Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1926-1948

Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1926-1948

by Rafael Medoff


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Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1926-1948 by Rafael Medoff

This in-depth look at a controversial faction of American Zionism fills
a void in the story of American Zionism—and in the story of American Judaism.

This book recounts the fascinating and little-known story
of the militant American Zionists who lobbied Congress, rallied American
public opinion, and influenced British-American relations in their campaign
for Jewish statehood in the 1930s and 1940s. Although these activists have
been dismissed as fanatics who fragmented the American Zionist movement,
Rafael Medoff reveals that the faction—which included an Academy Award-winning
screenwriter and several future members of the Israeli parliament—was
more influential than has been previously acknowledged.

These militants stirred America's conscience by placing
controversial newspaper ads, lobbying conservative as well as liberal members
of Congress, and staging dramatic protest rallies. Through these tactics,
Medoff shows, they attracted a wave of support from an extraordinary cross-section
of leading Americans, including comedians Harpo Marx and Carl Reiner, actors
Vincent Price, Marlon Brando, and Jane Wyatt, musician Leonard Bernstein,
and rising young politicians Jacob Javits and Hubert Humphrey. Medoff also
describes the shadowy underground division that smuggled weapons to the
Holy Land in caskets, naming and interviewing for the first time members
of this gunrunning network.

Based on years of archival research and interviews and
written in a compelling style, Militant Zionism in America documents
events that reshaped the American Jewish community, influenced American
foreign policy, and contributed to one of the most extraordinary events
of modern history: the creation of the State of Israel.

Rafael Medoff is a Visiting Scholar at the State University of New York — Purchase College.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817353704
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 10/15/2006
Series: Judaic Studies Series Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Rafael Medoff is a Visiting Scholar at the State University of New York — Purchase College.

Read an Excerpt

Militant Zionism in America

The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, 1926â"1948

By Rafael Medoff

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5370-4


Planting the Seeds of Militant Zionism in America

Snowflakes drifted gently across New York harbor as the SS France pulled up to the pier on January 27, 1926. Among its passengers was Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, orator, author, poet, and leader of the Zionist movement's maximalist wing. Ready to begin his first visit to the United States, Jabotinsky tightened his muffler, braced himself against the frigid morning air, and followed the walkway down to the dock. Considering the blustery winds and snowfall, he probably did not expect a large audience to greet him when he came ashore. But it must have been disconcerting to gaze about the pier and discover that the entire welcoming committee consisted of young Israel Posnansky, in his rumpled overcoat and earmuffs, teeth chattering, frantically rubbing his hands together as protection against the winter chill. Although Posnansky was by no means Jabotinsky's only follower, the fact that he was the only one on hand to greet the Zionist leader upon his arrival dramatically illustrated the fact that activist Zionism had not yet taken hold in the American Jewish community. But when Jabotinsky returned to Europe, after five and a half months of lectures and organizing in the United States, he left behind the seeds of a movement that would one day profoundly affect the destiny of American Jewry.

Jabotinsky began his Zionist career not as a fiery dissident but as a mainstream Zionist orator and writer in turn-of-the-century czarist Russia. It was in Russia that the first modern associations for the resettlement of the Land of Israel, Bilu and Hovevei Zion, arose in the late 1800s. Responding to pogroms and governmental discrimination against Jews, these young activists pioneered some of the earliest Jewish settlements in modern Palestine, which was then under Turkish rule, and laid the foundation for the rise of a powerful Zionist movement in Russia. Theodor Herzl, the Viennese Jewish journalist who launched the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in 1897, was Zionism's political leader and foremost diplomat, but the Russian Jewish community provided the backbone of the movement and produced a steady stream of extraordinary orators and authors. Jabotinsky grew up in an intellectual milieu suffused with such stellar talents as Menachem Ussishkin, Nahum Sokolow, Shmaryahu Levin, Ahad Ha'am, Chaim Weizmann, and Nahman Syrkin.

