Desk Pounding and Jewish Leadership

The Downfall of Abba Hillel Silver and the Foundation of Israel

by Ofer Shiff

Syracuse University Press, 288 pp., $24.95

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Long-time leaders of Jewish organizations are not easily retired, but by 1943, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise realized he could no longer steer the American Zionist movement unassisted. Approaching 70 and in declining health, Wise already had his hands full with his duties as head of the American Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress, and his rabbinical seminary, the Jewish Institute of Religion. Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, suggested bringing in Abba Hillel Silver, a prominent 49-year-old Cleveland rabbi and dynamic Zionist orator. Wise reluctantly agreed that “the work should come into the hands of a younger and stronger man—and he is the man.” Silver was named co-chair, alongside Wise, of the American Zionist Emergency Council, the umbrella for the major U.S. Zionist groups. The American Jewish community would never be the same again.

Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise after a meeting with President Roosevelt at the White House.

Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise after a meeting with President Roosevelt at the White House, March 9, 1944. (© Bettmann/CORBIS.)

The Wise-Silver alliance did not last long. Barely a year later, Wise wrote to a colleague: “Pray for me. I need the intervention of divine protection, unless I want to perish at the hand of the co-Chairman of the Emergency Council.” Clashing personalities and dueling egos were part of the problem, but political differences were the real issue. Wise, a staunch supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt, advocated political caution and Jewish loyalty to the Democratic Party. Silver, an advocate of forthright political activism, sought to increase Jewish leverage in Washington by convincing Republican leaders to woo Jewish voters. When the GOP added a pro-Zionist plank to its 1944 platform, the Democrats were forced to match it. All this Jewish infighting, competition for Jewish electoral support, and tension with the White House may sound familiar to observers of the contemporary political scene. The fact that the Zionist lobbyist Benzion Netanyahu was deeply involved in the 1940s contacts with Republicans only makes the parallels seem all the more uncanny.

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About the Author

Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. His books include Historical Dictionary of Zionism (Scarecrow Press), coauthored with Chaim I. Waxman.


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