English for the first time, as well as on letters and other contemporaneous documents, most of them previously unpublished.


Ben-Gurion traveled from England on the SS Scythia, a converted Cunard liner, across the dangerous waters of the Atlantic Ocean patrolled by German submarines. (Only a week earlier, 284 adults and children had drowned on a British liner torpedoed by the Germans.) He arrived in New York on the morning of October 3, 1940—a month before the presidential election in which Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking an unprecedented third term, a week after Japan, Germany, and Italy had signed a tripartite mutual-defense pact intended to deter the United States from attacking any of them, and fourteen months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor that would trigger America’s entry into the war.

October 3 was also the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and so no Jewish dignitaries were on hand to welcome him. Fortunately, Bernard Kornblith, representing the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), was on duty. An immigration official informed him of a problem with one of the passengers, who had refused to disclose the reason for his trip and who would therefore be detained at Ellis Island.

Boarding the ship, and recognizing the passenger as David Ben-Gurion, Kornblith explained to the official that this was the well-known, long-time Zionist leader—an explanation that left the official unmoved. As he later wrote in a memorandum, Kornblith then “had quite a discussion with” Ben-Gurion, advising him that the inspector was empowered to reject his admission to America and that, “if possible, he owed him some explanation.” Ben-Gurion still refused.

Returning to the inspector, Kornblith emphasized that “it would be very embarrassing to send so illustrious a visitor to Ellis Island”–and got nowhere. Faced with this impasse, he called Stephen S. Wise, the noted Reform rabbi and Zionist activist, leaving word at his home about the standoff. Wise was conducting High Holy Day services at Carnegie Hall, but after receiving the message went directly to the pier to give his personal guarantee that Ben-Gurion would present himself later to the immigration board.

On that basis, the obstinate Ben-Gurion was permitted to leave the ship and begin his mission to America.

What was the purpose of the trip? In his diary that first day, Ben-Gurion wrote candidly: “[T]he main action, in my opinion, is the establishment of the Jewish army.” Two days later, he again recorded that “Only one thing occupies my mind right now: the effort to build a Jewish army.”

Unwilling as he had been to reveal his purpose to the immigration official, he did not hide it from the press, telling the Jewish Telegraphic Agency several days later that he expected the center of the war to move from Europe to the Middle East, and that the future of Palestine would depend on the formation of a Jewish army.


By the time Ben-Gurion arrived in America, the tragedy facing the Jews of Europe, and the urgency of their plight, were apparent to all. Prominent rabbis devoted their 1940 High Holy Day sermons to the specter of catastrophe hanging over European Jewry. Nor was Ben-Gurion the first Zionist visitor to America to introduce the idea of a Jewish army. Jabotinsky had spent the preceding five months in the United States, captivating crowds with his call for such an army, whose forces would be available (in his words) “on all fronts.” Ben-Gurion was chagrined when a Jewish reporter from the New York Times told him the army was “Jabotinsky’s idea”—as indeed it was.

Ben-Gurion’s relationship with Jabotinsky had long been contentious, though in a brief moment of unity in 1934 the two had held sixteen meetings in London over the course of a month, negotiating a common basis on which their movements might move forward together. But the agreements signed by them were subsequently voted down by Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists, and the following year Jabotinsky left the Zionist Organization over its refusal to adopt Jewish statehood as the movement’s most urgent goal.

The day before Ben-Gurion arrived in America, the New York Times had reported that two Jewish combat companies in Palestine had begun infantry training in the hope that Britain would permit the formation of additional fighting units. Having spent the preceding four months in London, Ben-Gurion had witnessed first-hand the courage of the British in their response to the brutal German Blitzkrieg, and he knew that the Jews in Palestine were eager to join the fight against the Nazis. It was inconceivable to him that American Jewish youth would not want to join that effort as well.

He quickly learned how mistaken he was.

In everyone’s opinion, [he wrote in his diary], there is no hope in recruiting the young Jews in America to establish a Jewish army. They are preoccupied with their own problems, they are afraid of what the Gentiles are going to say, and that the new American military leadership will also be in the way.

But, he immediately added, “I cannot accept this verdict,” and he was determined to change it. On October 5, meeting with Edmund Kaufman, the new leader of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), he gained some insight into both the social and economic divisions among American Jews and their ambivalence toward Zionism. Kaufman’s goal, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary, “was to attract the rich Jews to Zionism,” but there was “a social divide between the lower and middle classes,” who made up the bulk of American Zionists, and the well-established upper-class Jews. Kaufman had expressed “bitterness” about the internal divisions within the Zionist movement—“and about the efforts to see him fail.”

