60 Years Ago This Week: Abba Hillel Silver’s Rise to Zionist Leadership

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty years ago this week, Jewish leaders gathered in New York City for a conference that was supposed to be a display of unity–but instead turned into the scene of a bitter struggle that helped catapult Cleveland’s Abba Hillel Silver to national leadership and revolutionized the American Jewish community.

Leaders of B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Congress, and other groups organized the conference in pursuit of an old but elusive Jewish goal: to overcome political and religious differences and reach a consensus on issues of Jewish concern. The effort was given added urgency by the ongoing Nazi slaughter of European Jewry and Britain’s shutdown of Palestine to Jewish refugees.

American Jews were divided over how to respond to the Holocaust and the Palestine problem. Some wanted an activist approach, but the most prominent Jewish leader, Rabbi Stephen Wise, urged caution. An ardent supporter of President Roosevelt, Wise opposed any Jewish criticism of FDR’s refusal to rescue Europe’s Jews.

The rescue issue was not even included on the conference’s original agenda. A handful of students from the Jewish Theological Seminary stood outside the hotel on the first day of the conference and handed the delegates a leaflet pleading with them to make rescue a priority. In response to criticism from grassroots activists and the Jewish press, a committee on rescue was indeed added at the last moment. But it was the issue of Zionism that would dominate the proceedings.

World Zionist Organization president Chaim Weizmann, although sympathetic to Wise’s outlook, feared that Wise’s low-key approach was gutting American Zionism, leaving it dispirited and apathetic. To energize the movement, Weizmann, in early 1943, turned to the dynamic Abba Hillel Silver, spiritual leader of Cleveland’s The Temple. He asked Silver to join Wise as co-chair of the American Zionist Emergency Council, the umbrella group for all major U.S. Zionist organizations.

The Wise-Silver power-sharing agreement was finalized in August, just before the American Jewish Conference opened. It seemed fitting that the conference, with its theme of unity, would be the first event featuring appearances by the unlikely new team of Wise, the fervent Democrat who favored ‘the politics of caution’, and Silver, the outstpoken activist who was close to the Republicans.

It seemed unity was finally at hand. But trouble was brewing.

The State Department had been quietly urging FDR to issue a statement demanding that all Jewish “agitation” for a Palestine homeland be suspended until the end of the war. State argued that Zionist activity undermined the war effort by irritating the Arabs and thereby endangering the Allies’ position in the Mideast.

When word of the proposal leaked out and Wise and other Jewish leaders protested, State Department officials threatened that the statement would be issued unless Wise prevented the American Jewish Conference from speaking out on Palestine.

Wise, intimidated by the State Department and hoping to keep the anti-Zionist American Jewish Committee from quitting the conference, omitted Jewish statehood from his keynote address. To keep Dr. Silver from leading a rebellion, the conference schedule was arranged so there would be no time for Silver to speak.

But it was the delegates from Wise’s own American Jewish Congress who led the revolt. Feeling betrayed by Wise’s backtracking on Palestine, they maneuvered to give Silver the time slot that they had been alloted to their own delegation’s spokesman.

This was Silver’s moment. He rose to the podium and delivered a rip-roaring appeal for Jewish statehood, which “swept the conference like a hurricane,” as one delegate put it. “There was repeated and stormy applause, the delegates rising to their feet in a remarkable ovation,” followed by the repeated singing of Hatikvah, the Zionist anthem.

The “electric excitement” generated by Silver’s speech forced the statehood resolution to a vote. Wise was helpless to stop it–as his close ally Nahum Goldmann put it, “we would be torn limb from limb if were now to defer action on the Palestine resolution.” It passed by 498 to 4–an overwhelming vote of American Jewish support for Silver’s line and, in effect, a repudiation of Wise.

(The repercussions from the State Department that Wise feared, never materialized. The proposed ban on Zionist “agitation” in America was shelved by FDR, who decided that such a gag order would be too controversial.)

Silver quickly transformed American Zionism into a vigorous activist movement. He mobilized both grassroots Jews and pro-Zionist Christians to demonstrate, write, and pressure Congress and the White House to support Jewish statehood–the beginnings of the Jewish-Christian alliance that continues to this day. Silver convinced the Republican Party to include a pro-Palestine plank in its 1944 platform, which forced the Democrats to do likewise–a precedent that assured Zionist concerns a permanent place in American electoral politics. And Silver’s nationwide protest campaign in 1948 helped secure swift U.S. recognition of the new State of Israel–the first step in cementing the America-Israel friendship that has endured ever since.

The dramatic leadership change that took place at the American Jewish Conference in August 1943 would, within the space of just five years, change American Jewry, and American politics, forever.

August 2003