The Americanization of Zionism, 1897-1948

By Medoff, Rafael | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Americanization of Zionism, 1897-1948

Medoff, Rafael, Shofar

The Americanization of Zionism, 1897-1948, by Naomi Cohen. Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, 2003. 261 pp. $35.00.

In The Americanization of Zionism, Naomi Cohen expands on a theme that has previously been explored both by herself and by scholars such as Ben Halpern and Melvin Urofsky: from its earliest years, American Zionism has been shaped by uniquely American factors that set it apart from the traditional ideology of European Zionism.

Zionism in the United States was fashioned according to "the needs of Jews in America," including their desire not to differ too much from "the stand of the American government" and "the demands of American public opinion" (p. 1), she contends. This meant jettisoning such concepts as the inevitability of massive antisemitism in the diaspora and the personal obligation of every Zionist to settle in Palestine. Most American Jews have always regarded the United States as their home, never believed that substantial antisemitism will erupt here, and never seriously considered relocating to the Middle East. Nor would they want what Cohen calls "American public opinion" to suspect that they regard the United States as a country that will eventually persecute them and drive them out.

Cohen explains at the start that The Americanization of Zionism "does not purport to be a synthetic history of American Zionism" (p. 2). Rather, she presents eight separate episodes, some revolving around key events, others around key individuals, that illustrate her central theme. Every chapter features the same crisp writing style and high level of scholarship that made her earlier books sparkle. It is impossible to finish any single section of the book without gaining some fresh insight or new information.

The book begins with a study of the earliest U.S. Zionist monthly, The Maccabaean, exploring how it presented Zionist ideas to the fledgling American Zionist movement and how, in turn, it reflected the perspective of the emerging movement. Subsequent chapters deal with such disparate topics as the unsuccessful attempt to build a Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem in the 1930s, the efforts by American Jewish social worker Maurice Hexter to influence British policy in Palestine, conflicts between American Zionists and the State Department over immigration to Palestine during the 1930s, the ill-fated American Jewish Conference, and the 1940s debates over Zionism within Conservative Judaism's Jewish Theological Seminary.

Her chapter on Reform Judaism's evolution from anti-Zionism to non-Zionism (that is, support for a Jewish refuge although not a sovereign state) brings into sharp focus the multiplicity of factors at work in shaping that movement's attitude towards Palestine. England's Balfour Declaration, soon endorsed by the U.S. government, "legitimated Zionism" in the eyes of Reform rabbis (p. 62). If they did not have to fear "dual loyalty" accusations, Reform leaders could feel comfortable with the idea of Palestine as a refuge for downtrodden European Jews, even if they were slow to embrace the notion of Jewish territorial sovereignty. Later, the rise of Nazism cemented Reform's acceptance of the idea of Palestine as a haven for the European masses. Self-preservation was also a factor: Reform rabbis had to face the reality that by the interwar years, most American Jews were "nationalist-minded eastern European immigrants" (p. 62) (or their offspring) to whom a strongly anti-Zionist brand of Reform Judaism would not appeal.

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