How the Writer of Israel's Anthem Fought Capitalism in 1890s America

Poet Naphtali Herz Imber is best known for penning the words to 'Hatikva.' But at the end of the 19th century, he was warning Americans about the dangers of capitalism and families like the Rothschilds

Naftali Herz Imber with his wife Amanda Kati, around 1900.

Naphtali Herz Imber, the author of what would become Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikva,” was known to his contemporaries mainly as an alcoholic poet. His bohemian lifestyle and his many interests (from mysticism to poetry) made him a colorful figure on the Jewish and Zionist scene in Ottoman Palestine, Europe and the United States – where he spent the last 17 years of his life, until his death in 1909.

It’s no wonder that his character has interested so many and that so much has been written about the (self-proclaimed) “national poet.” However, one of the most intriguing chapters in his life has hardly been written about at all: His connection to the Populist movement in the United States at the end of the 19th century and his stinging criticism of the capitalist regime – especially financial capitalism and its representatives (aka the financial oligarchy).

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Imber arrived in the United States in 1892 after spending four years in London, where he had acquired the reputation of a bohemian and dissolute character. American writer and publisher Julius Eisenstein wrote in 1893 that Imber had become a drunkard who was “keen to associate with the gentile poets.” This followed Imber’s five years spent under the wing of his employer and friend Laurence Oliphant in Ottoman Palestine (1882 to 1887). Their friendship, however, did not deter Imber from conducting an affair with the Scottish nobleman, diplomat and Christian mystic’s wife, Alice.

When Imber arrived in the United States, he toured there, in his words, “from San Francisco to Los Angeles, from El Paso to Denver, on foot.” Along the way he became acquainted with the Populist movement that was starting to take root there.

Naphtali Herz Imber's reconstructed room in the basement of the Heisman House in Rishon LeZion.
Ilana Shkolnik

One piece of evidence for this is that between 1893 and 1895, Kansas Governor Lorenzo D. Lewelling came into the possession of a pamphlet written by Imber entitled “The Fall of Jerusalem: Reflecting upon the Present Condition of America.” Lewelling was one of three state governors from the Populist movement who were elected in late 1892 – the year of the movement’s peak activity. We also know that a few years later, in 1899, Imber published another pamphlet: “A History of Money,” or “Sixteen to One of the Jewish Talmud. Written for the Voters of Sixteen to One.”

“The Fall of Jerusalem” was rescued from oblivion 80 years after it was first written, being published in English in 1975 in the journal “Michael: On the History of the Jews in the Diaspora.” A rare copy is held at the National Library in Jerusalem and it has not been republished since its first appearance. To the best of my knowledge, the only serious discussion of it is in a 1980 article by Gad Nahshon.

The Populist movement remains relatively unknown in Israel – despite its recent upsurge following the “We Are the 99%” political slogan embraced by the Occupy movement in the United States – after many years of being completely absent from economic and political historical writing.

The movement’s social base was made up of farmers and ranchers from the American South and West. They were the main victims of the crises caused by the financial capitalism that was growing in strength in those years, and they were getting crushed by the burden of their debt to a handful of East Coast bankers.

In an effort to defend their interests, the People’s Party was established: It ran for the presidency in 1892 and the House of Representatives in 1894, chalking up losses in both elections. The movement’s leaders soon realized the struggle should not be conducted by a third party, but rather within the framework of the existing Democratic Party.

Iron boot of the plutocracy

The questions of currency, debt and banking were not theoretical questions in those years and were at the heart of public debate. It should be noted that the Populist movement did not fight against industrialization and urbanization, but instead against the structural exploitation inherent in the capitalist system – especially the tyranny of financial capital (the private banking system) and its establishment, which was bankrupting farmers and manufacturers who were getting crushed under the iron boot of the plutocracy.

One of the Populist movement’s most famous struggles was against the Senate’s adoption of the gold standard for the dollar and the approach known as monometallism, which supported hard currency based on gold.

This school was connected inextricably to financial markets in the City of London and Wall Street, and most of its supporters were Republicans from the East. But there were also Democrats who supported it – and they became known as the Gold Democrats. The major banks opposing it were those from the two families that controlled the financial world in Europe and the United States: the Rothschilds and Morgans.

The rival school, the bimetallists, fought for “soft” silver and demanded the lowering of its price. So, while the supporters of gold demanded “expensive” money (that is, high interest rates), the supporters of silver wanted to increase the amount of currency in circulation and supported linking the dollar to gold, and alongside it minting coins linked to silver. The St. Louis platform of the People’s Party (February 1892) stated: “A vast conspiracy against mankind [by supporters of gold] has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world. … They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the altar of mammon.”

Naphtali Herz Imber.
No credit

The fight against the dollar being linked to gold that was minted by private banks, and in favor of the restoration of the dollar linked to silver minted by the state, was at the center of the presidential election during those years.

