n mid-June, the American Jewish Committee published a study documenting just how differently American Jews and Israelis think about the Jewish condition. On Israeli security, the American president, religious pluralism, and other issues of real consequence, the gap between Israeli and American Jews is very wide.
The historical sources of this divide are illuminated in Rick Richman’s eye-opening Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler. In 1940, Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion all made independent trips to the United States to raise a Jewish army to fight Hitler. Each mission failed. And the reasons for their failure show us that disagreements between American Jews and Israel are not new, and they are not the result of Prime Minister Netanyahu or any American president.
Britain had been the arena of Zionist diplomacy in the first years of the 20th century. But Zionist fortunes declined from the 1917 Balfour Declaration to the 1937 Peel Commission to the 1939 White Paper. British foreign policy had abandoned the Jews, embraced the Arabs, and, in the moments before war really broke out, was complicit in tightening the noose around the neck of Jewish Europe.
Chaim Weizmann, the scientist turned Zionist leader, tried to reorient British policy at every turn. He was an insider, a courtier who plied his charm in the private audience of the gentleman’s club. And on Weizmann’s 1940 trip to the United States, he operated in the same style. Richman describes private meetings with Louis Brandeis, even President Roosevelt. But it was all for naught. In Britain, Neville Chamberlain had rebuffed Weizmann’s offer of military support, and he wasn’t about to try to raise a Jewish fighting force in isolationist America. So he decided to refocus his trip on fundraising and to ask the American government to pressure Britain into relaxing its immigration restrictions in Palestine.
Richman, a lawyer in Los Angeles who contributes to Commentary’s blog, demonstrates that Weizmann’s reflections on 1940 are consistent with assessments of the American Diaspora he had been making for decades. As early as 1916, Weizmann had written that assimilation was “the natural progress of emancipated Jews” outside of the land of Israel. In America, he found that assimilationist pressure had led Jews to adopt the same isolationist view as their non-Jewish neighbors. American Jews believed that they were already in the promised land, and they would not let European strangers or Middle Eastern dreamers endanger their standing. As Richman tells it, Weizmann “maintained a studious public silence on anything that might be construed as suggesting that America, or American Jews, should actively respond to what was transpiring in Europe, other than by assisting in building Palestine through investments and contributions.”
Then came Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the so-called Revisionists. He was in the United States from March until his untimely death in August. The day he arrived, Jabotinsky walked off the Samaria, up to the New York Times, and matter-of-factly said that “if there is going to be real military war, there is going to be a Jewish army, fighting under a Jewish flag on the side of the democracies.” He saw Europe as it was, a “Zone of Jewish Distress,” and did not want Jews to believe that an Allied victory by itself could ensure Jewish survival there. Jabotinsky had previously argued, prophetically, for an evacuation scheme from Europe. Even in the event of Allied victory, he would have thought it absurd for Jews to return to Poland and Germany. He demanded recognition of a state in Palestine and thought it essential for his people to join the war effort in order for the Allies to incur Jewish debt—Jewish debt that would be repaid at the settlement table after the war by recognizing a Jewish state.
Jabotinsky also thought it essential for Jews to assume political responsibility for themselves—not only to bear Jewish arms, but to govern Jewish citizens in a Jewish state—in order to leave behind the ghetto mentality they had developed in the Diaspora. His vision of Jewish excellence, hadar, called impoverished and weak Diaspora Jews to the grandeur and magnificence that can be endowed only by sovereignty.
After the fall of France in June, Jabotinsky delivered what would be the last major speech of his life. In “The Second World War and a Jewish Army,” he explained to a standing-room-only audience of over 4,000 that “the principle by which all great nations live and without which they die” is “No Surrender.” The West must not surrender to Hitler, and the Jews must not surrender this chance to reassert the dignity of self-government. A Jewish army would “signify that the Jewish people choose a cloudy day to renew its demand for recognition as a belligerent on the side of a good cause.” Constituted “as a Jewish army,” Jews should “demand the right of fighting the giant rattlesnake.” Offers to serve began to be received and one can see how Jabotinsky’s call to hadar might have struck a chord. But it was not to be. Jabotinsky died suddenly that August. He was mourned by tens of thousands in the streets of New York and by many more thousands around the world. But in the immediate aftermath of his most promising speeches, it was the American Jewish establishment that criticized him as a militant extremist whose work did not embody Jewish values.
Then David Ben-Gurion arrived in October 1940, on Rosh Hashanah, and managed to offend just about every potential Jewish ally to be found, including the Zionists. Like Weizmann, Ben-Gurion thought it impolitic to ask Jewish Americans to support a Jewish military force in the midst of a presidential election. So for the first month, he undertook no major speeches. And when, after the election that gave Franklin Roosevelt a third term, he did speak, Ben-Gurion lacked Jabotinsky’s rhetorical power. In Richman’s telling, his visit to America at the end of 1940 was a disappointment.
Richman’s book reveals how three singular Zionist leaders came to America, each with their distinct habits of mind and ways of negotiating the country, its politics, and its people. Despite their apparent disagreements, they all stood for Jewish particularity and Jewish strength as the keys to the Jewish future. But in America, the Jewish future would not be decided by Jewish strength or understood in the name of Jewish particularity. The differences between Jewish Americans and Zionists predate Israel’s founding. They predate the Second World War. Richman’s remarkable account of a telling moment in history shows how the differences between American Jews and the descendants of Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion grow straight from roots of Zionism itself.