The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas

By Bryan Edward Stone | Go to book overview

THREE
The Possum and the Zionist

In the winter of 1904, Jacob de Haas, the British-born secretary of the Federation of American Zionists, set out on a two-month tour of the American South to promote Zionist organization in the region. Editor of the Federation’s New York journal, The Maccabaean, and formerly the personal secretary to Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, de Haas was an accomplished organizer and activist, but he had his work cut out for him in the South. Before his trip, there were only eight chartered Zionist groups, numbering about 150 members, in the entire region.1 The vast majority of southern Jews were followers of American Reform Judaism, which had officially renounced Jewish nationalism in its effort to make religious practice more consonant with American life. Reform prayer books eliminated references to the restoration of Jerusalemm, and in 1885 a Pittsburgh convention of Reform leaders adopted a platform that explicitly rejected the effort to establish a political home for the Jewish people, asserting that only America offered genuine security and opportunity for Jews.

Reform leaders, especially the formidable Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, virulently opposed Zionism on the grounds that it emphasized Jews’ ethnic distinctiveness rather than their Americanism. Wise had trained nearly all the Reform rabbis in the South, who in turn passed their misgivings on to their congregations, often with heavy doses of misinformation. De Haas observed that “the Reform Jew is [not] per se an Anti

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