With the emergence of Zionism, all Jewish factions around

With the emergence of Zionism, all
Jewish factions around the world were met with the same question, whether to
embrace the movement or oppose it. While the orthodox denomination of Judaism, particularly
in America, maintains communities which differ in their approaches, the
American Reform denomination of Judaism has alternately swayed to both extremes
of approaching Zionism, and has conclusively decided to support it. The exact
road to which the Reform movement travelled to arrive at its conclusion is a
matter that will now be examined, exploring both the roots of its original
decision to oppose Zionism and its ultimate reversal and embracement of the

Before delving into the American
Reform movement’s approach to Zionism, it is crucial to understand the
mentality of American Jewry. In Europe, and particularly Germany, Jews could
never completely feel that they were actively shaping the destiny of the nation
with which they so much identified. The United States however was different.
Like the major European nations, America had its own profound sense of mission,
but that mission was not clearly defined nor completely materialized. In
America, Reform Jews could feel that their own concept of contribution might be
woven into a larger national purpose. All religious groups in some way or
another perceived God’s hand in the shaping of America, and the Reform Jews
were no exception.1
An example of this was Isaac Mayer Wise, the most influential of
nineteenth-century American Jewish Reformers, who believed that George
Washington and his compatriots were “chosen instruments in the hands of
Providence,” that in its unique environment of liberty the American people
would “work out a new and peculiar destiny.” Judaism, at least
according to Wise, would help shape that destiny—the people chosen of old would
play their role as part of a people chosen of new.2  In support of this, some go as far as to
suggest that, “…As for Reform Jews, their commitment to universalism, their
sense of patriotism, and their privileging of religion over peoplehood led most
of them to view Zionism as anathema, a negation of all that Jewish emancipation
and enlightenment stood for…”3, the Zionist state would
undermine all progress and ambitions that the Reform Jews sought in America.   

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The clearest expression of
anti-Zionism from the American Reform community, was undoubtedly the Pittsburgh
Platform in 1885. Under enormous pressure from an influential Reform leader,
Kaufman Kohler, the platform would serve to establish the “official” positions
the Reform movement takes on various issues. Most notably, the strong stance
against the Jewish colonialization of Palestine was affirmed, “We recognize in
the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission
during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral
laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but
reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern
The platform taking place before the popularization of an American Zionist organization,
gave the Reform movement a head start in supplanting opinions into the Reform
American Jewish communities, a tremendous disservice to the future Hibbat Zion
leaders who would seek to bolster support from the same community.


One of the first tests of the newly
formulated Zionist movement was to convince every branch of Judaism of the need
and value of a Jewish homeland. While various movements sprouted all over
Europe, perhaps the first in America was the Hibbat Zion Society. In the year
1882 David Gordon, editor of a Hebrew journal in Germany, wrote a letter to a friend
living in San-Francisco, to establish a Hibbat Zion movement. Gordon received a
rather unexpected response from his friend Zvi Falk Widawer-Halevi, a few
months later; ” (the Jews of America)… are now living in comfort, enjoying the
bounty of this land, giving no thought to Eretz Yisroel. Every spark of love
and holy feeling for the land of our fathers, for God and his Torah, has been
extinguished in them, destroyed to the very foundations- all this because they
worship the golden calf…” Widawer-Halevi went on to dismiss the request of his
friend to even approach the Jews of America about colonialization for he knew
their answers in advance “What have we to do with Palestine? America is our
Palestine and our Synagogue is our Temple. We don’t believe in the coming of
the messiah…” 5  . Despite the strikingly cynical response of
his friend, Gordon persisted and was rewarded with the eventual establishment
of the first Hoveve Zion organization of America, two years later by orthodox
Rabbi Joseph Bluestone. Although Gordon ultimately achieved success,
Widawer-Halevi’s response was understandably worrisome. It was difficult enough
to convince comfortable Jews in Europe that they needed their own homeland,
whether because of a predicted rise in anti-Semitism or simply to ‘legitimize’
the Jewish people as a nation, but to convince Jews in America who had the
luxury of comfort and protection would be nearly impossible. The argument made
by Widawer-Halevi, is the root of the initial anti-Zionist stance of the Reform
movement. Reform Jews sought no coming of the Messiah, felt their Synagogues
replaced the need of the Holy Temple and sacrifices, and that America truly was
their Palestine. Seeing no need for a ‘Jewish Colony’ and no need to advocate
to a revered and respected government they lived under to aid in the
institution of a Jewish State, the masses of the Reform Jews of America did not
support Zionism.

