How World War I Changed the Course of American Zionism

The war and the danger to European Jewry brought with them a fervor that Jewish activists could only wish for these days.


A German rabbi leads religious services for Russian Jewish POWs during World War I. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
A German rabbi leads religious services for Russian Jewish POWs during World War I. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
Response
Nov. 30 2022
About the authors

Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Andrew N. Koss, a senior editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.

Earlier this week, Mosaic’s senior editor Andrew Koss spoke with Allan Arkush, the author of our November essay, about the early days of American Zionism, the subject of his piece. Read the transcript of their discussion below. 

Andrew Koss:

We’re here today to talk about Allan Arkush’s wonderful essay about the American Zionist movement and how it was invigorated by World War I, and the impact that that invigoration had on the origins of the Balfour Declaration. Before we delve into that essay, I’d like to take a step back and ask you about the larger project you’re currently working on about the Jews and the First World War in general. Tell us a little bit about that, and about how you got into the subject in the first place.

Allan Arkush:

I wish I knew. The subject of World War I and the Jews has fascinated me for a very long time. I recall thinking as far back as 40 years ago that it would be an interesting thing to try to write a book about. But it was just a notion that floated in and out of my head whenever I read something that pertained to the subject. Over the years, I began to see more and more linkages and connections and to discover experiences that fit together into a picture that I still can’t really wrap my head around completely.

I remember one of the things that triggered my interest in the first place was reading a book about the Jewish Legion by an Israeli historian, Yigal Elam. He told the story of Joseph Trumpeldor’s enlistment in the service of the Allied cause. It was not what one would expect. Trumpeldor, perhaps the only Jewish officer in the Russian army at one point, was not only a patriotic servant of the tsar, but an avid Zionist, who in 1912 went to live in Degania in Ottoman Palestine. He’d spent two years working with his one arm (he’d lost the other in the Russo-Japanese War) on the first kibbutz when the war broke out in August of 1914. When he learned of it, his first impulse was to go back and fight for the tsar. His friend, Shmuel Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s father, thought that was absurd and tried to talk him out of it. He walked with him from Degania to Tiberias, endeavoring to persuade him to abandon this ridiculous idea. And at some point, Trumpeldor says to him, “Al tid’ag Dayanchik. Don’t worry; it’s the same thing everywhere. There’s war there. There will be war here.”

Not long after that, I remember reading Gershom Scholem’s autobiography in which he recounts a very different attitude towards the war. Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, had grown up in a highly assimilated home. The son of a man who was an ardent German patriot, Scholem as a teenage Zionist was opposed to the war and was thrown out of school on that account. Eventually, his father threw him out of the house.

This sense of a world-encompassing conflagration in which individual Jews, sometimes even though they had Zionism in common, were orienting themselves so differently, whetted my curiosity. I was once reading the journal of a major German Jewish organization that had local features in the back pages. In an issue from the fall of 1914, one man reports that his son was the youngest volunteer in the German army. His son was fourteen years and six months old. How does a father let his child enlist at that age? He explained that the boy had such overpowering, ardent patriotism that he couldn’t deny his request. Not only was the father proud, but the editors were proud too. That’s the sort of thing that drew me in to the subject.

When you think about it not on the scale of individuals, but in a broader context, it is very clearly a kind of stress test for Jewish ideologies and orientations, challenging Jews who feel that they are Germans or Russians or Frenchmen or Englishmen or Americans first and Jews very secondarily, but also for Jews for whom Jewish nationalism is the overwhelming focus of their lives and also for Jews who are trying to juggle those things, who feel attracted to the Zionist enterprise and who define themselves as Zionist, but still remain patriotic Russians, Germans, Frenchmen, or Americans.

Andrew Koss:

You mentioned Gershom Scholem, who corresponded with another towering figure in German Jewish history, Martin Buber, who like Scholem had been a very assimilated German Jew who then turned to Judaism and to Jewish mysticism—albeit in a less scholarly way. In their correspondence at the beginning of the war, Buber expresses his excitement about the transformative potential of this world-historical event. In my own reading about World War I, I’ve found that this sort of rhetoric arises everywhere: it comes from ordinary people and foreign ministers, from Jews as well as Gentiles. There are claims that the war is going to change humanity, that it’s going to change the world, that it’s going to be a watershed event that changes our political futures. I’m curious how much you’ve seen of this sort of rhetoric in your own research, and to what extent you think it informed people’s actions. It seems to me that it might have become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Allan Arkush:

Buber was not untypical of Central European intellectuals in finding the war a thrilling break with the humdrum reality and seeing it as an occasion that would rouse people from a deplorably mundane existence onto another level of experiencing life. He welcomed the war more for that than for any advance it might bring to the cause of Germany, where he was then living. Even people like the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who was more assimilated than Buber by far and only nominally Jewish, felt similarly—at the outset of the war, anyhow.

