How These U.S. Jews Changed America's View of Zionism

A new book explores the innovative work of the Jewish Americans who went against public opinion before World War I and laid the groundwork for future close ties between the United States and Israel

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Nathan Straus, left, Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise aboard a ship sailing for Palestine in 1920.
Nathan Straus, left, Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Stephen Samuel Wise aboard a ship sailing for Palestine in 1920.Credit:
Isaac Herzog
Isaac Herzog

“Ideology and Reality: American Jewry and the Yishuv in the Late Ottoman Period,” by Natan Efrati, Open University of Israel Press, 416 pages, 89 shekels ($27)

In February 1929, Esther Davis, a young Jewish American, boarded the ocean liner RMS Mauritania at the Port of New York heading for Europe. Her final destination was Palestine. A few months earlier Davis had won a writing contest held by the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea with an impressive essay about the influence of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, on America’s Jewish youth. She competed against dozens of contestants and won a prestigious prize – a three-month paid visit to the Yishuv.

In those days a young Jewish woman traveling alone on a ship to an unknown land was a rare sight. During the journey she met a passenger 18 years her senior, who was on his way back to Palestine. It was Reuven Rubin, later one of the greatest artists of Israel. They became a couple who wielded a profound influence on culture and art in the country.

The writing contest and the trip to Israel were part of a growing Zionist awakening in the American Jewish community, which had begun at the turn of the century thanks to a handful of leaders and philanthropists who were excited by the Zionist movement and took it upon themselves to advance it. Historian Natan Efrati explores them and their influence on U.S. Jewry in his book, “Ideology and Reality: American Jewry and the Yishuv in the Late Ottoman Period.”

The cover of 'Ideology and Reality: American Jewry and the Yishuv in the Late Ottoman Period,' by Natan Efrati.Credit: Open University of Israel Press and Lamda

Efrati deals with the decade before World War I. In that period millions of Jews who had immigrated from Russia and East Europe were becoming a significant factor in public and economic life in the United States after making their mark in various fields.

The largest Jewish religious stream, the Reform movement, was embroiled in an intense argument about the Zionist idea. While the movement’s institutions officially opposed Zionism and believed the United States was the “New Zion,” a number of significant figures supported the World Zionist Organization and Theodor Herzl’s vision.

Among them were Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, who later became the first chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and physician Harry Friedenwald, the second president of the Federation of American Zionists. These men led the Jewish American community into the war period. They were joined by a Boston lawyer, Louis Brandeis, who would later become the first Jewish justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and one of its greatest judges.

Wise, Magnes and Friedenwald led the then-emerging Zionist movement in America, raised money for it and also visited the Yishuv. They rallied public opinion throughout the United States and sowed the seeds of the great Zionist revival among the country’s Jews, which came years later.

Physician Harry Friedenwald, the second president of the Federation of American Zionists.Credit: Lord Baltimore Press / Internet

Efrati describes in detail the activity of American philanthropists who were recruited to support the Yishuv. He writes about people we know today mainly in the names of streets and buildings – among them Nathan and Lina Straus, co-owners of Macy’s in New York (in 1912, Nathan's brother and business partner, Isidor Straus, died in the sinking of the Titanic), banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff and businessman Julius Rosenwald, of Sears Roebuck and Co. in Chicago.

The election of Princeton University President Woodrow Wilson as president of the United States in 1912 was a major event in this story. Wilson understood the anticipated changes that were to take place in the Middle East and the decline of the Ottoman Empire. He opened his administration to talented Jews (insisting on appointing Brandeis to the Supreme Court) and appointed Henry Morgenthau, one of his greatest supporters, ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at a critical time for the Yishuv.

Efrati writes about Ambassador Morgenthau’s huge and sometimes forgotten contribution to the Jews of Palestine, which saved them from ruin during World War I. He is also credited with the great effort to save the Jews of East Europe from hunger by setting up the historic American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, aka the Joint. Like his colleagues, Morgenthau saw himself as solely as an American and refused to label himself a Zionist, but he and other figures contributed considerably to Zionism’s realization.

Another fascinating chapter in Efrati’s book sheds new light on the well-known figure of Aaron Aaronsohn, the agronomist who discovered emmer, believed to be the “mother of wheat,” and was leader of Nili, the anti-Ottoman underground organization, in Zichron Yaakov. He spent almost two years traveling the length and breadth of the United States during the second decade of the 20th century, influencing public opinion in favor of the Yishuv. He moved large audiences including young Jews wherever he went, confronted opponents of Zionism and enlisted to the cause many of those who were skeptical but believed in him and the idea of the experimental agricultural farm he opened near Atlit, on the Mediterranean coast. He even enlisted telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell to the project.

Aaron Aaronsohn, 1876-1919, a botanist, agronomist, geologist and member of the anti-Ottoman underground during World War I.Credit: Aharonson House Museum

Aaronsohn met President Wilson in the White House as well as former President Theodore Roosevelt, and infused them with excitement for his vision. He became an ally of Brandeis; the correspondence between the two men is on display today in Beit Aaronsohn – Nili Museum in Zichron Yaakov.

Reading here of his great activity, I wondered how far Aaronsohn would have gone in the Zionist movement’s political and diplomatic leadership – and perhaps that of Israel – had he not been killed at a relatively young age when his plane crashed over the English Channel in 1919. I have no doubt he would have accomplished great things due to his world-embracing diplomatic status and to Nili’s heroic feats.

Efrati brings up a surprising fact: Aaronsohn’s death was reported prominently throughout the world, but not in the Yishuv. This small-minded act attests to the jealousy his activity aroused in the community’s official leadership.

The book under review is not devoid of romance. Efrati reveals for the first time dozens of letters Aaronsohn wrote with Platonic love to Sonia Soskin – the wife of his close friend, fellow agronomist Zelig Soskin. The letters were deposited in the Zionist archive on condition they only be publicized decades later.

Louis Brandeis, who would later become the first Jewish justice on the U.S. Supreme Court and one of its greatest judges.Credit: Library of Congress

In other chapters Efrati details American Jewry’s contribution to the Yishuv. This activity included developing higher education by supporting the Hebrew University and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and setting up health care infrastructure under the leadership of Henrietta Szold, whose tremendous activity included founding the Hadassah organization. The book also deals with the political and practical contribution of U.S. Jewry’s leadership to setting up the Jewish Agency in 1929, whose executive I am proud to head today.

“Ideology and Reality” ends with the question of how to define the activity of American Jewry a century ago – was it collective or individual? In my humble opinion, U.S. Jewry converged around the Zionist narrative slowly and cautiously at that stage. Over the years, as the largest and strongest Jewish community in the Diaspora, it became a dominant factor in the State of Israel.

Efrati justly points out that only two decades after the Zionist seeds were sown by Magnes, Wise, Brandeis and their peers did they solidify the powerful, influential collective stature of U.S. Jewry. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, so many of Israel’s foundations were laid thanks to the enthusiasm of a handful of individuals who acted far away from here, and are entitled to credit as founders of the state.

Isaac Herzog is chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency.

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