With the emergence of Zionism, allJewish factions around the world were met with the same question, whether toembrace the movement or oppose it. While the orthodox denomination of Judaism, particularlyin America, maintains communities which differ in their approaches, theAmerican Reform denomination of Judaism has alternately swayed to both extremesof approaching Zionism, and has conclusively decided to support it. The exactroad to which the Reform movement travelled to arrive at its conclusion is amatter that will now be examined, exploring both the roots of its originaldecision to oppose Zionism and its ultimate reversal and embracement of themovement.
Before delving into the AmericanReform movement’s approach to Zionism, it is crucial to understand thementality of American Jewry. In Europe, and particularly Germany, Jews couldnever completely feel that they were actively shaping the destiny of the nationwith which they so much identified. The United States however was different.Like the major European nations, America had its own profound sense of mission,but that mission was not clearly defined nor completely materialized. InAmerica, Reform Jews could feel that their own concept of contribution might bewoven into a larger national purpose.
All religious groups in some way oranother perceived God’s hand in the shaping of America, and the Reform Jewswere no exception.1An example of this was Isaac Mayer Wise, the most influential ofnineteenth-century American Jewish Reformers, who believed that GeorgeWashington and his compatriots were “chosen instruments in the hands ofProvidence,” that in its unique environment of liberty the American peoplewould “work out a new and peculiar destiny.” Judaism, at leastaccording to Wise, would help shape that destiny—the people chosen of old wouldplay their role as part of a people chosen of new.2 In support of this, some go as far as tosuggest that, “…As for Reform Jews, their commitment to universalism, theirsense of patriotism, and their privileging of religion over peoplehood led mostof them to view Zionism as anathema, a negation of all that Jewish emancipationand enlightenment stood for…”3, the Zionist state wouldundermine all progress and ambitions that the Reform Jews sought in America. The clearest expression ofanti-Zionism from the American Reform community, was undoubtedly the PittsburghPlatform in 1885. Under enormous pressure from an influential Reform leader,Kaufman Kohler, the platform would serve to establish the “official” positionsthe Reform movement takes on various issues. Most notably, the strong stanceagainst the Jewish colonialization of Palestine was affirmed, “We recognize inthe Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its missionduring its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its morallaws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, butreject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of moderncivilization.”4.
The platform taking place before the popularization of an American Zionist organization,gave the Reform movement a head start in supplanting opinions into the ReformAmerican Jewish communities, a tremendous disservice to the future Hibbat Zionleaders who would seek to bolster support from the same community. One of the first tests of the newlyformulated Zionist movement was to convince every branch of Judaism of the needand value of a Jewish homeland. While various movements sprouted all overEurope, perhaps the first in America was the Hibbat Zion Society. In the year1882 David Gordon, editor of a Hebrew journal in Germany, wrote a letter to a friendliving in San-Francisco, to establish a Hibbat Zion movement. Gordon received arather unexpected response from his friend Zvi Falk Widawer-Halevi, a fewmonths later; ” (the Jews of America)… are now living in comfort, enjoying thebounty of this land, giving no thought to Eretz Yisroel.
Every spark of loveand holy feeling for the land of our fathers, for God and his Torah, has beenextinguished in them, destroyed to the very foundations- all this because theyworship the golden calf…” Widawer-Halevi went on to dismiss the request of hisfriend to even approach the Jews of America about colonialization for he knewtheir answers in advance “What have we to do with Palestine? America is ourPalestine and our Synagogue is our Temple. We don’t believe in the coming ofthe messiah…” 5 . Despite the strikingly cynical response ofhis friend, Gordon persisted and was rewarded with the eventual establishmentof the first Hoveve Zion organization of America, two years later by orthodoxRabbi Joseph Bluestone. Although Gordon ultimately achieved success,Widawer-Halevi’s response was understandably worrisome. It was difficult enoughto convince comfortable Jews in Europe that they needed their own homeland,whether because of a predicted rise in anti-Semitism or simply to ‘legitimize’the Jewish people as a nation, but to convince Jews in America who had theluxury of comfort and protection would be nearly impossible. The argument madeby Widawer-Halevi, is the root of the initial anti-Zionist stance of the Reformmovement.