That enthusiasm tended to come from people who saw the war as an elemental, primal experience that would elevate people’s consciousness. It was characteristic of a certain stratum of intellectuals. A lot has been written recently that calls into question whether these intellectuals actually reflected the general outlook of their compatriots to the degree that has been thought. Researchers and social historians who get into the nitty-gritty have made a persuasive case that only among urban, leisured, and relatively idle people were perceptions like these widely shared. More often, people experienced a subdued sense of foreboding and fear. There were, of course, a few Jews who saw the war as a great opportunity. Zionist leaders like Vladimir Jabotinsky and Chaim Weizmann saw the war as something that would break the existing logjam and enable them to overcome the Turks’ resistance to the expansion of Zionism, and to set new conditions for the existence of the Zionist movement.

But going back to Zweig: he felt that enthusiasm despite the fact that he was basically a pacifist. You’ll also find statements on the part of Russian Jewish organizations in which there are intense professions of patriotism that seem rather dubious and were issued no doubt in order to fend off suspicions. But I’d like to think about this topic more.

Andrew Koss:

I want to return later to what you said about Weizmann and Jabotinsky. But first: one of the questions the war raises, especially with regard to Zionism, is: Which side are the Jews supposed to be on? I’d like to contextualize this question by looking at something that can be found in one of the most interesting books about Jews and World War I, one you cite in the essay—the memoir of S. Ansky, who was a Yiddish and Russian writer and a social revolutionary and many other things. The memoir is a chronicle of the war, known as The Destruction of Galicia, which is about the horrible bloodshed that the Russian army rained down on Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

Ansky was deeply interested in ethnography, and was engaged in ethnographic research when the war broke out, which included research into legends and folklore. This interest shaped both The Destruction of Galicia and his famous play The Dybbuk. One legend that he finds popping up again and again during World War I is the sh’ma Yisrael myth. It goes like this. There is a Jewish soldier who confronts very intense fighting that devolves into hand-to-hand combat. He finally bayonets his enemy who, after being stabbed with the bayonet, says with his last breath, “Sh’ma Yisrael, Hashem eloheynu, Hashem eḥad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” which is what Jews try to say right before they die. The soldier suddenly realizes he’s killed another Jew and he’s filled with shame and guilt.

Now this myth, actually predates World War I. It probably emerged during another war where Jews fought on opposing sides. That happened during the Crimean War, and the American Civil War, and the Franco-Prussian War. But during the First World War there were very large masses of Jews fighting for many of the combatant countries, in part just because it’s such a large conflict with such massive armies. The sh’ma Yisrael legend is probably an expression of Jews’ anxiety about fighting other Jews. As you mentioned with the story of the fourteen-year-old Jewish enlistee, Jews are also anxious to use the war to demonstrate their patriotism, and prove their loyalty. But they don’t like the idea of having to fight and kill other Jews, even as they want to send a message to their compatriots: “We’re not loyal to the Jewish cause; we’re loyal to the Russian cause. We’re loyal to the German cause. We’re loyal to the Austrian cause.” This tension underlies, in my opinion, every discussion of World War I and the Jews.

Likewise, Zionists everywhere felt that they should be on the side of the country where they lived. German Zionists felt they should be fighting for Germany, British Zionists for Britain. Yet they couldn’t avoid talking about the Jews as a people, and therefore couldn’t avoid asking which side the Jewish people should be on. This, I think, was a question that hadn’t arisen during previous wars, at least not in the same way. To some extent it reminds me of the questions that come up nowadays—often, I think, asked out of ignorance or bad faith—about how Israel should relate to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Israel’s critics, friendly and unfriendly, keep declaring that “Israel has to choose a side.” If you ask me, it has already chosen a side and it wasn’t much of a choice.

We see the same question being raised with the conflict that’s emerged between China and the West. Which side is Israel going to be on? Again, I think Israel has chosen the American side.

But in the case of the Zionist movement and World War I, this is a much harder question. There’s no Jewish state with its own foreign ministry, but Zionism is a movement to create a Jewish state, that often finds itself pursuing diplomatic initiatives. Whom does this movement want to win? Britain or Germany? It seems to me that for everybody but Chaim Weizmann, this was an open question in 1914. By 1917, it’s a closed question. I’d like you to elaborate on how that happened, and whether you think this characterization is correct.