One of the traits that set Jabotinsky apart from other prominent Russian Zionists was his determination to personally translate his ideals into concrete action. Well known in Russia for both his literary talents and his role in organizing armed Jewish self-defense groups, Jabotinsky gained international prominence through his successful campaign for the creation of a Jewish Legion that fought as part of the British army against the Turks in World War I and took part in the capture of Palestine. Jabotinsky and many of the other demobilized legionnaires settled in Palestine at war's end, expecting to witness the fulfillment of England's wartime promise, known as the Balfour Declaration, to facilitate the creation of a "Jewish national home" in Palestine.

But some British officials, especially those governing Palestine itself, thought a pro-Arab slant might better serve England's regional interests. Although the text of the Balfour Declaration was part of the terms of the Palestine Mandate granted Britain by the League of Nations in 1920, British policy on the ground was already evolving in a different direction. Jabotinsky's role in organizing Jewish defense militias to fight off Palestinian Arab rioters in 1920 aroused British disfavor. Arrested by the British for illegal possession of weapons during the riots and sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor, Jabotinsky was catapulted to martyr status in the Zionist world. An international outcry resulted in his release the following year.

During the early 1920s, Jabotinsky grew increasingly dissatisfied at the Zionist leadership's cautious response to the signs of a pro-Arab shift in Britain's Palestine policy. He urged WZO president Chaim Weizmann to fight London's opposition to the creation of a Jewish army in Palestine and to more aggressively oppose the English decision, in 1922, to bar Jewish settlement in the eastern part of Palestine, known as Transjordan. Weizmann, along with the growing Labor Zionist movement, favored quiet diplomacy and gradualist settlement activity as the way to slowly build a Jewish homeland. Jabotinsky, by contrast, preferred Herzl's approach of staging dramatic acts of public pressure. Jabotinsky thought in grand terms — creating a modern army, forming alliances with world powers, establishing a powerful sovereign state stretching across both sides of the Jordan River. Jabotinsky was a great believer in the power of ideas and the influence of public relations. His opponents ridiculed him for favoring "words over deeds," but in Jabotinsky's view, words would make it possible to accomplish deeds — that is, words were needed both to give Jews the sense of conviction that would motivate them to act for Jewish statehood, and to secure the international sympathy needed to move toward statehood without substantial outside interference.

Frustrated by what he regarded as the timidity of Weizmann and others in the Zionist leadership, Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist Executive — the movement's ruling council — in early 1923. In the two years that followed, Jabotinsky established an activist Zionist youth movement of his own, Betar, as well as his own political faction within the WZO, known as the World Union of Zionists-Revisionists. The party's name signified Jabotinsky's conviction that Zionist policy urgently required revision. A more aggressive posture was necessary, he believed, to prevent Britain from completely embracing the Arab cause and altogether spurning Zionism.

Although it was not a major point of controversy during Revisionism's earliest years, Jabotinsky would also, by the early 1930s, emerge as a vociferous critic of the socialist economic theories promoted by the Labor Zionist movement and its powerful trade union, the Histadrut. Jabotinsky argued that in view of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and increasing Palestinian Arab hostility toward Zionism, the Palestine Jewish community (known as the yishuv) should seek greater unity by utilizing compulsory arbitration rather than strikes as a means of settling labor disputes. Tensions between Histadrut strikers and Revisionists who defied their strikes would often flare into violence.

In the cultural sphere as well, Jabotinsky's followers went their own way. The songs and literature of the Revisionist movement emphasized Jewish military achievements in biblical times, the bonds between Jewry and the Land of Israel, and the need for the territorial integrity of the Jewish national homeland, to be ensured by a Jewish military force. Labor Zionists, too, opposed Britain's severance of Transjordan from the Palestine Mandate, but whereas the Laborites gradually acquiesced in the decision and dropped the issue from their agenda, the Revisionists made the concept "Both sides of the Jordan" a centerpiece of their ideology and culture.

Revisionist, or maximalist, Zionism, then, came to represent a distinct worldview with well-defined perspectives on a broad range of political, cultural, and economic issues. It was not merely a political party, but a rapidly growing mass movement that hoped to direct the Zionist struggle and define the character of the future Jewish state.

