David Ben-Gurion’s Answer to Kristallnacht

By Dr. Rafael Medoff

The Kristallnacht pogrom that devastated German Jewry seventy years ago this week was Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war against the Jews.

Now the Jews needed to launch a war of their own, David Ben-Gurion decided–an “aliyah war.” And he wanted American Jewry to play a central role.

In the winter of 1938-39, Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive and leader of Palestine’s Labor Zionists, headed to the United States. He expected to find that Kristallnacht had shaken American Jews as it had shaken him, and would move them to embrace his plan for what he called “fighting Zionism.”

Ben-Gurion’s visit to the U.S. would prove significant–but not in the way he expected.

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Until the spring of 1938, Ben-Gurion and most of his Labor colleagues felt confident the British would keep the Balfour Declaration’s promise to foster creation of a Jewish national home. Palestine would be built through the gradual immigration of well-trained young halutzim [pioneers] from Europe. Ben-Gurion frowned upon the unauthorized immigration, or aliyah bet, organized by the rival Revisionist Zionists, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

But March 1938 brought the Anschluss, Germany’s annexation of Austria. In September came the Munich agreement, with England’s abandonment Czechoslovakia. “It is likely that our turn is next,” a worried Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary.

Sure enough, on November 8, the British government’s Woodhead Commission announced its solution to the Palestine conflict: a tiny Jewish state (about one-tenth the size of New Hampshire) surrounded by a much larger Arab state and a British zone.

The next night, Hitler’s mobs rampaged across Germany, leaving nearly one hundred Jews dead, hundreds of synagogues destroyed, and thousands of Jewish homes and business damaged.

The pogrom was the final straw in revolutionizing Ben-Gurion’s thinking. “November 1938 marks a new chapter,” he told his colleagues. “Millions of Jews are confronted now with physical extinction.”

The time had come for mass immigration to Palestine and creation of a Jewish state, sooner rather than later, Ben-Gurion decided–and Washington would hold the key to Palestine’s future, since “England needs America and American sympathy.”

The Israeli scholar Alon Gal describes Ben-Gurion’s 1939 visit to America as the beginning of an effort to “remake Zionist foreign policy” according to an “American orientation,” with Washington as the new main focus of Zionist pressure. This “American orientation” would later become the Zionist movement’s creed in the run-up to the creation of Israel and ultimately help shape Israeli foreign policy.

On January 2, 1939, Ben-Gurion reached New York aboard the S.S. Franconia, with a radical new plan in hand. He wanted U.S. Jewish leaders to convene a “world Jewish conference” that would “declare and carry out an aliyah war.” American Jews would organize shiploads of would-be immigrants to confront British naval patrols. London would be shamed into keeping its promises:

“Let the British fleet fight against the tens of thousands of our youth who will sail from the ports of Europe (and perhaps America as well) for the coast of Eretz-Israel and its ports. We will organize this aliyah openly. It will be the centerpiece of the political struggle for our homeland.”

America’s Labor Zionists (Poale Zion) –a small faction in the U.S. Zionist community– were receptive to Ben-Gurion’s plan. So was Supreme Court Justice and longtime Zionist leader Louis Brandeis, who, to Ben-Gurion’s surprise, expressed sympathy for aliyah bet.

But American non-Zionists felt otherwise. Longtime American Jewish Committee leader Cyrus Adler told Ben-Gurion he strongly opposed his plan. The AJC feared that loud Zionist protests in the United States would cause antisemitism by making it seems that Jews were dragging America into overseas conflicts. B’nai B’rith and the Jewish Labor Committee likewise showed no interest in the “aliyah war” idea.

At Ben-Gurion’s request, the Zionist Organization of America adopted a resolution endorsing “a world pan-Jewish conference,” but it took no follow-up steps. Part of the problem was that longtime ZOA leader Rabbi Stephen Wise opposed public criticism of the British.

Wise was conspicuously absent from Ben-Gurion’s major speech in Washington (“supposedly because of a toothache,” the Palestine Labor leader noted skeptically in his diary), and did not meet privately with Ben-Gurion in the U.S. That was probably in part because Wise was close to World Zionist Organization president Chaim Weizmann, who still opposed confronting the British, even after Woodhead and Kristallnacht. Wise and his allies adhered to what they called “Chaim’s injunction”: “Do not make anti-British propaganda.”

Wise and Ben-Gurion did slug it out in London some weeks later. There Wise told Ben-Gurion that for years, he (Wise) had been urging Americans “to march shoulder to shoulder with England in the war against fascism,” and he “could not deviate from this position even if the Zionist cause suffered.” A furious Ben-Gurion shot back: “You are Jews who look out only for your own skins.”

Having grown up in Czarist Russia, where Jews had no chance of being accepted as equal citizens, Ben-Gurion had trouble understanding the phenomenon of American Jews “looking out for their own skins,” fearing ‘dual loyalty’ charges, and wanting to fit into American society.

Ben-Gurion departed the United States on January 21. In a diary entry during the voyage home, he expressed satisfaction that he “became better acquainted with the American frame of mind, general and Jewish.” But in most respects, Ben-Gurion’s visit had been a failure. No world Jewish conference was being organized, American Jews were not writing checks to buy ships, and young American Jews were not signing up to crash the gates of Palestine. Kristallnacht may have sufficed to change Ben-Gurion’s thinking, but it would take the news of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews in 1942-1943 to bring about a significant change in the attitudes of most American Jewish leaders.

(Published in the Jerusalem Post – November 9, 2008)

November 2008