Western Jewry and the Zionist Project

Western Jewry and the Zionist Project, 19141933 / by Michael Berkowitz. – Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. – ISBN 0-521-47087-0 £35 305pp

Borrowing a phrase from Eric Hobsbawm, Berkowitz prefers to view Zionism as an ‘invented tradition’ which was remarkable for its adaption to the situation of assimilated Jewries and its ingenious ability to build diverse constituencies. It did this by blurring the boundaries of belonging. Zionism projected an array of alluring images and simultaneously a range of differing meanings. The author’s main hypothesis is that, between 1914 and 1933, Zionism was styled increasingly as a rescue mission and object of philanthropy, and that the Zionist Organisation and its pre-eminent institutions – especially its fundraising instruments – were held up by the movement as sacrosanct bodies. As Berkowitz points out on the very last page of this interesting book, Zionism gave rise and prominence to – and thereby rationalised the contradiction of – a bourgeois fundraising device to enlist Western Jewry’s support of an ostensibly radical socialist agenda.

Berkowitz comments that it became ‘a compartmentalised variant of Jewish ethnic identification, and a basis for local and international solidarity and sociability’. It could be both the place to find a partner and to participate in the Hebrew renaissance. How then did Zionism change? The First World War apparently played an important part in raising Jewish national consciousness although this didn’t automatically mean conversion to Zionism. Many German and Austrian Jewish soldiers were shocked by the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews eastwards by the retreating Russian armies, by the rape and mutilation of Jewish women and girls. Several memoirs recount the intelligence and beauty of these daughters of the shtetl. Robert Weltsch also recounted in a letter to Martin Buber that Jewish prostitutes and pimps did a roaring trade amongst the soldiers. Jewish boys of ten, some religious in traditional dress, fervently sought clients for their older sisters among the officer corps. Weltsch understood that these women were sophisticated and well aware of the absurd hand that history had dealt them. He postulated that Jewish nationalism could become a philosophy of life, a base for a regenerated Jewry.

British Jewish soldiers who projected a reputation for lack of religious observance also became aware of their Jewishness through fraternisation with other Jews. Even in prisoner-of-war camps in Tsarist Russia, this progress advanced. In Krasnoyarsk, for example, 370 Jewish prisoners formed a virtual Zionist university.

In the 1920s, Zionism badly needed money to further its goals. Between 1921 and 1925, Zionist appeals raised $6 million compared to the non-Zionist Joint Distribution Committee’s $20.8 million. It was only the failure of the Joint’s settlements in the Crimea and the Arab riots in 1929 that enabled the Jewish Agency to enlist non-Zionists under the all-embracing United Jewish Appeal. Zionism’s sudden zeal for raising funds was perhaps best symbolised by Nahum Sokolov’s proclamation that the words `Keren Hayesod’ had attained almost the same significance for the Jewish people as’ Shema Yisrael’. This sentiment did not please all. Irma Lindheim, the head of Hadassah in the United States, commented in 1928 that ‘thousands of loyal and zealous Zionists are discouraged, discontented and demoralised by an organisation which has degenerated a political cause and economic task into a charitable proposition, animated by a schnorrer psychology’.

Zionism’s courting of the philanthropists, Berkowitz argues, led to a rift between the English Zionist federation and women’s organisations such as WIZO. Women, the official face of Zionism discovered, were good at raising funds. This posed a danger to men both in terms of equal opportunity in the Zionist hierarchy and the fact that women might have some ideas as to spending the money. Indeed, both Weizmann and his wife were instrumental in attempting to muzzle Hadassah and attempting to replace it with a more subservient body. Jewish youth were quite uninterested in Zionism. In 1930, there were only 384 paid up members of the University Zionist federation in Great Britain. Indeed, most Zionist youth activities seemed to have been focussed mainly on fundraising. Rebecca Sieff, the moving force behind WIZ°, commented on the reason for this stupor: ‘It is evident that the poverty of intellectual life in Anglo-Jewry, together with the poverty of Jewish education, both qualitatively and quantitatively, have led to an indifference, to a lack of understanding of fundamental Jewish questions, which is deplorable. Until this state of affairs is remedied by one means or another, the Zionist Movement can never be an effective force in Anglo-Jewry’. This frustration led to the formation of Habonim in 1930.

The low level of comprehension of Zionist ideology made students reluctant to interact with the Labour-revisionist argument or any ideological controversy. Few knew about the rise of Palestinian nationalism and its increasingly violent skirmishes with the Yishuv. Indeed, understanding was so rudimentary that the American student organisation, Avukah, proudly announced in 1928 that it has hosted ‘the first detailed presentation of Itamar ben-Avi’s striking proposal that fascism should be adopted as a new plan for the upbuilding of Palestine!’

Berkowitz’s book has illuminated the twilight decades before Hitler’s ascendency with a plethora of interesting and unusual documentary material – and thereby helped us to reclaim some of our recent history from the image-makers.

JBNR Vol. 12, No. 1, 1997

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