The Revisionist message found especially receptive audiences in Eastern Europe. Jabotinsky's calls for a tougher stance toward the British, massive Jewish immigration to Palestine, and the quick creation of a Jewish state attracted sympathy among lower-middle-class Eastern European Jewish shopkeepers and artisans suffering from anti-Jewish discrimination and occasional persecution. Jabotinsky's militant posture also resonated among would-be emigrants who began considering Palestine as a possible destination once America's doors were nearly shut by restrictive immigration quotas imposed in 1921 and further tightened in 1924. The Revisionist platform contrasted sharply with the gradualist approach of mainstream Zionist leaders. Weizmann, expecting the British to remain true to the Balfour Declaration, advocated cooperation with the Mandatory rulers. He and his allies in the Labor Zionist movement, led by David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, preferred a "one more cow, one more dunam" approach to development of the country. To avoid antagonizing London, Weizmann remained deliberately vague as to whether he would be satisfied with something less than a sovereign state; he referred to the word "statehood" as "the shem hameforash," an ancient Hebrew term for the unmentionable name of God.

The sociological conditions in interwar Eastern Europe that bred sympathy for militant Zionism were not to be found in 1920s America. Attracting support for Revisionism in the United States posed a complex challenge. The political and social atmosphere in post–World War I America was not hospitable to foreign-based ethnic nationalist movements. The anti-German hysteria of the war years had generated strong pressure on all immigrants to "Americanize" by abandoning their native languages, old-world customs, and foreign political loyalties. The Communist revolution in Russia helped provoke a series of Red Scares in the United States in 1919 and 1920 that placed much of the blame for the Communist menace at the doorsteps of European immigrants. The Ku Klux Klan and other racist and anti-immigrant movements enjoyed a surge of popularity in the early 1920s; the Klan had 4 million members in forty-three states by 1924. A proliferation of anti-Semitic propaganda in the early and mid-1920s, including the serialization of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Henry Ford's Dearborn (Michigan) Independent, further intimidated the Jewish community. In such an environment, many American Jews feared that affiliation with a Zionist movement could be perceived as un-American.

Other factors, too, hampered American Zionism. The Balfour Declaration, the subsequent British conquest of Palestine, and the awarding of the Palestine Mandate to Britain made it seem as if Zionism's central goal had been achieved. The need for a Diaspora Zionist movement was no longer obvious. While outbreaks of Palestinian Arab violence might normally have been expected to increase American Jewish interest in Palestine, the Arab riots of 1920 and 1921 were too brief and underpublicized to have a serious impact on American Jewish opinion. Furthermore, in 1921, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the main Zionist group in the United States, lost its most attractive leader when Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis resigned from its presidency in order to avoid a conflict of interest between his Court duties and his Zionist activity. Brandeis's departure deprived American Zionism of the prestige of having America's most prominent and respected Jew at its helm.

The atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties further hampered American Zionism. With their postwar prosperity and increased leisure time, Americans were enjoying dance crazes, provocative new fashions in clothing, national sports heroes such as Babe Ruth, and the introduction of movies. The newfound pleasures of American society beckoned, and American Jews were anxious to move up and fit in. Dramatic shifts were under way in the economic and professional profile of interwar American Jewry that made cultural integration and material advancement genuine possibilities. From a turn-of-the-century immigrant population consisting heavily of peddlers, sweatshop workers, and other blue-collar laborers, by 1930 most of the American Jewish workforce was white collar. About half of American Jews were involved in trade, and a significant number were now employers rather than employees. More than one-third of Jews were in commercial occupations, as compared to about 14 percent of Americans in general. Increasing numbers of Jews could be found in law, medicine, the entertainment industry, and journalism. Upwardly mobile children of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants were moving out of the ghetto-like Lower East Side and settling in suburban Brooklyn and the Bronx. Prosperous America, not impoverished Palestine, was the focus of American Jewry's attention.

