Zionism and Its Reform Jewish Critics in America Before World War II
There is a story, probably an apocryphal one, that a few days before the first Zionist congress in 1897, the historian Joseph Klausner asked an American rabbi whether there were any Zionists in the United States. "Yes," replied the rabbi, "there are two. A mad man named Stephen Wise and a mad woman, Henrietta Szold." 1 Although an exaggeration, the story reflects the weakness of early American Zionism. Yet from initial insignificance in the 1890s, the American Zionist movement rose to a position of paramount importance in the 1940s, when, in partnership with Palestinian Zionists, it played a decisive role in the struggle to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.
In 1942, in response to the extraordinary growth of the Zionist movement and the rapid proliferation of its political activities in the United States, a number of Reform rabbis, led by Louis Wolsey, founded the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), the only American Jewish organization ever created to fight Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In the beginning, most of the members of the ACJ were Reform rabbis who were primarily concerned about the increasing intrusion of Zionism into Reform Judaism. When Lessing J. Rosenwald and Rabbi Elmer Berger assumed the leadership of the organization in the spring of 1943, they transformed it into an essentially secular anti-Zionist pressure group, whose membership consisted mostly of middle-and upper-middle- class lay Reform Jews of German descent.
Neither the German origins of the Council's membership nor the Reform foundations of its philosophy are surprising. Conceived but unsuccessful in Germany, Reform Judaism was adopted as the dominant mode of religious expression by German-speaking Jews who migrated to the United States from Central Europe before 1880. A faith based on optimism, rationalism, and progress, heir to the noblest traditions of the European Enlightenment, Reform Judaism experienced spectacular success in America