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August 26, 2020 4:22 am

Reform Jews and Early American Zionism

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avatar by Harold Brackman


The Western Wall and Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The story of Zionism and Reform Judaism in America began in the 1820s, when Charleston Jews left the traditional Congregation Beth Elohim to found their own “Reformed Society of Israelites.” Their leader, Isaac Harby, wanted to substitute “a rational faith” consistent with the Enlightenment values of America’s founding fathers for what he deemed the outworn husk of rabbinic Judaism. Harby declared that proud Americans of the Israelite faith no longer needed to pray for the redemption of the “stony desert” of Palestine.

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who left Europe in the mid 19th-century, was the most charismatic among the rabbis who led nascent Reform Judaism after the Civil War. Initially, Wise’s newspaper, the American Israelite, dismissed the stirrings of American Zionism as the fantasy of “a very few young visionaries and impractical college professors.” But by the 1880s, Wise feared imminent “Russification” of American Judaism by Yiddish-speaking immigrants infatuated by “love of Zion.”

Chicago’s Rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal, a Reform rabbi and Zionist forerunner, had been an abolitionist. But other Jews were biased against other races — and even Russian Jews.

Some Reformers were candid about their biases. “It would be lunacy” — and “little short of treason” — “to ask us to give up our glorious birthright here for a mess of pottage elsewhere.” The Dreyfus Affair was only the minor mischief of “juveniles and loafers.” Criticism of the exclusion of Jews from elite hotels and resorts was “reckless exaggeration.” Others, as Naomi W. Cohen documents, also charged pro-Zionist Jewish immigrants with “dual loyalty.”

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Eventually, Reform rabbis like Gustav Gottheil and Stephen S. Wise gave Zionism a second look. The young Wise was convinced to become a Zionist partly by the Jews who impressed him at 1898’s Second Zionist Congress: “not victims, not refugees, not beggars, but educated men, dreaming, planning, toiling for their people.”

Finally in 1937, Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) supplanted 1885’s Pittsburgh Platform with the new Columbus Platform declaring: “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of a renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its uplifting of a Jewish homeland.”

There followed CCAR’s endorsement of the establishment of a Jewish Army in Palestine. The anti-Zionist bitter-enders founded the American Council for Judaism in response.

By 1948, it was not American Jewish Zionists but anti-Zionists who had to live down their history of intolerance of “the other.”

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).

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