Reform Jews sought no coming of the Messiah, felt their Synagoguesreplaced the need of the Holy Temple and sacrifices, and that America truly wastheir Palestine. Seeing no need for a ‘Jewish Colony’ and no need to advocateto a revered and respected government they lived under to aid in theinstitution of a Jewish State, the masses of the Reform Jews of America did notsupport Zionism. While the Hibat Zion movement grewrather slowly in America, the inevitable pitfall of politics and factionsbecame its reality by the end of the 19th century. Two activeleaders, the aforementioned Joseph Bluestone and Rabbi Phillip Klein, were atodds with Richard Gottheil. Despite being a Reform Jew, Gottheil was a ferventsupporter of the Zionist movement, however Bluestone and Klein resented thefact that he assumed leadership of the Hibat Zion group, while disregarding anddismissing much of the work it had done6. Despite the internal strifebetween the leaders, Bluestone and Gottheil agreed that to maintain strongleadership, harmony was a necessity.
This decision proved to be an integral onefor Zionism in America, with Gottheil’s influence on the broader Reformcommunity in America bolstering the much-needed support for Zionism.In Europe meanwhile, the thirdZionist congress met, now with the addition of eager Americans. Delegates weresent by the Federation of American Zionist, an amalgam of the various Zionistorganizations in America, and the event was even recorded by The New YorkTimes, “…applauded enthusiastically every reference to the loyalty of the Jewsliving in the United States, although they applauded with equal enthusiasm themotives of Zionism..”7 . This article written bythe Jewish owned ‘Times, accurately reflected the inner conflict the ReformJews felt about Zionism.8 Their over-eagerness tomaintain their American identity and loyalty served as one of the few deterringfactors from the Zionist movement altogether.
In their eyes, supporting thecolonization of Palestine meant supporting a country and ideology other thanAmericanism, something forbidden. Surely, they had to applaud America at theZionist congress before applauding the “ideals” of Zionism. Furthermore, to outrightsupport the colonization would jeopardize their patriotism, hence their supportand applauding only of Zionist “ideals”. Along this line of thought, the Jewsin America, especially the few from colonial times, were not only eager to showpatriotism with the hopes of receiving complete acceptance into American socialcircles, they also truly believed that America was the ‘New’ Zion. For example, Myer Moses, a leader ofCongregation Beth Elohim of Charleston, in a published lecture delivered in1806 to raise funds for the city’s Hebrew Orphan Society, described “free andindependent” America as a “second Jerusalem” and a “promised land”.
“Picking upwhere George Washington left off in his letter to the Jews of Newport andechoing Protestant depictions of the country as “God’s New Israel,” he prayedfor “Great Jehovah” to “collect together thy long scattered people of Israel,and let their gathering place be in this land of milk and honey.” The idea of”Zion in America” implied that Judaism and Americanism, God and country, thesynagogue-community and the larger community all were thoroughly compatible.”9 It was this belief inAmerica that made the Reform movement dismiss and overlook the idea of Zionism.Moreover, the firm remarks of RabbiEmil G. Hirsch of the Reform Jewish community in Chicago, represented thepredominant viewpoint of anti-Zionism in America. Hirsch said in response toZionism “…The saddest feature is that the Jew himself has caught the infection.The Jew has been led astray by the glitter of nationalism and we have beenblessed by a renaissance of Jewish Nationalism, vulgarly known as Zionism…”. 10 Although these wordsstrikingly resemble those of the Orthodox anti-Zionist leaders, the differencelies in the validity of Nationalism.