Allan Arkush:

The World Zionist Organization concluded at the very outset of the war that it couldn’t take sides, that it had to manifest its neutrality. It did so by moving its headquarters from Berlin to Copenhagen, in neutral Denmark. The Zionist executive essentially remained located in Berlin, but the offices in Denmark were set up as a facade that would substantiate the organization’s claims of neutrality. There were abundant reasons for that, including the fact that Jews and Zionists were fighting on both sides, but perhaps the most important was to avoid taking the side of the countries that were opposed to the Ottoman empire and thereby jeopardizing the security of the growing Yishuv. The Yishuv quickly found itself in a very difficult situation because most of the Zionist immigrants in Palestine had retained Russian citizenship and were, from the moment in October 1914 when the Turks declared war on Russia, enemy aliens.

Those enemy aliens were living in an empire that could be expected to treat them ruthlessly. Their survival was only possible because of the influence that Germany and the United States exerted in Constantinople at the beginning of the war. The Germans wanted to placate German Zionists who were begging for protection of the Yishuv. They also wanted to do anything to avoid offending America unnecessarily. Nevertheless, the Zionist movement couldn’t afford to alienate Germany without jeopardizing the Yishuv. And they couldn’t remain on good terms with Germany unless they remain neutral.

Nevertheless, there were German Zionists like Max Bodenheimer and Franz Oppenheimer, who ran something called the Committee for the East—a Zionist organization operating outside of the World Zionist Organization—advocating for the consolidation of German hegemony over Eastern Europe, which they believed would be in the best interests of nationalist Jews. They thought that a reconstituted Poland under German auspices would allot Jewish nationalists more power in government and more freedom of action, and could become a hinterland for the Jewish community in Palestine.

By contrast, there’s the interesting case of Richard Gottheil, who had been the first head of the Federation of American Zionists. He was the son of the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York City, Gustav Gottheil, and they were both, unusually in the Reform movement of the time, Zionists. Gustav was a rabbi. Richard was not; he taught Semitics at Columbia University. Richard was both Zionist and pro-Entente from the very beginning of the war. He persisted from the fall of 1914 onward in making pro-Entente statements that incensed his fellow members of the Provisional Zionist Executive in the United States, which had decided to take a position of strict neutrality. Judah Magnes—another Zionist Reform rabbi who was not only an advocate of neutrality but a pacifist—was so incensed by what Gottheil was doing that he demanded his removal from the board. He insisted that Louis Brandeis kick him off. Brandeis wouldn’t do it.

Brandeis, however, did preserve the neutrality of the organization. He understood that nobody knew how the war was going to end, and that the important thing for Jews in the United States was to situate themselves so that they could have a strong voice at the peace conference under whoever’s auspices it took place. Taking sides in the conflict was not something that he saw as productive in that respect.

Usually the war is remembered through the prism of the Balfour Declaration, but there’s too little attention to the fact that Chaim Weizmann, when he was operating amidst the British leadership, was doing so without the authorization of the World Zionist Organization, and in the face of criticism from it. In Egypt, Jabotinsky met up with Trumpeldor, who got stopped there on his way back to Russia—along with several hundred ḥalutsim who had been exiled from Palestine. Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor formed the idea of creating a Jewish military unit that would fight alongside the British to reconquer Palestine. They were only partially successful. Their intervention resulted in the creation of the Zion Mule Corps, which did participate, under British auspices, in the fight against the Turks at Gallipoli, although not as combatants.

They failed, needless to say, but Jabotinsky didn’t stick around to join the Zion Mule Corps. He moved on to Europe, and ultimately to Britain, in an attempt to spark the creation of a fighting Jewish legion—a collection of thousands of Palestinian Jews, expatriate Russian Jews, and Jewish volunteers from America—that would constitute a force and win the Jews a place at the post-war peace conference, which would be dominated, he believed, by Britain and France. While he was doing that, Jabotinsky infuriated the principal leaders of Russian Zionism and world Zionism in general. Menachem Ussishkin, the leader of Russian Zionism at this point, is reported to have passed Jabotinsky’s mother on a street in Odessa, lifted her off the sidewalk, shook her in the air, and exclaimed, “Your son ought to be hanged for what he was doing”—jeopardizing the security of the Yishuv, and creating problems for too many Zionists in too many places.

Andrew Koss:

Irking the mainstream Zionist leadership, and especially the Russian Zionist leadership, seems to be what Jabotinsky was best at. But, while we’re on the subject of Jabotinsky, what do you think drew him to Britain? Was it simply that Britain was on the opposite side of the Ottoman empire, or was it Anglophilia?

Allan Arkush:

I think it was contempt for the Ottoman empire, where he had spent some time as a journalist, and the conviction that it was going to lose this war. Philosophically, he had much more in common, or at least thought he did, with English liberalism than any political outlook anywhere else.