The next day, Henry Montor, the executive vice chairman of the United Palestine Appeal, effectively confirmed the strength of the anti-Kaufman sentiment, telling Ben-Gurion bluntly that “Kaufman is ridiculous and insulting as a representative of the Zionists” and a man of “no political understanding.” Indeed, the very real divisions among Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion turned out to be mirrored in the differences among their American Zionist counterparts, who themselves formed but a very small fraction of the 4.8 million American Jews.

In America, Ben-Gurion learned first-hand, many Jews perceived Zionism as a threat to their identity as full-fledged Americans. He would also come face to face with, and become irritated by, the eagerness of American Jews to embrace naïve proposals for “solving” the problem of Arab hostility. On his arrival, hopeful interlocutors presented him with the “Bardin memorandum,” prepared by the educator Shlomo Bardin, which argued that Arab agreement to Jewish settlement in Palestine could be achieved by creating a Jewish-Arab federation and a joint army to fight Hitler. In his diary for October 9, Ben-Gurion wrote sarcastically that Bardin’s plan was “excellent” and “original” except for “one small thing”: the memorandum did not address “how to deal with the objections of the Arabs”:

Like many who think they have the “solution of solutions,” Bardin thinks it is enough to prove to himself that the Jewish aliyah is good—so he assumes the Arabs will recognize it, too. And he is proving it to them in a memorandum that was written in America to the Jews.

When it came specifically to promoting a Jewish army, Ben-Gurion also had to skirt two factors that, he believed, required a delay in his efforts, at least in public: (1) the British had not yet approved a Jewish fighting unit; and (2) it would be imprudent to raise the issue before the November election decided the presidency.

Jabotinsky’s view had been the opposite: he was convinced that Britain would never approve a Jewish military force unless American public opinion demanded it, and that immediate public discussion in America was thus essential. Ben-Gurion, by contrast, restricted himself to speaking privately of the importance of a Jewish army but stopped short of issuing a public call to action, pending the election and the hoped-for approval from London. (Weizmann, for his part, had raised the issue in London with Neville Chamberlain, and later with Churchill, but while in America decided to avoid the issue for fear of charges of Jewish “warmongering.”)

Ben-Gurion’s talking points, as recorded in his diary, were these:

[1] a war by a Jewish army against Hitler and for the defense of the Land of Israel; [2] uprooting the fear that Hitler and his agents cause over the American Jews; [3] consolidation of a brave Zionist leadership.

Even in this tempered form, however, he found that his presentations did not produce the unity he sought. Among American Zionists, some wanted an army only for service in Palestine; some wanted an army only for the European war against Hitler; others thought Jewish trepidation would preclude any meaningful action; and still others thought the whole idea impracticable on grounds that the Zionist activists were too old to enlist. In his diary, Ben-Gurion wrote: “I am not a partner to the pessimism regarding the American Jews—but there is lack of leadership . . . [in] a group that should know what to do and act with courage.”

Turning elsewhere, Ben-Gurion approached the leaders of Zionist youth organizations. He held meetings, gave talks, appeared at press conferences, wrote articles, and gave interviews to reporters. Unable to win over such leading Zionists as Stephen Wise and Louis Lipsky (the ZOA vice-president), who were Weizmann followers, or those in the more assertive group associated with Louis D. Brandeis, recently retired from the Supreme Court, he concentrated his attention on Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, the largest Zionist group in the country with 74,000 members, nearly twice as many as the ZOA.

In mid-October, Ben-Gurion traveled by train to Washington for meetings with Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, the Vienna-born associate justice of the Supreme Court. Of his meeting with Brandeis, he wrote in his diary:

I told him what I saw in England during the four months of difficult defeats and failures—about the heroism of the English people and their moral stand. The old man was impressed . . . .

I told him, in brief, about my plans here—about the establishment of a Jewish army, arranging air training and pre­military training for the young people here, and that I will only start action on it after the election. The old man said little. He expressed his regret that he is not my age anymore. He expressed his agreement to the plan and asked me to come and visit again after the elections.


After Roosevelt won re-election on November 5, Ben-Gurion believed there was now “a huge role for America in this terrible struggle, maybe even [a] crucial [one] because in the next four years it will all be decided (even though it could be that the war could last more than four years).” But he also worried about what he saw as emerging signs in America of the same ideological conflict that had consumed Europe (“because here too there are some fascist and Nazi forces”), and was as frustrated as ever by American Jewish timorousness. “One thing [is] clear to me,” he wrote in a long letter to his wife on November 9,

The Jews of America are afraid. They are afraid of Hitler, they are afraid of Hitler’s allies, they are afraid of war, and they are afraid of peace. During the elections they were afraid that [the Republican candidate Wendell] Willkie would be elected, and they were also afraid openly to support Roosevelt. The Zionists are afraid of the non-Zionists, and the non-Zionists are afraid of the non-Jews. Among the youth, a convenient exaggeration rules: either pacifism or imperialism, internationalism, and the radicalism that does not obligate itself to anything.

