This ad for the El Al, the Israeli national airline, that appeared in the Jewish Bulletin (this publication's former name) in 1953.
This ad for the El Al, the Israeli national airline, that appeared in the Jewish Bulletin (this publication's former name) in 1953.

How we covered Israeli independence 74 years ago, when local support was less than complete

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“A momentous chapter has been written into Jewish history. The dream of Zionists since the days of Herzl has been realized in great measure, if not in its entirety. By a vote well exceeding the necessary two-thirds majority, the birth of a Jewish state was approved.” That was how our paper described it in December 1947, just a few months before the formal declaration, on May 14, 1948, of the establishment of the State of Israel.

But that celebratory tone wasn’t always characteristic of how J. presented the idea of a Jewish state. Was a Jewish homeland a good idea? Was it even necessary? Perhaps it was only a passing fancy — or so thought the founding editor of the paper, Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger.

“This newborn Zionism of Germany will grow weaker in the same ratio that the anti-Semites lose public sympathy.” That was this paper’s confident take on Zionism and the desire for a Jewish homeland in Israel back in January 1896.

Zionism at that time was one year away from Theodor Herzl’s First Zionist Congress, held in Switzerland, and the paper’s Reform editor thought that Zionism was an emotional movement; that “a belief in the rehabilitation of the Jewish kingdom, an asylum for all the persecuted,” was impractical. Such a state would never be recognized, nor would anti-Jew animus persist long enough to make a state of Israel necessary.

As a prediction, it pretty much missed on all points.

This photo ran in our paper in 1948 with this caption: The first flag of the new Jewish state in Palestine is presented by Actress Marsha Hunt to Yakov Riftin (right) of the Palestine Defense Council. He will fly it to the Holy Land for presentation as an American salute to Israel. Looking on is Arthur Miller.
This photo ran in our paper in 1948 with this caption: The first flag of the new Jewish state in Palestine is presented by Actress Marsha Hunt to Yakov Riftin (right) of the Palestine Defense Council. He will fly it to the Holy Land for presentation as an American salute to Israel. Looking on is Arthur Miller.

Both antisemitism and Zionism turned out to be more than a transient fad, and 52 years after 1896, the paper was reporting that “a Jewish nation, the State of Israel, has come to join the nations of the world … After nearly 2,000 years, a Jewish state exists again — proclaimed in a crucial hour and recognized at once by our own United States.”

The United States was one of the first countries to recognize the newborn state, joined by Russia, Guatemala, Uruguay, Poland, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. More countries quickly followed: “Dramatic developments, crowding themselves into the last few weeks, are giving the infant State of Israel, more and more, her place in the family of nations.

A  year and a half after the founding of Israel, though, the paper was already considering some of the questions of the relationship of U.S. Jews to Israel that are still in play today.

“The problem of the relation of not only American Jews — but all Jews in the Diaspora — to Israel, is the central problem of Jewish life in our time, and as such cannot be dismissed,” Nahum Goldmann, chairman of the American Section of the Jewish Agency, told an audience in San Francisco in 1949. He claimed Israel had been created as much by the diaspora as by Jews in Palestine. “We must exchange benefits, resources, spiritual values with the new State. We cannot refuse to share responsibility for the future,” he said.

Bay Area Jews would be called upon to donate to support the refugees from Europe moving to Israel, buy Israel Bonds (and volunteer to sell them) and rally support for the new country. And they did. But alongside this vociferous support there was a small voice of caution, qualifying Jews’ enthusiasm for this new state.

Ads for Israel Bonds ran in the Jewish Bulletin as early as 1951 (left) and 1955 (right) — and they still do today, currently one of our newsletter advertisers.
Ads for Israel Bonds ran in the Jewish Bulletin as early as 1951 (left) and 1955 (right) — and they still do today, currently one of our newsletter advertisers.

Commentators in the paper kept returning to one subject: loyalty. It’s clear by the subject’s ubiquity that the relationship between Jews in the U.S. and the new state would be, or was being, called into question. Was urging American Jewish support for this new nation asking for citizens of the U.S. to have divided loyalty? It’s the same antisemitic charge that has haunted Jews as long as there has been a diaspora, and one that’s still used today. And like today, Jews in the U.S. continually had to refute it.

“Of course we Jews in America will continue to serve our own country as we have since the founding days — to live true to the highest standards of American citizenship,” an editorial comment at the end of 1947 assured. “Every other Jew in every other country will continue serving the nation to which he owes allegiance and undivided loyalties.”

In 1949, a controversy was ignited with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asking for American “know-how” to help build Israel. The head of the Zionist Organization of America had to make a statement, which the paper reported on, making it clear that “American Jews owe their political allegiance to the government of the United States, just as citizens of Israel owe theirs to the government of the State of Israel.”

Interestingly, that question of loyalty also preoccupied the paper back in 1896, in that same editorial quoted at the top of this column. “Zionism,” Voorsanger wrote, “contains the germ of a new nationalism, a doctrine that has ever wrought harm to the Jews. The English or the Germans may understand the double loyalty that doctrine indicates ; one loyalty to the country, and another to the ideal commonwealth of Israel. We Americans cannot understand such intertwined sentiment.”

Americans may have managed to understand it, in the end. From the very first days of the nascent State of Israel, they’ve stood by the side of the Jewish nation. But as outsiders, they’ve also continually debated amongst themselves just what Israel should be.

Reporting in this paper on the new nation was full of hope for the future of Israel, but the debate in 2022 still swirls, while a divide exists between Israelis and American Jews. For example, a recent survey by the American Jewish Committee of Israeli millennials found that 69 percent say it is not appropriate for American Jews to try to influence Israeli policy. But even now, this week of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, American Jews are still committed to the dream of a Jewish homeland, one described this way in 1947:

“The struggle is over but all Jewry, in America and throughout the world, faces a new and tremendous challenge. It is a challenge to make the new Jewish state a model among the nations of the world — a model for good government, for culture and for the highest standards of humanity.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.