When American Jews Fought over the Balfour Declaration

Despite everything that has changed, today’s internal Jewish divisions eerily echo those from exactly a century ago.

A draft of the Balfour Declaration, 1917. Smithsonian.

A draft of the Balfour Declaration, 1917. Smithsonian.

One-hundred years ago, Rosh Hashanah came early, just as this year. On the eve of the holy day—September 5, 1918—the New York Times published the text of a letter from President Woodrow Wilson to Stephen S. Wise, a prominent Reform rabbi who also served as vice-president of the Zionist Organization of America. In the letter, the president effectively announced his approval of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British government had expressed its history-changing commitment to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

This marked Wilson’s first public endorsement of the Zionist project. A year earlier, he had privately conveyed his support for the move then being contemplated by the British cabinet, but he did not publicize it at that time, and at no point in the ensuing ten months had he spoken officially on the subject. In sending his letter to Rabbi Wise, and authorizing the Times to publish it on a date deliberately timed to coincide with the onset of Rosh Hashanah, the president was making a gesture that would significantly advance the Zionist cause both domestically and internationally.

In the American Jewish community, however, the letter triggered an uproar, one that would play out in the pages of the Times and elsewhere for days to come. Thereby hangs a historic tale, an updated version of which may be playing out again today.


By the summer and early autumn of 1917, as the British cabinet was considering successive drafts of a pro-Zionist declaration, World War I had reached a critical turning point. The previous March, the Russian tsar, Nicholas II, had been deposed, rendering uncertain Russia’s continued participation in the war as Britain’s ally. Meanwhile, the American public’s backing for the war—which the country had entered in April—remained shaky. Some political leaders in Britain believed that—in addition to the other grounds, both strategic and moral, for such a step—an endorsement of Zionist aspirations, by stirring the enthusiasm of the large population of Jews in both the United States and Russia, would help materially to ensure those governments’ continued support for the Allied cause. (The British were also alarmed by rumors that Germany was actively considering its own pro-Zionist statement in order to win Jewish support for its side in the war.)

Despite multiple meetings over several months, the British cabinet remained split, in part because of conflicting cables it had received from Washington concerning President Wilson’s views on the matter. On October 4, 1917 it instructed the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour—who had stated he knew Wilson was extremely favorable to the Zionist movement—to solicit those views directly.

Balfour duly cabled the draft text of the British declaration to Wilson’s chief adviser, Colonel Edward M. House, with the request that he obtain the president’s opinion. On October 17, House replied that Wilson approved the declaration but wanted this fact kept private for the time being—”as he has arranged that American Jews shall then ask him for his approval which he will give publicly here.” At its meeting on October 31, the British cabinet—Wilson’s private approval having been confirmed—proceeded to authorize the issuance and publication of the Balfour Declaration.

Chaim Weizmann, who had headed the discussions between British Zionists and the cabinet, wrote excitedly to his key American ally, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, that Wilson’s message had been “one of the most important individual factors” in breaking the internal British deadlock. Weizmann’s judgment has been subsequently confirmed by such historians as Frank W. Brecher, who concludes that without Wilson’s support the Declaration “almost certainly” would never have been issued, and Martin Kramer, who has described Wilson’s support as having had a “decisive effect in the British Cabinet.”


In approving the British move, Wilson had acted without the knowledge of the State Department—which, given the anti-Zionist views of Secretary of State Robert Lansing, would certainly have opposed any such action. In fact, after the Balfour Declaration was issued, but unaware of Wilson’s secret message to the British, Lansing wrote to the president listing three reasons why he should take no position on it. First, he argued, America had declared war on Germany alone, and not on the Ottoman empire that ruled Palestine; second, Jews themselves were not united behind the idea of a Jewish homeland; and third, many Christians would “undoubtedly resent turning the Holy Land over to the absolute control of the race credited with the death of Christ.” Helpfully, Lansing suggested that Wilson need state publicly only the first reason.

Wilson replied that it was too late; he had already assented to the Declaration. Still, not only did he refrain from a public statement at the time, but he continued to keep silent for the first eight months of 1918. Throughout this interim period, both Lansing and House remained opposed, the former for the reasons stated in his note to Wilson, the latter unless and until the other Allies were publicly on board. An influential body of American missionaries in the Middle East—abetted by Wilson’s close friend, adviser, and financial backer Cleveland Dodge—also opposed American support for the Declaration since they favored maintaining good relations with the Ottomans.