Stubbornly, he nevertheless hoped that fear was “not the true expression of the American Jews,” and that the problem lay in the fact that “the Zionist demand has not yet been heard and the conscience has not yet been touched.” For “there is a conscience, and there is ability, and there is a common destiny—and if we know what and how to demand it, I am sure we will be answered.”

He thus became increasingly outspoken. On November 11, he addressed the Hebrew Federation Ball where “I called upon the [audience] to uproot the fear in the heart of the American Jews and to prepare for war against Hitler and to enlist a Jewish force.” And some, at least, rallied to his side. In the November 15, 1940 issue of the Congress Weekly, the publication of the American Jewish Congress, the ZOA’s Louis Lipsky wrote:

It is important that we show that as Jews we are not satisfied to do only that which is expected of all Americans . . . The defeat of Hitler means the victory of Jewish ideals as well as the defeat of the enemy of democracy. We should demand the right to make our own identifiable sacrifice to the cause of Jewish freedom and democracy. . . .

When the time comes—and it may come soon—and a Jewish army for service in the Near East is given public recognition . . . [l]et us not hesitate to do our duty also as Jews; in doing that we shall be making a significant contribution to the idealism of America and at the same time help to restore the honor of the Jewish people.

At the December meetings of the American Zionist groups, and again at a ZOA meeting in January, Ben-Gurion pressed for an active response to the continuing British refusal to admit Jewish emigrants desperately fleeing Hitler for Palestine. His only supporter was Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, seemingly the sole exception to “the all-pervasive Jewish timidity in the United States.” Concluding sardonically that, more than trying to convert non-Zionists to Zionism, it was necessary “to make Zionists out of the Zionists,” he decided that the time had come to leave.

On January 13, he flew to San Francisco, preparing to return home by a Pacific crossing since the Atlantic had become too hazardous. On January 16, from the St. Francis Hotel, he wrote to Tamar de Sola Pool, Hadassah’s national president:

I shall not . . . deny the distressing feeling which American Jewry has awakened in me. Even in Zionist circles I did not find an adequate awareness of the seriousness of this desperate and tragic hour in the history of Israel. Does the fate of millions of their kin in Europe concern Jewry in America less than the fate of England affects the people of America? Is Palestine less dear to the five million Jews in the United States than Britain is to the 130 million people in America?

He urged Mrs. de Sola Pool to inspire American Jews to rise to the occasion:

What is demanded of American Jewry? Who is mobilizing its national, traditional, and financial resources for the salvation of the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people, struggling for their very existence, and threatened with extinction everywhere in Europe? . . . I fear that American Zionists have not yet fully grasped the tremendous and weighty responsibility which history has imposed upon them in the present fateful hour.


In the end, Ben-Gurion’s mission was unsuccessful. But the fault did not lie entirely, or perhaps even mainly, with American Jews, who needed public leadership more than private exhortations. Jabotinsky’s visit had demonstrated that they were ready to respond to a courageous public call.

The most important part of Ben-Gurion’s visit may have been his final appeal to American Jews, and to the American people, in his farewell letter to Hadassah’s president, urging her to:

impress upon the Jews in America the extent of the catastrophe which has befallen our people in Europe. Tell them what we have accomplished in Palestine. I am confident that American Jewry will respond to the call, for it is not inferior to other peoples in America.

And to the American people, too, you should present our lofty ideal. . . . Americans will lend an ear to a great ideal. . . . This is a moment pregnant with significance and every historic hour has its vision. And now the time has come for great and far-reaching Zionist achievement.

Mrs. de Sola Pool read Ben-Gurion’s entire letter aloud to the National Board meeting of Hadassah, and sent copies of it to Hadassah members throughout the country.

As for the Jewish army that Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion hoped would join the fight against Hitler, it never came to be, although in the final months of the war Britain did permit the formation of a single Jewish brigade whose 5,000 soldiers, mainly from Palestine, served in Italy. The British disbanded it in 1946.

But all this is only part of a continuing story. In 1940, one or another of the three great world Zionist leaders was in America throughout the year, giving speeches, holding meetings, and forming important alliances that would become essential to the Zionist cause during the historic decade to come. Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky, and Weizmann did not win their race against history in 1940, but their missions to America formed a chapter in a larger Zionist chronicle, one that had begun more than a half-century earlier and would continue throughout the ensuing World War, culminating eight years later in the founding of the modern state of Israel.

Indeed, the three missions contributed to a dawning awareness on the part of a significant number of American Jews that their own futures were linked to that of the Jews in Europe and Palestine. Over time, this awareness, and the commitment it engendered, became more widespread and powerful, and would prove critical not only to the formation but to the survival and flourishing of the Jewish state.

Adapted with permission from Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler by Rick Richman, to be released later this month by Encounter Books. Copyright © 2018 by the author.

More about: David Ben-Gurion, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism