Nationalism without a Nation? on the Invisibility of American Jewish Politics

By Loeffler, James | The Jewish Quarterly Review, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Nationalism without a Nation? on the Invisibility of American Jewish Politics


Loeffler, James, The Jewish Quarterly Review


You are coming together, you Jews, after many long years . . . You were all together on the night of the Exodus from Egypt. You were all together at Mount Sinai and the last time you were together was on the walls of Jerusalem fighting the enemy. And now, after thousands of years, you are again coming together, you Jews, in a land of which our ancestors had never heard and knew nothing.

-Sholem Asch, "Know Thyself!" (1918)1

Jewish nationalism in the United States is a shamefaced, apologetic dualism . . . There is no such thing as separate nationalisms reserved for the Polish, the Rumanian, the Russian Jews from which the American Jews can claim exemption . . . Either there is one Jewish people or there is none.

-Joseph Tenenbaum, Peace for the Jewd (1945)2

Nationalism is a dirty word in the United States.

-Minxin Pei, "The Paradoxes o£ American Nationalism" (2003)3

"FOR THE FIRST TIME in Jewish history, for the first time at a major Jewish assembly there came a declaration that we Jews are a nation, very simply a nation."4 5 These words refer not to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, nor to the Declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. Instead, they hail from a long-forgotten event, the first American Jewish Congress in Philadelphia in 1918. After a four-year campaign, 400 political delegates elected by over 320,000 American Jews convened as a Jewish national assembly. Twenty-five years later, at the height of the Second World War, the scene repeated itself. Five hundred delegates representing some 2,250,000 Jews formed a parliamentary-style political body known as the American Jewish Conference. Observing the events in 1943, the Labor Zionist leader Judah Pilch predicted that the conference marked the beginning of a new form of "Jewish self-government" in America: This "National Jewish Community Council . . . will be the American version of the Palestinian Vaad Leuml and will be authorized to speak and act in the name of American Jewry." Building their own national "Kehillah," Pilch argued, would determine once and for all "the attitude of American Jews toward the idea of Jewish nationalism and its by-product - Zionism."0

What, precisely, was the American Jewish stance on Jewish nationalism before 1948? Today, we would typically answer that question by reference to Jewish statehood in Palestine. In our common parlance, Zionism, then and now, simply denotes political identification with the State of Israel. Yet by that dubious standard, half of the American population might qualify as Jewish nationalists. Against this conventional wisdom, I wish to propose two revisionist claims. First, historically speaking, American Jewish nationalism is not merely coterminous with Zionism. Second, American Jewish political thought, despite assumptions to the contrary, contains surprisingly robust expressions of nationalism centered on Jewish political identity within American society.

Once upon a time, to be a Zionist meant first and foremost to believe in the reality of the Jewish nation. Zionists shared this conviction, despite their ideological differences, with the other political tributaries feeding into the larger stream of Jewish nationalism. While support for the Jewish national project in Palestine was the focal point of Zionist ideology, it was by no means the only way Jews practiced their Zionist politics. Elsewhere in the pre-World War II Jewish world, they pursued an array of activities - political campaigns for diaspora national minority rights, legal activism in the international arena, Hebraist cultural projects, and social and philanthropic movements - that expressed their identification with the Jewish nation. Most elementary of all, they adopted the tropes of nationhood in their languages of self-description. That is, they called themselves a nation.6

American Jews, by contrast, exhibited a very different pattern. Both in World War I and World War II, American Jewish nationalists acted much like Zionists elsewhere. …

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