Demographic patterns also affected American Jewish interest in Zionism. The rising tide of nativist sentiment in the United States had resulted in the enactment of restrictive immigration laws in 1921 and 1924, and these had drastically reduced the influx of Jews (among others). Between 1924 and 1931, 73,000 Jewish immigrants settled in the United States, as compared to the 650,000-plus Eastern European Jews who entered between 1907 and 1914. Jewish immigrants who had grown up in Russia and Poland, where they experienced anti-Semitism firsthand and generally had an affinity for Jewish tradition, were more likely to sympathize with Zionism than were native-born American Jews; with the tightening of the immigration laws, the segment of American Jewry that was born in the United States was rapidly increasing.

On the other hand, most American Jews still lived in heavily Jewish sections of a handful of major cities, even if many were branching out to satellite neighborhoods within those cities. During the 1930s, more than 40 percent of America's 4.3 million Jews lived in New York City. About 10 percent resided in Chicago; the rest could be found in cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, and Cleveland. At least in theory, this pattern of self-segregation worked to Zionism's advantage by discouraging assimilation and encouraging a sense of Jewish ethnic solidarity.

Still, the numbers spoke volumes. American Jewish support for Zionism peaked with the issue of the Balfour Declaration and the subsequent British conquest of Palestine. At that point it seemed as if Zionism's major diplomatic goal had been attained, and the membership rolls of the ZOA plummeted. From a high of 149,000 in 1918, the ZOA had barely 18,000 members left by 1922. It had rebounded only slightly, to about 26,000, by the time Jabotinsky arrived in New York in early 1926. If mainstream Zionism was having such difficulties, could the most militant and controversial faction of the Zionist movement take root in American soil?

If Jabotinsky's lecture tour was any indication, it was not going to be easy. His opening address, at the Manhattan Opera House on January 31, 1926, attracted an audience of some two thousand — but that meant just one-third of the seats were filled. Elsewhere he spoke to "empty halls," he wrote his wife. Sol Hurok's agency, Universal Artists, which had originally booked Jabotinsky for twenty lectures, reduced the number to ten because of "the unfriendly attitude of official Zionist circles," the Revisionists claimed. Whether or not such direct interference took place is unclear, but two officials of the rival Labor Zionist movement in Palestine, David Remez and Avraham Harzfeld, who were also touring the United States in early 1926, repeatedly denounced Jabotinsky before American Jewish audiences.

If there was indeed any deliberate effort by American Zionist leaders to undermine Jabotinsky's tour, it was not discernible in the pages of the ZOA journal, New Palestine. In February it allotted space for a substantial excerpt from the text of his Manhattan Opera House speech, and in March it ran a two-part series (each part a two-page spread) by Jabotinsky, explaining the Revisionist platform.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Jabotinsky's maiden American speech, and his New Palestine essay, was that his major points differed so slightly from the positions of the mainstream Zionist bodies. His calls for more Jewish immigration and for colonization of Palestine were standard Zionist fare. His hope for a Jewish army in Palestine was shared by American Zionist leaders, even if they were pessimistic about the chances of winning British approval. Although Jabotinsky criticized the Zionist leadership for negotiating to include a large number of non-Zionists in the Jewish Agency — Palestine Jewry's liaison to the British — that criticism was shared by many leading American Zionists. He did demand Jewish control of immigration, rather than reliance on England to permit increased immigration, but the difference between those two positions was not widely noted. Jabotinsky also differed from the Zionist leadership with his call for "a political drive in order to convince British public opinion and the British government" of the need for Jewish development, but he softened that demand by emphasizing that "the 'political drive' need not be hostile to England." Overall, the differences between Jabotinsky and the Zionist establishment were at this stage more a matter of tone than substance.


Excerpted from Militant Zionism in America by Rafael Medoff. Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


1. Planting the Seeds of Militant Zionism in America,
2. Revisionist Zionism Takes Root in America,
3. Militant Zionism as a Response to Arab Terror and Nazism,
4. Jabotinsky's Return to America,
5. "Words Are the Most Effective Means of Political Warfare",
6. Wooing the Republicans,
7. A Powerful New Alliance,
8. A Flag Is Born,
9. The Guerrilla Rabbi,
10. Explaining the Jewish Revolt to America,
11. Guns for Zion,
12. Afterword: Bringing the Jewish Tragedy to the Fore,
Selected Bibliography,

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