The Orthodox approach opines thatnationalism is neither needed nor wanted for the Jewish community, while the Reformapproach suggests that a specifically ‘Jewish’ nationalism is superfluous,being part of pre-existing nationality, in this case America, suffices. WhatHirsch goes on to say illustrates this exact point even further, “…it pretendsto stand for the consummation of Jewish identity. It is based upon theassumption that the Jew, to be a Jew, must belong to the Jewish nation…”11 . On the other hand, the Reform communitydid have pro-Zionist leaders. These included, Rabbi Bernard Felsenthal, apulpit Rabbi in Chicago who was deeply moved by the spike in Anti-Semitism,particularly the pogroms in Russia.
Originally Felsenthal found himself withthe Reform masses in regard to Zionism, seeing neither the need for thecolonization of Palestine nor the relevance of American support. However,Felsenthal realized the reality of the status of the Jews in Europe, and saw noother option but to support and establishment of a Jewish state. Felsenthalsaid “…despite the grandiloquent speeches we hear…even our own coreligionistare prejudiced against the Russian and other foreign Jews. Neither are thedoors open for them in Austria, France, Germany, England and elsewhere inEurope…”12.In hind-sight, Felsenthal was ahead of his time in that this issue would onlybecome more apparent and severe as history progressed. Additionally, Felsenthal’sview would later become the official stance of the Reform movement post-WWII. In an ironic twist in 1891, KaufmannKohler who called for the Pittsburgh Platform which denounced Zionism, signed apetition urging the United States government to take steps that would lead tothe restoration of Palestine to the Jews as their “time honoredhabitation.”13.
Kohler’s reversalkickstarted the ultimate reversal of the entire Reform community. The inertia of the Reform movement’sreversal of its anti-Zionist rhetoric continued through the outbreak of WWI. Inaddition to WWI being an era of heightened nationalism, American Jews,including Reformers, were called upon to press for the assistance to the Jewishplight in eastern Europe and to raise a significant sum for the relief of thehordes who sought refuge on American shores. Simultaneously, discriminationagainst Jews in the United States, now bolstered by racism, was also on therise.14. However unfortunate thecircumstances were, the Reform movement’s stance on Zionism had been shattered.Many Jews could no longer have a home in Europe and both in Europe and AmericaJews were falling under ever-increasing Anti-Semitism. Hirsch’s supposition of “TheJew in America has a Nation…”15 seemed to be faltering,and the words of Joseph Zeff, a Rabbi and close supporter of Herzl, “…TheRussians will be assimilated with the Poles; the German with the French-allwill become as one nation- but not the Jews…” 16, seemed all tooprophetic.
By the beginning of the atrocitiescommitted against the Jews in Central Europe in 1938, the Reform communityhardly needed another reason to support and advocate for a Jewish homeland. WWIalone had rattled the American Jews to the core, and WWII left them no otheroption. No argument could be made that the Jews could be included in another nationality,nor could one be made that Jews were safe in their diaspora. The Reformmovement by this time vehemently advocated for a Jewish homeland and overranthe boundaries which only decades ago they claimed they could not cross withthe American Government. It was only after this reversal that the coals of’Israel’s sanctity’ were stoked.
The argument of Widawer-Halevi that “Everyspark of love and holy feeling for the land of our fathers, for God and hisTorah, has been extinguished in them, destroyed to the very foundations- allthis because they worship the golden calf” could no longer stand true. The orientationof the Reform movement now regarded Israel as the “Spiritual Center”17 instead of an antiquatedcity forgotten in history. The different streams of Judaism haveall dealt differently with the question of acceptance or opposition to Zionism.The Reform community in America at its root, had opposed it for decades, witharguments somewhat similar to the Orthodox opposition. After many years ofinternal and external deliberation and two world wars, the Reform movement feltit had no choice but to overturn their opposition, and exchange it foracceptance, and went as far as to advocate on its behalf.
1Meyer 2272Ibid3Sarna 2024Encyclopedia Judaica 464465 5Urofsky 826Urofsky 877New York Times, Sep 25 18998Feinstein 1599Sarna 5210Feinstein 17911Ibid12The American Hebrew, May 7 1897 as cited in Cohen 5013Ariel 114Cohen 5015Feinstein 18016Feinstein 16917Davidson