2018-04-25 / Mideast

Israel at 70: How 1948 changed American Jews

By BEN SALES JTA


David Ben-Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister, reads the new nation’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948. JTA photo by Zoltan Kluger/Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images. David Ben-Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister, reads the new nation’s Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948. JTA photo by Zoltan Kluger/Israeli Government Press Office via Getty Images. One year after Israel’s establishment, in the dead of night, three students ascended a tower at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and raised the Israeli flag.

The next morning, the Conservative rabbinical school’s administration took it down.

That act of surreptitious Zionist protest was one of several at JTS during the years surrounding 1948, when Israel gained independence, Michael Greenbaum wrote in an essay in “Tradition Renewed,” a JTS history edited by Jack Wertheimer. Students supported the new Jewish state. However, the seminary’s chancellor, Louis Finkelstein, opposed American Judaism focusing all its efforts across an ocean, and also needed to appease a board wary of Jewish nationalism.

But the students persisted. Once, they sang the Israeli anthem “Hatikvah” following graduation ceremonies. Another time, they convinced their colleagues at the Union Theological Seminary, the Protestant school next door, to play the anthem from their bell tower.

Today, nearly all American Jewish institutions are vocally, even passionately pro-Israel. But even in the years after the Jewish state won its independence 70 years ago, that feeling was not yet universal.

Before the Holocaust, Zionism itself was polarizing among American Jews. Many, especially in the Reform movement, felt support for a Jewish homeland would cause their loyalty to America to be called into question. The other side was represented by Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, who saw no conflict between American values and Zionist aspirations.

By the time Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, American Jews, scarred by images of the Holocaust and Nazism and inspired by newsreels of tanned kibbutzniks, were largely supportive of Zionism. But they were not yet turning out for organized political advocacy and mass tourism to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Instead they were getting used to the idea of a Jewish sovereign state—gradually incorporating it into their culture, prayers and religious outlook.

North American Jewish support for Israel was turbocharged by the Truman administration’s quick recognition of the state, and by the Israeli army’s victory against the Arab states in its war of independence.

In February of that year, Golda Meyerson (later Meir), raised $400,000 in one day (the equivalent of some $4-million today) on behalf of the provisional state on just one stop in Montreal. In the weeks following independence, she started a drive in the United States and Canada for $75-million more (or about $750-million in 2018 dollars).

“There was a sense that once America recognized the state, Zionism had won, and everyone wanted to link with the winners,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It was growing very quickly, it took in all of these refugees, which solved that problem.”

After Israel secured its independence, American Jews began to engage with the new nation in small ways. There was no rush of tourism, but American Jews would show their support by purchasing goods from Israel, reading books about Israel or holding Israeli dance classes in their community centers.

Part of the reticence to support Israel stemmed from the ethos of 1950s America, with its focus on suburban growth, the “melting pot” and assimilation. Against that backdrop, American Jews were trying to prove they belonged as social and cultural equals in American society. So again they were fearful of “dual loyalty” charges that could stem from vocal support for a Jewish state.

The biggest shift, Sarna said, was American Jewry viewing Judaism’s history as one of “destruction and rebirth.” That outlook posed the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel as its two poles and, Sarna said, remains dominant in American Jewish thinking today. He noted that Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day and its Independence Day are commemorated about a week apart by design.

“The theme of destruction and rebirth becomes a very important theme in the lives of American Jews,” he said. “So much so that American Jews don’t know the history of Zionism going back, and have bought the idea that it’s all about the Holocaust being linked to the birth of the State of Israel.” 

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