Andrew Koss:

It’s important, as you know all too well, to remember that while all this is happening, Germany is conquering Eastern Europe. Russia is massacring Jews and expelling them. And in the places in Eastern Europe that Germany occupies, though the Jews are not treated well, they’re treated fairly. Hirsch Abramovitch, an important Yiddishist, says in his wonderful memoirs something to the effect of, “The Germans were nasty during the occupation, but they were completely evenhanded in their nastiness. They never singled out the Jews or made them a target. And in this sense, they were an improvement over the Russians.” It’s my impression that these circumstances led a lot of people, certainly a lot of American Jews, to oppose America joining the war on the side of the Allies because they saw Germany as the good guys protecting Jews from the Russians. Or at least they saw the Russians as the bad guys. This is true of Jews of German extraction in America, who tended to have a lingering admiration for Germany. Jews from the Austro-Hungarian empire tended to be very patriotic, and even after coming to America maintained a sense of pride in their homeland. And as the historian Marsha Rozenblit writes, Jews they saw themselves as a fighting a Jewish crusade for Austria-Hungary against wicked Russia.

Allan Arkush:

They frequently referred to Russia as Amalek, the proverbial biblical enemy of the Jews.

Andrew Koss:

Exactly. And the Kishinev pogrom occurred just eleven years before the war starts, and then during the war Russia inflicted terrible depredations on the Jews. All this informs the attitudes of Jews from the Habsburg empire. Likewise, Russian Jews, especially immigrants from Russia to America, or their descendants, felt that Russia was bad. There was every reason for the Jews to side with Germany.

Allan Arkush:

It was hard for British and French Jews to cope with the fact that their countries were allied with the Jews’ worst enemy in the world at that moment. But most of them swallowed that bitter pill, and they acknowledged that they had to place their loyalties to their countries above their ethnic loyalties, and hoped that Britain and France would be able to exert an influence on their Russian ally that would eventually be salutary.

Andrew Koss:

This topic allows us to segue into your essay. You explain that Britain—knowing full well that it has a public-relations problem with Jews because of Russia—sought to win over Zionist American Jews, and that helped to pave the way for the Balfour Declaration. In some ways, it’s the perception as much as the reality that American Jews are Zionist that shaped British policy—though I think you argue very persuasively that they became very Zionist because of the war.

I’d like you to summarize your case about how the war transformed American Zionism, and why Jews became Zionist because of the war.

Allan Arkush:

It’s become increasingly fashionable among American Jewish intellectuals writing about the evolution of American Jewry to minimize the extent to which they were attracted to Zionism. There are a number of books that have been written recently in order to highlight and accentuate the differences between American and Israeli Jews. They have tried to demonstrate that Zionism was a late importation, which prior to the 1930s had made few inroads in the United States. Only with the rise of Hitler—the argument goes—did American Jews join the Zionist camp in large numbers. And of course, underlying this argument is an unspoken claim that something adopted relatively recently can be overcome without all that much difficulty, at little expense, without sacrificing anything that is innately Jewish; Zionism was something embraced in the course of an emergency that is long over, and therefore is no longer appropriate—and can be easily discarded.

The people who make such arguments tend to give very short shrift to the earliest stages of Zionism in the United States. It is, of course, true that the two-million-plus immigrants who came from Eastern Europe between 1881 and the outbreak of World War I, as well as the Jews who had preceded them in coming to the United States, and their descendants, were above all focused on integrating themselves successfully into the great free country in which they were now collected. They did not long for deliverance from American exile.

But it’s also the case that among the Jews who arrived here and their children there was a lively sense of the importance of the Holy Land in Judaism, and there was some knowledge of what Zionism had been doing and an affinity with its objectives. Most didn’t pay much attention to it, but they knew something about it, and they knew that it was in jeopardy when the war broke out. There was more concern in America, I think, with the safety and stability of the Yishuv at this point than perhaps I made clear in the essay. And that was something that played a part in the Zionist awakening that took place at this time.

I think more of a force and more of a factor in their outlook, especially in 1915, was the awareness of what was going on in the countries that they had left behind. This was very well publicized in the Yiddish press as well as in English-language Jewish newspapers—and, as I highlighted in the essay, in the New York Times and other newspapers and magazines in Great Britain and the United States. One can readily imagine, on the basis of what we know about American Jews’ feelings during World War II, what sort of anxieties were awakening among the immigrants and their children and how much despair they felt when they read grizzly accounts of expulsions and pogroms.

This didn’t necessarily mean that anything would happen. The reservoir of sympathy for Zionism, together with the sense of catastrophe in Eastern Europe, might not have had any political expression at all had it not been for the simultaneous strengthening of the Zionist movement in the United States by an energetic new leadership. Louis Brandeis, whose road to Zionism is an interesting and complex one that culminated in 1914 with his rise to the leadership of the movement, was no idler. He was far more effective as a leader than Richard Gottheil had been in his years as the first president of the Federation of American Zionists. Brandeis was able to stir large numbers of American Jews by presenting the movement as a solution to the pressing problems posed by the war. Zionism couldn’t solve these problems immediately, but then there was no immediate answer. There was no way to compel the Russian government to behave better. The most that could be done was to make arrangements for a better post-war world.

