‘Beethoven Was a Zionist’: A Memoir From Israel on the Eve of its Creation

January 9, 2013 10:18 am 4 comments

A portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven. When American Zionist activist Harold Manson heard the Palestine Orchestra 65 years ago, he wrote “There was electricity in the air. And Beethoven was a Zionist, singing out his message of hope—this time for the Jewish people." Photo: Joseph Karl Stieler/Wikimedia Commons.

“Today I saw The Land for the first time, and it was beautiful.”

With those simple but moving words, veteran American Zionist activist Harold Manson began his remarkable diary of the visit he made to the Holy Land 65 years ago this month, shortly before the establishment of the State of Israel. It was a journey filled with surprises for Manson—but much of what he found could have been taken from our own headlines today.

Manson served as public relations director for the American Zionist Emergency Council, the umbrella for the major U.S. Zionist organizations. He landed in what was still British Mandatory Palestine on Jan. 13, 1948, as the advance man for a forthcoming visit by Zionist leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.

The “undeclared war” of Palestinian Arab violence against the Jews was in evidence from the moment of Manson’s arrival. “I can thank the Arabs for that first thrilling glimpse of Tel-Aviv and its environs from the air,” he noted. “Because they have made motor travel on the roads unsafe, I was prevailed upon to fly into Tel-Aviv via ‘Aviron’—a two-seater cub, efficiently piloted by a stalwart member of the future Jewish Air Force.”

By his third day in the country, Manson had a close brush with the war. “On my way back to the hotel, I came ‘under fire’ for the first time,” he wrote on Jan. 14, 1948. “Suddenly bullets began to fly… and the few people on the street took cover.”

The gunfire was coming from the adjoining Arab area of Jaffa. “It seems that the sons of Allah are using the minaret of a mosque for sniping purposes,” he wrote. “They seldom hit anybody, but it’s damned irritating to know that Haganah retaliation would be denounced as an attack on a holy place and could precipitate ‘holy warfare’ [jihad].” Indeed, in the years since, the Israeli army has often faced international condemnation for striking at Arab terrorists who were using civilians or religious sites as shields.

A diary entry several days later gave additional glimpses of the battlefront: “There was a great deal of shooting last night, and two big explosions,” Manson recorded. “This morning we learned that the British had blown up two houses in the Jaffa-Tel Aviv area, one Arab and one Jewish, which had been used by snipers. How terribly fair and ‘neutral’ to punish both the attackers and the attacked.”

But there was also good news from the war: “While I was getting a breath of morning air on my terrace, there was a terrific explosion to the left and I saw fragments of a house go up in the air and a cloud of dust and smoke. Later I learned that our boys had destroyed another Arab snipers’ hangout.”

But Eretz Yisrael in the spring of 1948 was not just a land of strife. Far from it. Manson’s memoir brims with hopeful descriptions of the vibrant everyday life and culture of the Jewish community. Despite the occasional bursts of violence, he found Tel Aviv to be “a superbly normal city, going about its business with both efficiency and charm, and bursting with creative energy.” It was a “lovely, almost idyllic, seaside community,” with “gleaming white buildings, thoroughfares, boulevards and promenades teeming with pleasant, relaxed faces… crowded cafes and shops… strong children running about in the bright Mediterranean sun.”

The American Zionist activist was deeply impressed by the locals’ hospitality. “This is one of the friendliest spots on earth,” he wrote in his journal. “Invitations to dinner, tea and just plain visits come bewilderingly fast, and one is hard put to organize one’s daily schedule in such a way as to avoid converting one’s stay here to a prolonged social occasion.”

Shortly after Rabbi Silver’s arrival, their hosts pressed Silver and Manson to attend a performance by the Palestine Orchestra. With “very heavy hearts” over reports of new Jewish casualties, they reluctantly assented. “As it turned out, all of us were glad that we went,” he noted afterwards. The orchestra played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, based on Schiller’s exuberantly hopeful “Ode to Joy,” and it “had a deep personal meaning for every person” in the audience. “There was electricity in the air. And Beethoven was a Zionist, singing out his message of hope—this time for the Jewish people. He sang of the glory of our cause and he assured us of its triumph. It was definitely not an ordinary musical evening.”

