The American Jewess: Zionism before the State of Israel

By Rebecca Honig Friedman, cross-posted on Jewess. This would have been an appropriate post for last week when we celebrated Yom Ha'azmaut and commemorated Yom Hazikaron but ...

since May 14th is the official secular date of Israel's Declaration of Independence, it's still worth pointing out what The American Jewess had to say about Zionism, at a time when Theodore Herzl was still living and the movement's biggest activist -- half a century before the Holocaust, and before the U.N. approved the creation of the State of Israel.

Most interesting in TAJ's descriptions of early Zionist activity and ideology is the way the new Zionist movement awakened a sense of Jewish identity in Jews around the world -- particularly as a response to anti-Semitism -- and gave a newfound sense of purpose and unity to Jews who had largely assimilated. Rosa Sonneschein writes, in "Zionism and Anti-Semitism":

"Formerly, [Jews] mingled socially, so freely and unrestrained with the citizens of other faiths, that ever so many Jews had entirely forgotten that they were Jews until rudely reminded that in the eyes of their adversaries not even the baptismal fountain could wash off the stain of their birth. The effect of this conviction was startling. They realized the social ostracism to which the Jew is subjected all over the world; and finally declared: ‘There is undoubtedly a Jewish question in our present time as it has been fn the dark past; let it be solved either by us or the AntiSemites.'"

Even more fascinating, is the sense that Zionism gave a political purpose to a people who felt they no longer had a religious one:

"Our religious mission is fulfilled. The one God idea is firmly rooted ill the best minds of the civilized nations. There is barely any difference in the religious belief of liberal Christianity and Reform Judaism. Those that live on religion still proclaim that we have a religious mission. Let them tell us plainly what it is, how it should be handled, what they intend to do about it. Are the Jews of Russia destined to ever Judaize the empire? Will the Jews of Austria, France and Italy ever stimulate the Pope to pray to the God of Israel? And can we expect that the Jews in Protestant Germany, England and America, will ever induce those nations to proclaim and acknowledge the eternal truth of the Shema Israel? One God, one truth, and one law for all men is proclaimed by the liberal men of all creeds, from the pulpit and from the platform; in the halls of legislatures and in the chambers of justice their echo is felt in millions of human hearts, and humanity will cling to it even if Judaism should perish from the face of the earth ... The Jew is not persecuted to-day on account of his faith. The prejudice has turned against the race, and is of a political nature ... The result of such reasoning is Anti-Semitism and Zionism."

[A funny aside: in 1897, Sonneschein wrote, "The world is not what it has been. Palestine today is nearer to New York than New York was to San Francisco forty years ago." Oh, if she had only lived to see El-Al!]

The other big TAJ article on Zionism is the editor's report on the "description of the First Zionist Congress of 1897," where "all appeared in black frock coats and white cravats" (that's all men, of course), and "the assemblage resembled more an English Parliament than a Jewish Congress." Here are some notable excerpts that reveal, again, that sense of newfound purpose and Jewish unity, the burgeoning anti-Semitism in Germany, and a little-known scheme by American Christians to send Jews off to Palestine that's not un-reminiscent of the current Evangelical Christian zeal for Zionism:

"It is probably providential that the first Zionist Congress had to meet in Switzerland. I say had to meet, as it was refused to convene in various cities of Germany ... That is what the Zionists are seeking -- liberty and equality among the nations, and a home for their despised and persecuted brethren -- a refuge, where the wandering sons and daughters of Israel can find rest. For this they have selected the soil of their ancestors, their ancient possession Palestine. They hope that the nations will grant their request, and that the Sultan will be induced to permit the Jews as a nation to settle in his domain... The work may seem gigantic and to some no new scheme, for it is well known that a similar object was proposed and worked at many years ago in America. That movement was led by Christian Zionists and looked at with suspicion, as a bigoted measure to get rid of the Jews ... It is indeed a miracle how the national idea of a return to Palestine stimulates Judaism. The Jews awoke from an apathetic slumber, and they crave now that the scattered members of a dissolved nation shall rally about the old prayer: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.' Indeed it was a wonderful day; its significance will never disappear from the annals of the world's history, and it opens a page in Jewish history of which their posterity may well be proud, even if the ambition of the leader may fail to be realized."

Topics: Zionism, Journalism
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How to cite this page

Namerow, Jordan. "The American Jewess: Zionism before the State of Israel." 13 May 2008. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 21, 2024) <>.