The “Cross of Gold” speech by key Populist figure William Jennings Bryan, at the Democratic convention after he was chosen as that party’s candidate for president (1896), quickly became one of the foundational speeches in American history: “Never before in the history of this country has there been witnessed such a contest as that through which we have passed,” he said,declaring that his party would defeat the “few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world. … The gold standard has slain its tens of thousands … When we have restored the money of the Constitution, all other necessary reforms will be possible, and until that is done there is no reform that can be accomplished. ... You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

In Imber’s two pamphlets, he aimed to show that “the Law of Moses” is the source of the principles and values of the Populist movement, and that Moses was, in effect, the first populist lawmaker. Just as the Populists aimed for a sacred republic of farmers, Moses, too, aimed for the establishment of a society based on the productive classes of the tillers of the soil.

‘Bank-vampires’

In “The Fall of Jerusalem,” Imber argued that Moses “legislated laws protecting its tillers from being a prey to robber monopolists and land-gamblers.” Furthermore, the many land laws (the fallow seventh year, the jubilee year, land not being sold permanently, and more) were aimed at saving the emergent Jewish people from the hands of the “bank-vampires” who suck the blood of the innocent farmer, he wrote.

Imber demonstrates that the burgeoning debt of the small farmer, the soaring interest rates and the exploitation of farmers by landowners are what led to the civil war in Jerusalem and ultimately to its destruction. Moses (and his successors, Jesus, Jacob and others) defended the people from “parasites” similar to those who suffocated the workers in the United States: tycoons who controlled the railroads and transportation; the banks in the East that concentrated gold in their own hands and raised the price of silver; monopolists who forced the bankruptcy of smaller manufacturers; and the members of a political machine who, in return for bribes, acted against voters’ interests.

Imber wrote that the Devil had succeeded in infiltrating Jerusalem in the figure of the gold owners: “A Temple of Mammon in the shape of a stock exchange was built next to Jehovah’s Temple,” and the workers were “slaves of the robber barons of mammon.” Satan’s emissaries violated the Law of Moses, introduced the custom of charging interest that Moses had forbidden and, by means of financial manipulations, enslaved the nation’s economy. “As money is only the representation of labor, since the millions accumulated by the brokers without it, made the market uneasy and the working man was robbed of his work without getting any return for it. The fate of the nation’s ruination was sealed and decreed as soon Satan signed his signature upon those cursed bonds. ... The money-lender is a spider, usery his woven net; his working-man or farmer, the fly.”

These last remarks were written shortly after the People’s Party’s Omaha platform of July 9, 1892, which stated: “Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery.”

In “A History of Money,” Imber wrote that although the Church generally depicted Satan as black, history showed that he was yellow and “his name is gold.” He added that Uncle Sam was suffering from a “yellow cancer” that was threatening his life, referring to the gold standard, and called upon Americans to learn from Jewish history and anticipate what was going to happen, specifically the “bloodbath” that Wall Street would cause.

He argued that Judaism had always required standing for silver and against gold, and asked whether it was possible to save Uncle Sam from this fatal illness, and quickly, without selling his soul to the “Rothschild Mephistopheles.” The answer he provided was that of the Populist movement: The only way was to link the dollar to silver, and freely mint coinage in order to increase the volume of production and trade.

In the Omaha platform, the Populist movement demanded free and unlimited coinage of silver and gold in accordance with the legal exchange rate. The pegging of the dollar to silver would have greatly reduced credit and allowed for the expansion of production and an end to deflation and stagnation.

Imber explained that the 16 to 1 ratio is the monetary basis in Judaism and “the Talmud supports 16 to 1.” The determination for the economic future of the United States, he explained, had to occur at the ballot box, and he called upon the masses to support the Populist movement.

Breeding ground for anti-Semitism?

In retrospect, it has been claimed that the Populist movement was fertile breeding ground for anti-Semitic views because of its harsh criticism of the Rothschild family. In a speech to a Jewish audience in 1896, Bryan said: “We are as much opposed to the financial policy of J. Pierpont Morgan as we are to the financial policy of the Rothschilds. We are not attacking a race; we are attacking greed and avarice, which know neither race nor religion.”

Imber had also expressed his loathing of the Rothschilds when he was in Ottoman Palestine years before. He wrote in “The Interpreter of Dreams”: “What will the dreams be of the lord who drinks blood like water?” And of the baron’s representatives he wrote that they “suck the blood of nations like fleas.”

We also find remarks in this spirit in the writings of Theodor Herzl, who vented in his diary: “I am an opponent of the House of Rothschild because I consider it to be a national misfortune for the Jews.” And in a letter to Max Mandelstam in August 1901 he wrote: “I have been running around to the point of exhaustion and I have not been afforded that this scum, which controls the money, will even hear what I am proposing to it. Fire and brimstone must rain down from heaven until those hearts of stone soften. Such a thing has never been heard of, and 50 years from now they will spit on the graves of these people, because I was just about to close with the Sultan [Abdulhamid II], only I could not get the abominable money.”

In “The Fall of Jerusalem” Imber wrote: “The hour is coming, tremble Wall Street … the Fall of Jerusalem will be exhibited again.” As we know, within a few years the world was swept into a maelstrom of financial crises.