But even at that moment, Manson could not help but notice “that the male section of the chorus was smaller than usual”—because so many young men had been compelled to take up arms. It was a vivid reminder of what was ultimately at stake. Amidst the wonder and excitement of the emerging new country and culture, “one suddenly remembers that the charming couple discussing modern art in Palestine have an 18-year-old boy who is, in all likelihood, roaming the hills somewhere to guarantee his peoples security,” he wrote. “And boys like that die every day in Palestine.”

Manson understood: the nation’s security would have to come first. The young Jewish soldiers would have to fend off Palestinian Arab attacks and defeat the five Arab armies that were preparing to invade. Only then would the State of Israel be free to blossom. And it would.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC.

4 Comments

  • Liked your article EXCEPT there was no arabs that called themselves Palestinian Arabs then. The first Palestinian (from the Hebrew “Phlashteem” or “Invaders”) were greeks from the islands of Minoa (today, the volcanic island of Santorini) and Crete around 1125 BC(E) at the beginning of the Iron Age. In 110 AD, Roman Emperor Hadrian called the Jews and the land Palestinians and Palestine respectively after the biggest enemies of the Jews because he wanted us to disappear into the milieu and then to be lost as a people forever; his hatred derives from all of the Roman Jewish Wars which the Romans won. In 1948, Jews stopped calling themselves Palestinians after Israel’s successful War Of Independence; thereafter we were Israelis and the Palestine Philharmonic became the Israeli Philharmoni9c, the Palestine /Post became the Jerusalem Post, the Bank of Palestine became Bank Haopalim etc.

  • This time Israel will be a country forever because the Lord’s promise. So regardless of being surrounded by enemies on all sides, remember who is REALLY IN CHARGE! He is GREAT and MIGHTY in POWER and He will deliver Israel from her enemies once and for all. He says He will come down to Jerusalem and live in HIS Temple and we will not need the sun or the moon anymore for our light-His is so great! Can you imagine a God of Wonders that loves HIS people so much? Oh don’t wait until the great disappearances to know Him personally. You don’t want to be here for the next 7 years after that happens. But if for some you cannot make yourself believe that Messiah has come once-to die for the sins of the world as the sacrificial lamb of passover.Think, there HAD to be a perfect sacrifice for anyone to come to heaven and Messiah was the ONLY one who could make that claim. Fully God and fully Man-someone only our God could create just as He said Born of a VIRGIN-Isaiah 7:14 He lived and died on a cross for you and for me because of His Great love for us. When He comes this time, it will just be in the air and all that believe upon Him will join Him in the blink of an eye and we’ll “disappear”-perhaps millions of people all over the world. Some will be piloting planes and they’ll drop out of the sky. Some will be driving cars and those cars will be out of control wherever they are-causing wrecks upon wrecks. And doctors may be seeing patients or operating and suddenly, they too are gone. Think of any profession and there will be disappearances. What will be the saddest thing-will be an unbelieving mother delivering her child only to have that child disappear. Yes, these things are really, really going to happen. Those who are left-well I am sure that they’ll come up with some kind of explanation. But You remember, I have told you this before it has happened and when it does, you fall to your knees and ask presiouos Yeshua, the Messiah to come into your heart. Don’t wait even a second. I have told my unbelieving friends both Jewish and regular American the same thing. Hopefully someone will have listened to me and my heart to tell you the Truth. Just read the book of Isaiah. Ask the Lord Jehovah to tell you the truth. He said if we seek him we will find Him. I promise He will never let you down. You will never be alone-ever. He will always hold you with His strong Right Arm. Just as He said so many times in Psalms as well as Isaiah.
    if anyone gets to read this and has a question,you have only to ask. I will answer to the best of my knowledge and if I cannot, I will go to wherever I must for the answers. But I will tell you that the Lord God on HIGH-HE has all the answers. I promise. I Live My Life based on His Promises.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    Serendipitously, I was listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony just an hour before I read this article. The tone for the read was set; Harold Manson took over and provided the discourse. Dr. Rafael Medoff has penned a most exquisite signifier for us to remember why Israel is so very much alive in our collective Jewish memory today–there can be no greater national dedication to Hashem’s glory in all of His creation than the Jewish State of Israel!

    • Yoel: Your statement captures the heart and soul of the people who love and will always stand by ISRAEL…Kol HaKavod

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