The projection of that ideal by a cadre of men whose names have mostly been forgotten, in the course of 1915, was successful and provided an answer to those Jews who were aroused by their primordial feelings and their sense of present danger. In the essay, I didn’t try to assign levels of responsibility or credit, or to determine how much credit ought to be given to the organizers and how much to the organized. But I would guess that if these inchoate feelings had not been successfully channeled by a strong leadership, they might never have had any real consequences. Brandeis was not content to speechify. He urged his followers to get people together, have them meet, have them raise funds, have them hear lectures, let them flex their organizational muscles and make their presence felt on the American scene. The larger hope, which I only allude to briefly in the essay, was to convene an American Jewish Congress that would represent American Jewish opinion at the post-war peace conference, oriented in a Zionist direction.

While they were putting this movement together, Brandeis and his allies were not focused on inspiring the British or the French to take any particular action in the short-term. They had nothing like a Balfour Declaration in mind. They were aiming at a point further down the road, unaware of the impact that their highly visible organization was having on foreign observers, who mistook them for American Jewry in general.

Brandeis achieved impressive results very quickly, but those didn’t include the conquest of the community. I don’t know, if someone had taken a survey at the time, how many American Jews would have said they supported Zionism and how many were opposed. But it is clear that a strong and highly visible Zionist movement arose, and it wasn’t counterbalanced by anything even approaching a movement of the same magnitude.

There were skeptics and critics, but there was no reason for them to believe that the accomplishment of Zionist goals was imminent, or that it was necessary for them to act in order to prevent that from happening. The observers who overestimated their strength might have misjudged, but that misjudgment can be understood. You can only see what’s there to be seen. And this movement was visible enough, especially since it was being led by somebody as prominent as Brandeis.

Andrew Koss:

How and why do American Jews see Zionism as a solution to the humanitarian crisis of Russian Jewry and to the vicious anti-Semitism there? Obviously, nobody though they could instantly whisk all the Jews out of Russia before the Cossacks get them with their sabers, and then send them to Palestine. What exactly is the connection that you think American Jews drew between the catastrophe in Eastern Europe and Zionism?

Allan Arkush:

Perhaps it’s not so very different from the situation in World War II when the Biltmore Conference takes place in 1942 and the American Jewish Conference in 1943—two major gathering of American Jews that call for the opening of the doors of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish commonwealth. During the Second World War there is nearly solid wall-to-wall American Jewish support for Zionism. None of what’s being proposed can be implemented immediately. There’s no likelihood that anything can be done until the war ends, and exactly how things will be done after the war is less important to work out at that moment than it is to build support for Zionism and worry about the details later. I don’t think there was anybody, not even Jabotinsky, who in 1915 and 1916 was sitting down and trying to develop the logistics for a real solution to the Jewish problem.

Andrew Koss:

Perhaps, for American Jews, what’s happening in Russia and in the Yishuv during World War I is a reminder that the Jews are terribly vulnerable and unless they have a state, unless some radical action is taken to change their situation, it’s not going to get better. This is certainly an argument Zionists made: Jews can’t count on some inevitable force of human progress that will cause Russia to follow the Western democracies and improve its treatment of Jews. Moreover, Zionists understood that Western democracies themselves weren’t necessarily becoming more liberal and tolerant with respect to the Jews. The Zionist case is that Jews need to do something very different, because otherwise there will just be more suffering. Does this rationale at all encapsulate what American Jews were thinking, even if they weren’t necessarily thinking it in those terms?

Allan Arkush:

I think that a Zionist solution to the Jewish question was the more inspiring and promising possibility, but not to the exclusion of doing what would be possible at least to guarantee Jews rights in a post-war Eastern Europe. There was no certainty then what the borders would look like after the war, but there was hope that something could be done to solidify Jews’ status and prevent any future power, at least, from making their lives worse, even if it was still the tsar, or from denying them the rights of full citizenship. But that was, it seems to me, secondary to their hope to be able to start afresh in Palestine.

Andrew Koss:

Which brings us to something interesting. On the one hand, securing the rights of Jews living in the Diaspora seems almost like the opposite of Zionism. In its most radical form, Zionism embraces shlilat ha-galut, negation or rejection of the Diaspora. For some Zionists, the response to the problems of Jews in the Diaspora is that they should get the heck out of there. Who cares whether or not they have rights in Russia, or Mexico, or anywhere else? Get them to the Land of Israel!

