Conflict between pro- and anti-Zionists polarized Bay Area Jewry 50 years ago

Shortly after Rita Semel joined the Jewish Bulletin’s staff in 1946, one of Congregation Emanu-El’s prominent members invited the young assistant editor to lunch.

“She spent the entire hour explaining that it wasn’t necessary for there to be a Jewish state,” Semel said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Semel, then in her mid-20s, had stepped into the middle of a historic struggle between two groups of Bay Area Jews — the Zionists and the anti-Zionists. In the 1940s, both groups were trying to shape public opinion on the local, national and international scenes about the possible founding of a Jewish state.

After thinking about what the woman had told her, Semel made up her mind about anti-Zionism.

“I thought, that’s nice for people whose families had been fortunate enough to come to the United States. But what about the people languishing in the camps” set up for Jewish refugees in post-Holocaust Europe?

As Israel marks its 50th birthday, which begins at sundown Wednesday on the Hebrew calendar, the Bay Area Jewish community’s national reputation as a supporter of Israel and its institutions is undisputed. But in the 1940s before the state’s founding, the situation was vastly different.

San Francisco was among the strongest bastions of the American Council for Judaism, a group that worked against the establishment of a Jewish nation.

Rabbi Irving Reichert, Emanu-El’s spiritual leader, was a national vice president of the ACJ. And just about every lay leader at his San Francisco congregation was a council member.

“We felt it wasn’t necessary to have this Jewish state. There was enough trouble with the Holocaust,” said Kathryn Rothschild, a San Franciscan whose late husband August was a regional vice president for the ACJ.

“All the leaders of Temple Emanu-El felt that way.”

The anti-Zionists saw Jews solely as members of a religion, not of a nationality. Anti-Zionists didn’t see themselves as living in the diaspora or requiring a Jewish homeland. They also believed that a Jewish state would be a target of anti-Semitism and would be especially vulnerable in the Middle East.

Rothschild, then a wife and mother in her late 20s, estimated that San Francisco’s ACJ chapter had 250 to 300 members — second in size only to New York’s chapter.

In contrast, Semel said, “you could count the members of the Zionist Organization of America on two hands. It was a very small group.”

Dr. Bernie Kaufman Jr. was one of those local ZOA members. Fifty years ago, the San Franciscan was in his mid-30s and a passionate supporter of Zionism.

“The Zionists were always a minority, a minuscule group who made up for it in enthusiasm and vigor and sweat,” said Kaufman, who served as ZOA’s San Francisco district president in the early 1950s.

The Zionists saw Israel’s founding as the end to 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness. They believed that Jews, like other groups, needed a homeland in part to protect themselves from atrocities. Many argued that if Israel had existed in the 1930s, the Holocaust would never have happened.

William “Ze’ev” Brinner, then in his mid-20s and a graduate student in Arabic studies at U.C. Berkeley, was also a member of a Zionist youth group called Hashomer Hatzair — The Young Guard.

He vividly recalled the powerful presence of anti-Zionists here.

In the mid-1940s, for example, Brinner was helping to plan a rally at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium to commemorate victims of the Nazis. He wanted the event to include the singing of both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah,” which later became Israel’s national anthem. The rest of the committee refused to include “Hatikvah.”

“They said, `Absolutely no. This would be a sign of dual loyalty,'” recalled Brinner, who later became a professor and chairman of Near Eastern studies at U.C. Berkeley.

“There was an insecurity about being American among Jews. You don’t have that today.”

So on the night of the rally, Zionists planted supporters throughout the auditorium and burst out into “Hatikvah.” Nearly everyone joined in.

“We did all sorts of things to upset the Jewish leadership,” Brinner recalled fondly.

Another time, the editor of the Emanu-El, the Bulletin’s predecessor, asked Brinner’s group to remove a sign with a Star of David from its clubhouse window on Clement Street in San Francisco. Brinner refused, and his group put up a second star in another window.

Back then, many local Jews “felt a need to keep their Jewishness very quiet, and assimilate as thoroughly as possible into the non-Jewish environment,” Brinner said.