While the Hibat Zion movement grew
rather slowly in America, the inevitable pitfall of politics and factions
became its reality by the end of the 19th century. Two active
leaders, the aforementioned Joseph Bluestone and Rabbi Phillip Klein, were at
odds with Richard Gottheil. Despite being a Reform Jew, Gottheil was a fervent
supporter of the Zionist movement, however Bluestone and Klein resented the
fact that he assumed leadership of the Hibat Zion group, while disregarding and
dismissing much of the work it had done6. Despite the internal strife
between the leaders, Bluestone and Gottheil agreed that to maintain strong
leadership, harmony was a necessity. This decision proved to be an integral one
for Zionism in America, with Gottheil’s influence on the broader Reform
community in America bolstering the much-needed support for Zionism.

In Europe meanwhile, the third
Zionist congress met, now with the addition of eager Americans. Delegates were
sent by the Federation of American Zionist, an amalgam of the various Zionist
organizations in America, and the event was even recorded by The New York
Times, “…applauded enthusiastically every reference to the loyalty of the Jews
living in the United States, although they applauded with equal enthusiasm the
motives of Zionism..”7 . This article written by
the Jewish owned ‘Times, accurately reflected the inner conflict the Reform
Jews felt about Zionism.8 Their over-eagerness to
maintain their American identity and loyalty served as one of the few deterring
factors from the Zionist movement altogether. In their eyes, supporting the
colonization of Palestine meant supporting a country and ideology other than
Americanism, something forbidden. Surely, they had to applaud America at the
Zionist congress before applauding the “ideals” of Zionism. Furthermore, to outright
support the colonization would jeopardize their patriotism, hence their support
and applauding only of Zionist “ideals”.

Along this line of thought, the Jews
in America, especially the few from colonial times, were not only eager to show
patriotism with the hopes of receiving complete acceptance into American social
circles, they also truly believed that America was the ‘New’ Zion.  For example, Myer Moses, a leader of
Congregation Beth Elohim of Charleston, in a published lecture delivered in
1806 to raise funds for the city’s Hebrew Orphan Society, described “free and
independent” America as a “second Jerusalem” and a “promised land”. “Picking up
where George Washington left off in his letter to the Jews of Newport and
echoing Protestant depictions of the country as “God’s New Israel,” he prayed
for “Great Jehovah” to “collect together thy long scattered people of Israel,
and let their gathering place be in this land of milk and honey.” The idea of
“Zion in America” implied that Judaism and Americanism, God and country, the
synagogue-community and the larger community all were thoroughly compatible.”9 It was this belief in
America that made the Reform movement dismiss and overlook the idea of Zionism.

Moreover, the firm remarks of Rabbi
Emil G. Hirsch of the Reform Jewish community in Chicago, represented the
predominant viewpoint of anti-Zionism in America. Hirsch said in response to
Zionism “…The saddest feature is that the Jew himself has caught the infection.
The Jew has been led astray by the glitter of nationalism and we have been
blessed by a renaissance of Jewish Nationalism, vulgarly known as Zionism…”. 10 Although these words
strikingly resemble those of the Orthodox anti-Zionist leaders, the difference
lies in the validity of Nationalism. The Orthodox approach opines that
nationalism is neither needed nor wanted for the Jewish community, while the Reform
approach suggests that a specifically ‘Jewish’ nationalism is superfluous,
being part of pre-existing nationality, in this case America, suffices. What
Hirsch goes on to say illustrates this exact point even further, “…it pretends
to stand for the consummation of Jewish identity. It is based upon the
assumption that the Jew, to be a Jew, must belong to the Jewish nation…”11 .