On the other hand, a lot of Zionists understood that their goals couldn’t be accomplished overnight; others believed it wasn’t necessarily desirable to get every last Jew in the world into a hoped-for Jewish state. Thus Zionists were big supporters of Diaspora rights for Jews, which is a position they express at the post-war peace conference.

When Zionists talk about the fate of Diaspora Jews, especially in the first half of the 20th century, they often have a very concrete idea of what diasporic politics should look like. They not only wanted to create a new state in Israel; they also wanted to create a “New Jew” and a new Jewish politics.

This strain of Zionist thought focuses on rejecting the methods of the shtadlan, an activist or lobbyist. In Poland during the 17th and 18th centuries, the shtadlan occupied a paid communal position, which entailed serving as an emissary to the Gentile authorities. This kind of lobbying always took place behind the scenes, and involved (especially in the Zionist imagination) going to a king or duke with hat in hand and saying, “Please have mercy on us Jews.” Zionists see this as a sign of Jewish weakness. Instead, they want Jews to demand their rights with pride, rather than request favors from rulers and potentates.

Do you think the sorts of Zionist agitation you discuss in your essay follows that ideal? Is this not only  a story about the advancement of Zionism, but a Zionist style of politics?

Allan Arkush:

To answer that question, I wish I had at my disposal a kind of study of American Zionism during this period that doesn’t really exist. If you leaf through the pages of journals like the Maccabean or the American Jewish Archives or the American Jewish Chronicle, you can read a lot about the establishment of new Zionist societies and the meetings they were holding, speakers who were circulating around the country, and you get a sense of the seizure of a new opportunity by a relatively small number of people who had not had this sort of opportunity before.

But you can only get the most superficial sense of what this movement looked like from announcements of this kind. If we had memoirs and records of meetings and biographical studies that could flesh this out in more detail and give us a more vivid sense of what kind of a movement was afoot at this point, then I would feel more capable of responding to your question. It’s a shame that no study of that sort exists. I’m not entirely sure that it would be feasible to do such a study, given the source materials available, but everything I have read leaves me feeling that something vibrant and interesting was taking place that is elusive.

Andrew Koss:

Behind this vibrancy might have simply been a strong if vague sense of Jewish identity, of pride in being Jewish. Some American Jews were very religious, some were less religious, but they shared a collective feeling of commitment to the Jewish people, and a desire to do something with that commitment. And Zionism offers something positive and future-looking.

Allan Arkush:

But then you run into one really dispiriting obstacle when you interpret things in that light. Chaim Weizmann went on a tour of the United States with Albert Einstein in 1921, with the goal of raising funds for Keren Hayesod, the main fundraising arm of the World Zionist Congress. Even though Weizmann was the leading Jewish statesman of the moment, and Einstein was the most famous Jew in the world, whom the Zionists were happy to have on their team, the financial results of this trip were extremely disappointing. Weizmann at some point called out to the Jewish people, ayeka, “Where art thou?” The enthusiasm that was so consequential during the war dissipated in the aftermath of the issuance of the Balfour Declaration and the Jews obtaining the opportunity to do the things they wanted to do.

That’s customarily explained by reference to the beginning of the Roaring Twenties and Americans’ general preoccupation with their own self-advancement following the end of World War I. But it does at least necessitate a little sobriety in our estimation of the strength of Jewish people at the moment. It seems that solidarity and activism wasn’t going to flourish, or may not flourish, when the immediate need for them is not as great as it was in the course of the war.

Andrew Koss:

That’s fascinating. But that leads me to another question, which I’m not the first one to pose. During World War I, governments perceived Jews as having tremendous clout. The belligerent powers actively courted Jewish public opinion, and American Jewish public opinion. It’s not just the British. The Germans are interested too in getting the favorable opinion of the Jews. Part of this may be from low-grade anti-Semitism: an assumption that Jews have enormous power and control Wall Street and thereby pull the strings of the U.S. government, etc. But the powers also courted Jews because they understood American democracy well enough to recognize that Jews constituted an important voting bloc. And this was a rare case where the perception of Jewish power ended up being good for the Jews. The Zionist leadership used this perception to get the Balfour Declaration. Particularly adept at this was Lucien Wolf, who’s something like the secretary of state of British Jewry.

Twenty years later, the Jews were being kicked out of Germany. At the Evian Conference in 1938, all the countries in the world got together to deal with the Jewish refugee crisis following the rise of the Nazis, and only the Dominican Republic was willing to take in Jews. Hitler was beside himself with joy, because he had proved to the world that nobody wanted the Jews. As the situation of European Jewry grew worse, there were lobbying efforts by the moderate American Jewish leader Stephen Wise on the one hand, and the radical Ben Hecht on the other—and they accomplish very little. Nobody wanted to do anything for the Jews. They were shut out of America. They were shut out of the West. They were shut out of Palestine. What happened? In 1917, senior people in the British Foreign Office were making policy in order to court Jewish opinion; in 1941—gornisht! Jews couldn’t get anyone to lift a finger.