Nor was there dissension only in the highest precincts of government. It was also there among American Jews, some of whom were antagonistic to the entire Zionist project and who, ignorant of Wilson’s private move, wanted to forestall a presidential endorsement of the Declaration. On December 11, 1917, a month after the Declaration’s publication, Henry Morgenthau, Wilson’s most recent American ambassador to the Ottoman empire and one of his most prominent Jewish supporters, took to the pages of the New York Times with a 1,000-word statement “strongly emphasiz[ing] to all my American fellow citizens . . . that a majority of those of my faith in America . . . are 100-percent Americans and wish to remain so.”

The “whole world,” Morgenthau wrote, was “now moving away from the emphasis hitherto placed upon extreme nationalism.” Therefore:

What an error it would be, at the very time when the primary message to the world of the Jewish people and their religion should be one of peace, brotherhood, and the international mind, to set up a limited nationalist state and thereby appear to create a physical boundary to their religious influence.

On July 4, 1918, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the national organization of Reform rabbis, echoed Morgenthau’s sentiments in a resolution arguing against the Declaration’s premise that the Jews were a people without a country, when in fact they were “and of right ought to be at home in all lands”:

The ideal of the Jew is not the establishment of a Jewish state—not the reassertion of Jewish nationality which has long been outgrown. We believe our survival as a people is dependent upon the assertion and the maintenance of our historic religious role and not upon the acceptance of Palestine as a homeland of the Jewish people. The mission of the Jew is to witness to God all over the world.


Rabbi Stephen S. Wise vehemently disagreed with his rabbinic colleagues about Zionism, and he had a close relationship with President Wilson. In August, he requested a White House meeting. The reason, as he would later write in his autobiography, was that “We [Zionists] needed something more than [the president’s] word-of-mouth approval of the Balfour Declaration.” Wise had also heard rumors that Morgenthau, David Philipson (another leading Reform rabbi), and others were planning to organize an anti-Zionist conference. With assistance from Brandeis, Wise prepared a statement on Zionism for Wilson’s consideration, and presented it to him at the White House on August 27.

Wilson signed the statement on Saturday, August 31 as a letter to Wise, which Wise received on Tuesday, September 3. On September 5 it was published in the Times. The key portion stated:

I welcome an opportunity to express the satisfaction I have felt in the progress of the Zionist movement in the United States and in the allied countries since the declaration by Mr. Balfour on behalf of the British Government of Great Britain’s approval of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and his promise that the British Government would use its best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of that object, with the understanding that nothing would be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish people in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in other countries.

When Wilson issued his letter, he acted once again without notifying the State Department. The letter was crucial for several reasons: it publicly expressed Wilson’s support for Zionism; it tracked the words of the Balfour Declaration itself; and, most important, it made the United States the fourth of the principal Allies—after Britain, France, and Italy—to endorse publicly a Jewish national home in Palestine. That made the 1917 Balfour Declaration an openly acknowledged consensus among the Allies as World War I approached its final months.

The British embassy in Washington immediately transmitted to Balfour the text of Wilson’s letter, informing him that “[t]he Zionist party are very greatly pleased with this letter which, as a matter of fact, has been formulated by themselves.” The embassy added: “Tomorrow is the Jewish New Year’s day, and the letter has been telegraphed to all the rabbis in the country in order that they may expound it in the synagogues.”


What all “the rabbis in the country” made of the letter may be unknown, but on Saturday, September 7, the Times carried a report on the previous day’s Rosh Hashanah sermons in New York under the headline, “Rabbis Preach on President’s Note.” The Times’ sub-headlines featured the adamant opposition to the presidential “Note” by one of the most prominent rabbis in the country: Samuel Schulman of New York’s Temple Beth-El, who was then in his twentieth year as the spiritual leader of many eminent New Yorkers—including Adolph Simon Ochs, the publisher of the Times.

According to the report, Rabbi Schulman informed his congregants on Rosh Hashanah that “[n]ot even a Balfour or a Wilson can express for the Jew his deepest convictions.” In the United States, the rabbi asserted, Jews were “divided . . . on this question” of Zionism, and he expressed his own position in unambiguous terms:

Our destiny is not to become a little Oriental people in Palestine. It is rather to persist in the world as Israel, Priest of God: to witness as God’s congregation in the whole world, and therefore, to be a part of every nation, abdicating political nationality as a thing too little.

In the same article, the Times reported that Ephraim Frisch, the outspoken Reform rabbi of the New Synagogue on Manhattan’s west side, had sent a telegram to Wilson similarly opposing a Jewish homeland. On Rosh Hashanah itself, he announced the names of members of an organization-in-formation called “The National Committee of Rabbis Opposed to Zionism,” of which he was the executive secretary. Others included Rabbi Schulman, Rabbi Philipson, Rabbi Henry Berkowitz of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Philadelphia, the most eminent Reform rabbi in that city, and similarly important rabbis in nine states.

The Times dutifully recorded that some other rabbis supported Wilson’s letter. Rev. Dr. H. Pereira Mendes of the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America had sent his own telegram expressing the Union’s deep appreciation of the president’s “letter of New Year greeting and commendation of our Zionist aspirations.” Together with two former presidents of the New York Board of Jewish Ministers, Rabbi Mendes also telegraphed Wilson to express the trio’s “profound gratification” and to say that that they wished to “repudiate the telegram of remonstrance sent to you yesterday by a New York rabbi”—that is, Rabbi Frisch—“in the name of a nonexistent organization.”

The next day, the Times published the full text of a letter to the president from Rabbi Samuel Buchler and two Orthodox organizations that Buchler identified as representing “the great bulk of Jews throughout the United States.” Addressing Wilson, Buchler wrote: “your kind and highly logical attitude on the question of the homeland in Palestine, [a question] which confronts not only the Jews but the whole world, has been hailed throughout the land as a document of wise statesmanship.” He added:

Only a disappearing minority of radically reformed Jews oppose the Zionistic movement, but the opposition is not characteristic of real Jewish representation, and will therefore not efface the value of the sacred word you uttered on this subject, but, to the contrary, will arouse a sentiment for unity, harmony, and activity.

Unity and harmony did not, in fact, mark the debates on Zionism that year. There were Zionists as well as anti-Zionists within both the Reform and the Orthodox movements. (The younger and smaller Conservative branch of American Judaism was uniformly Zionist.) And the debates themselves were intense, dividing those who wanted a Jewish state as soon as possible from those who thought such an effort amounted to “forcing the end” and was thus sacrilegious as well as from those who wanted no state at all.


As an expression of a broad consensus of the Allies constituting the world’s great powers, the Balfour Declaration was (in Martin Kramer’s words) “roughly comparable to a UN Security Council resolution today.” Its force derived not simply from the issuance of the Declaration in the name of the British government alone on November 2, 1917, but also from the seriatim public endorsements by France on February 23, Italy on May 9, and, finally, the United States on August 31, 1918. The process was not complete until Rabbi Stephen S. Wise’s meeting with Wilson produced the president’s historic letter.

Wilson’s Rosh Hashanah letter was thus an essential step toward the unified position the Allies would assume months later at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, and a milestone on the road to the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which incorporated the Balfour Declaration into international law and assigned Britain the responsibility of implementing it.

A century later, the Jewish state is in its 71st year, its establishment one of the miracles of the 20th century and its continued flourishing in the present century yet another. This year, to the extent that American rabbis focus their attention on Israel in their High Holy Day sermons, it will probably be to address the Knesset’s recent legal designation of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, with Jerusalem as its undivided capital, Hebrew as its national language, and the encouragement of Jewish settlement as a fundamental legal principle.

That basic act of national self-identification has produced a heated debate among American Jews, and some Israelis, on the relationship to each other of Zionism, Judaism, and democracy. This debate eerily echoes the one exactly a century ago.

Of course, much has changed since then. At that time, the majority of the Jewish people were living in existential peril in Russia and Eastern Europe, a Jewish state was a distant dream, and prominent American Jews felt their American identity threatened by the Balfour Declaration; a century later, the Jewish state exists, and the Jewish diaspora lives in unparalleled freedom and security.

But much remains the same: the Jewish state is itself under existential threat and ideological attack by those who would destroy it, while for some American Jews, Israel’s formal designation of itself as the Jewish state is too Jewish for comfort.

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