On the other hand, the Reform community
did have pro-Zionist leaders. These included, Rabbi Bernard Felsenthal, a
pulpit Rabbi in Chicago who was deeply moved by the spike in Anti-Semitism,
particularly the pogroms in Russia. Originally Felsenthal found himself with
the Reform masses in regard to Zionism, seeing neither the need for the
colonization of Palestine nor the relevance of American support. However,
Felsenthal realized the reality of the status of the Jews in Europe, and saw no
other option but to support and establishment of a Jewish state. Felsenthal
said “…despite the grandiloquent speeches we hear…even our own coreligionist
are prejudiced against the Russian and other foreign Jews. Neither are the
doors open for them in Austria, France, Germany, England and elsewhere in
In hind-sight, Felsenthal was ahead of his time in that this issue would only
become more apparent and severe as history progressed. Additionally, Felsenthal’s
view would later become the official stance of the Reform movement post-WWII.

In an ironic twist in 1891, Kaufmann
Kohler who called for the Pittsburgh Platform which denounced Zionism, signed a
petition urging the United States government to take steps that would lead to
the restoration of Palestine to the Jews as their “time honored
habitation.”13. Kohler’s reversal
kickstarted the ultimate reversal of the entire Reform community.

The inertia of the Reform movement’s
reversal of its anti-Zionist rhetoric continued through the outbreak of WWI. In
addition to WWI being an era of heightened nationalism, American Jews,
including Reformers, were called upon to press for the assistance to the Jewish
plight in eastern Europe and to raise a significant sum for the relief of the
hordes who sought refuge on American shores. Simultaneously, discrimination
against Jews in the United States, now bolstered by racism, was also on the
rise.14. However unfortunate the
circumstances were, the Reform movement’s stance on Zionism had been shattered.
Many Jews could no longer have a home in Europe and both in Europe and America
Jews were falling under ever-increasing Anti-Semitism. Hirsch’s supposition of “The
Jew in America has a Nation…”15 seemed to be faltering,
and the words of Joseph Zeff, a Rabbi and close supporter of Herzl, “…The
Russians will be assimilated with the Poles; the German with the French-all
will become as one nation- but not the Jews…” 16, seemed all too

By the beginning of the atrocities
committed against the Jews in Central Europe in 1938, the Reform community
hardly needed another reason to support and advocate for a Jewish homeland. WWI
alone had rattled the American Jews to the core, and WWII left them no other
option. No argument could be made that the Jews could be included in another nationality,
nor could one be made that Jews were safe in their diaspora. The Reform
movement by this time vehemently advocated for a Jewish homeland and overran
the boundaries which only decades ago they claimed they could not cross with
the American Government. It was only after this reversal that the coals of
‘Israel’s sanctity’ were stoked. The argument of Widawer-Halevi that “Every
spark of love and holy feeling for the land of our fathers, for God and his
Torah, has been extinguished in them, destroyed to the very foundations- all
this because they worship the golden calf” could no longer stand true. The orientation
of the Reform movement now regarded Israel as  the “Spiritual Center”17 instead of an antiquated
city forgotten in history.

The different streams of Judaism have
all dealt differently with the question of acceptance or opposition to Zionism.
The Reform community in America at its root, had opposed it for decades, with
arguments somewhat similar to the Orthodox opposition. After many years of
internal and external deliberation and two world wars, the Reform movement felt
it had no choice but to overturn their opposition, and exchange it for
acceptance, and went as far as to advocate on its behalf.  


Meyer 227


Sarna 202

Encyclopedia Judaica 464465

Urofsky 82

Urofsky 87

New York Times, Sep 25 1899

Feinstein 159

Sarna 52

Feinstein 179


The American Hebrew, May 7 1897 as cited in Cohen 50

Ariel 1

Cohen 50

Feinstein 180

Feinstein 169