Allan Arkush:

The Jews had lost all their bargaining power. When the British began to curtail the Balfour Declaration in the 1930s, preparing to create an independent state in Palestine that would have an Arab majority, they didn’t have to fear that the Jews would try to court the Nazis or that the Jews would slip over to the other side of the emerging global conflict. They could be disregarded because they had no alternative.

Is there anybody who doesn’t see World War II as a struggle of good versus evil? Are there any people who try to shade things a little more clearly and ease out the nuances?

Andrew Koss:

There are, but they’re very unpleasant people.

Allan Arkush:

But it’s easy to do that with World War I, which is much less clearcut, morally. Looking back, as Americans, we tend to see World War I in the light in which it was presented during the year-and-a-half that our country was involved, and we can see it as a struggle to make the world safe for democracy against sinister autocracy. But that’s certainly not how everyone saw it. We mentioned Martin Buber earlier. You also have Hermann Cohen, the other great figure in German Jewish thought, who was an avid supporter of the German cause, which he saw as identical with the cause of civilization and who even wrote newspaper articles in 1915 to persuade American Jews to support Germany.

And of course people disagreed with Cohen, they saw him as putting “lipstick on a pig” and mocked him for it. But there were two sides to this debate. There was no such debate among Jews during World War II.

Andrew Koss:

In some ways World War II is different because Hitler decided that Germany lost World War I because of the Jews. And having reached that conclusion, he decided that this war—to borrow Lucy Dawidowicz’s famous phrase—had to be waged against the Jews. He knew which side the Jews were on, whether or not the Jews knew it themselves.

Moving on to a different subject. There are many people who argue today that Zionism is simply a form of European colonialism, and that the Balfour Declaration was just a way for a Britain to further its colonialist goals. We don’t have to go into why the first statement is false, and pernicious. But the second has a certain kernel of truth. We can’t entirely extract the Balfour Declaration from Britain’s imperialist designs on the Middle East. But if you look at the Balfour Declaration through the lens of your essay in Mosaic, what you see is not simply a case of London just trying to gobble up parts of the Ottoman empire. Instead, you see a regime eager to win the hearts and minds of a stateless people by giving them a nation-state or at least giving them a national home, which in many ways is the opposite of colonialism.

Of course, it’s not clear cut. If Britain didn’t have colonial designs on the Middle East, none of this would’ve happened. But I’m curious whether or not you agree with me. Is what you describe very different from the picture of Zionism as rooted in Western colonialism?

Allan Arkush:

Here I’m just going to echo the work of a couple of people, Meir Verité and David Vital. They convinced me that the real momentum in the direction of issuing the Balfour Declaration could be traced, more than anyone else, to Mark Sykes, who hadn’t been attuned to the issues pertaining to Zionism at all prior to his engagement in the effort to work out an arrangement with the French and the Russians for the disposition of Ottoman territory, should the Entente win.

Sykes discovered Zionism as a tool for the enhancement of the British claim to Palestine that would exclude the French from any role there. He had made the famous Sykes-Picot Agreement that provided for international control of Palestine in which the French and the British would be intertwined. There was almost immediately, however—on his part and the part of other people in the British government—dissatisfaction with this arrangement. It left the French with too much power, too close to the Suez Canal. Who knew how politics would develop in the future and how undesirable that might prove to be? Better, from the British perspective, to get the French out of there.

The Zionists were much less trusting of the French than of the British. And when they envisioned a national home in Palestine, they preferred it to be under British or even American auspices. Sykes wanted to utilize this well-known preference of the Zionists in order to push the French out of the territory. And I think he was more interested in Zionism’s usefulness in that respect than he was with doing anything that would provide the Jewish people with a better future. I think the short-term goal of acquiring Jewish support in the course of the war was secondary to the long-term aspiration of improving the British imperial position in the Middle East, which strengthens the argument that this was a form of colonialism.

Andrew Koss:

The Zionists had good reason to be skeptical of the French. When Herzl first showed up in Basel, the French foreign ministry become convinced that Zionism was really a German plot to displace France from the Middle East.

Allan Arkush:

Once Sykes managed to elbow France out, and the Quay d’Orsay recognized that the British have a point with respect to the Jews, and saw the British armies on the march, it sensed that opposition to Zionism is a lost cause.

Andrew Koss:

Martin Kramer wrote a wonderful essay for Mosaic a few years ago about how after Balfour, almost every Western country issued its own statement favoring some version of what was promised in Balfour, which gave Zionism—or at least the British Mandate—a foundation in international law.