Semel analyzed the ACJ’s strong presence here in a slightly different way. Jews in San Francisco — who had lived in the city since its Gold Rush boom — were accepted into the community in ways that had never happened in older East Coast cities. Jews here felt secure.

“That kind of experience and acceptance and integration made them so sure that it wasn’t necessary to have a [Jewish] state,” said Semel, who later became executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

The battle for public opinion played itself out in the press and on the streets. Most Bay Area Jews were actually neutral or non-Zionists, which meant they didn’t actively support or oppose the cause. Both the Zionists and anti-Zionists wanted to corral that larger group.

In the mid- to late 1940s, the Bulletin published dozens of articles and letters to the editor on the issue.

Local Zionists Jews, including Rabbi Saul White of Congregation Beth Sholom, organized protests outside the British consulate against the blockade that kept Holocaust survivors from immigrating to Palestine.

The anti-Zionist Jews would always apologize to the British for such protests, Semel recalled.

Debate peaked in 1947 and early 1948. The United Nations voted in November 1947 to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. And intense fighting between Jews and Arabs broke out.

Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Sr., then president of the Jewish Welfare Fund of San Francisco, called for Jewish unity in a front-page Bulletin article in February 1948.

“I ask myself and others like me who are not Zionists: Can we afford to let this action of the United Nations fail?” he wrote. “Can we meet our conscience if we let the hundreds of thousands [of] Jews in Palestine be destroyed — politically, economically or physically — whatever our ideological concepts?”

That pragmatism won over many on-the-fence Jews.

Such arguments apparently did not change Reichert’s mind, however. In April 1948, the rabbi issued a statement that appeared in the Jewish Bulletin:

“If it now appears to our government that the decision to partition Palestine was a mistake, that to enforce it would entail a fearful price in human lives and property and endanger world peace, then surely it is far better to reconsider that decision now than to compound the original error.”

When David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence on Iyar 5, 5708 — May 14, 1948 — the anti-Zionist movement slowly began to crumble.

Many of its adherents suddenly considered the point moot and decided to help build the Jewish state as a haven for Jewish refugees.

“Once the state was established, the council changed its viewpoint radically and supported the state,” said Rothschild, who no longer belongs to the council but is one of the few local members from the 1940s still living.

“There was no feeling that we didn’t want the state to succeed…We were anti-Zionist, but we weren’t anti-Israel.”

Still, the council didn’t immediately dissolve.

Dual loyalty became the chief concern for several years. Council members didn’t want anyone questioning the loyalty of Jews to America vs. to Israel. At the same, they didn’t want the Zionists to be the sole representatives of the Jews.

Reichert resigned from Emanu-El shortly before Israel was founded — or he was actually forced out, according to Rothschild and Brinner.

The late rabbi continued to live in San Francisco but began to work even more intensely for the American Council for Judaism.

Rabbi Alvin Fine, then in his early 30s, replaced Reichert. Even during the interview for the job, Fine proclaimed himself a Zionist. He was hired in spite of — not because of — such a viewpoint.

Fine, who today lives in Napa, said he didn’t go about trying to change his congregants’ minds. He simply considered anti-Zionists “thoughtful people” with different ideas.

“I felt I could be their rabbi as a Zionist, and they as individuals were entitled to their opinions,” he said. Still, he made it clear in his sermons and activities how he felt.

In 1949 at Israel’s first anniversary, for example, Fine helped organize the first Yom HaAtzmaut parade in San Francisco.

Over time, Fine saw attitudes change as the world and especially Western countries began to accept Israel. And unlike the council’s predictions, he noted, American Jews weren’t targeted as dual loyalists just because Israel existed.

Kaufman added that Israel’s remarkable military victories, including the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, inspired more and more Jews to openly and actively back the country.

“People could come out of the woodwork and not be afraid to support Israel,” he said. “People want to be associated with the victorious side and heroism and gevurah [strength].”

That may apply even to the anti-Zionists.

“You can safely say the establishment of the state of Israel is one of the most successful events of the century. And there is nothing that succeeds like success,” Kaufman said. “I think that the anti-Zionists didn’t decide to support it. I think they realized they had lost the game.”

Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is a former staff writer.