Before we conclude I want to ask two questions that are of a kind that I normally hate. First: if Germany had won the war, would there have been any chance for Zionism? Can we imagine that German Zionists would have said to their government, “America is edging toward entering the war. Maybe you can satisfy the American Jews by making some promises to us, and then they won’t want their country to join the Entente. After all, you can extract some concessions from the Ottoman empire, which is your ally.” Can we imagine another history?

Allan Arkush:

Had the Germans won the war, I think their primary consideration with respect to Palestine would have been in building up a position there that couldn’t be easily dislodged. They would have wanted to prevent Britain from expanding eastward from Egypt. The British are going to feel more than ever the importance of the Suez Canal in sustaining their empire, and they’re going to be worried about the dangers of an expanded German presence in the Middle East. Thus the Germans will ask themselves, “Will we preserve the Ottoman empire and will the Zionists be able to contribute to that? Or do we now need to listen to Ottoman opposition to the Zionists?”

You need to give me a week and a half to think about a question like this.

Andrew Koss:

I’m usually suspicious of counterfactuals. But it’s interesting to speculate. Herzl would finally get what he dreamed of originally, which is that the Kaiser would grant a German-speaking state to the Jews by talking the sultan into it. One could imagine that the war would have left the sultan so weakened, and so dependent on Germany, that he would have had to give in to German demands.

Allan Arkush:

This is a great premise for an alternate history scenario. But I can’t play it out in my head.

Andrew Koss:

Mosaic will have to hire a novelist to write about this. My other question is this: what are the lessons, if any, that American Jews can or should learn from this history? It’s one of the very few where Jews use their political clout effectively. Are there lessons that we can learn from that for today?

Allan Arkush:

A close relative of mine is an activist and a donor on a very major scale, and when she read my essay her first response was envy of the people who could get 3,500 committed Jews together in Carnegie Hall, and have to turn people away because there weren’t enough seats. She felt the response and the turnout and the enthusiasm were something that Jewish activists could only wish for these days.

Andrew Koss:

The one thing that can rival that is the Siyyum ha-Shas, the celebration of the completion of the study of the entire Talmud, which takes place every seven years. The last one took place in 2020 in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium and drew some 90,000 people. There were more people who had to be turned away for lack of seats. Nobody in 1915 would’ve seen that coming.

Allan Arkush:

No. But it’s hard to make the argument that American Jewry was united behind American Zionism. It was a potent force, but it was, no doubt, a vociferous minority that faced no serious opposition within the community. This provides a lesson to activists who are fearful that their cause is not going to obtain massive support. It may be useful enough under some circumstances just to be there in force and to establish yourself on the communal map in a way that will have consequences you can’t predict.

What I did in the essay was treat the American Jews as something other than an incidental anonymous force, but instead see them as people who, without realizing it, played a pivotal part in the flow of events. And it seems to me to indicate the need, if we’re to have a fuller understanding of what happened, to get a closer view of what these people were doing than historians have been interested in providing. Or perhaps, that historians can provide on the basis of the limited information we have.

I suppose there are a lot of local Zionist societies that have gone out of business and haven’t preserved their records; maybe there are memoirs of relatively anonymous people that got lost. To piece together the nitty-gritty of this episode, which goes by pretty quickly—it’s in the course of late 1914 to early 1916, that this movement gets planted on the map and has these reverberations—that, to me, is the most striking thing. We can compare it to what happens in Russia in 1917, when suddenly Russian Jews are free to operate publicly and in a political way. That too has an enormous impact. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Andrew Koss:

There’s a huge outburst of Zionism in Russia when that happens, which is another thing that gets forgotten.

To me, one message that emerges from everything you’ve said and written is that we shouldn’t sell American Jewry short. A lot of people have underestimated American Jewry, including Zionists—Arthur Hertzberg is the best example. But you show that American Jewry mobilized, and that leaders like Brandeis were able to stir up a lot of latent Zionist sentiment. And I think a lot of that sentiment remains. With all the kvetching one hears about the decline of sympathy for Israel among a younger generation of American Jews, every survey ends up showing that most American Jews are, on some de-minimis level, pro-Israel. We shouldn’t lose faith in American Jews.

Allan Arkush:

Even if their contributions are most highly visible only in the event of an emergency.

Andrew Koss:

But that’s true of Americans in general. For generations, people have complained that Americans are only interested in business or only interested in their own affairs. Now people criticize Americans as decadent and soft. But when there’s a world war, or a similar global crisis, America responds a little bit too late, but most powerfully and effectively. I think we’re seeing that again in Europe. In that way, American Jews are a lot like Americans.

Allan Arkush:

I like that.

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More about: Balfour Declaration, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism