- Beyond San Francisco: The Failure of Anti-Zionism in Portland, Oregon
Historians of the Jewish experience in the American West have struggled to break free of generalizations based on the eastern metropolitan experience that have ruled American Jewish history. Critical studies of Jewish life in the western states have delineated important points of contrast with eastern Jewry, such as the continued dominance of Jews of German descent; the relative absence of anti-Semitism; the declining proportion of Jews in the western population at the time when the Jewish population share in the East was increasing rapidly; and the small numbers of East European migrants to the West and their correspondingly slight impact on political and cultural developments. These contrasts have led historians to argue that concepts so basic as the customary periodization of American Jewish history do not apply to the American West. 1
Yet within the field of western Jewish history, new generalizations are emerging—now based on California, and particularly San Francisco, rather than New York. 2 One of these regards the significance of Zionism—and anti-Zionism. John Livingston argues in the introduction to Jews in the American West that weakness in the Zionist movement was characteristic of the West. 3 Both historians of western Jewry and of Zionism have noted the relative strength of anti-Zionism among western Jews. 4 This paper tests the validity of this generalization by evaluating the strength of anti-Zionism in Portland, Oregon, and examining factors shaping the variety of responses to Zionism in the American West. While the anti-Zionist movement, represented most prominently by the American Council for Judaism, gained a solid foothold in San Francisco in the early 1940s, the organization never became popular in Portland. Despite apparent similarities between the San Francisco and Portland Jewish [End Page 309] communities, crucial differences, both in the composition of the Jewish population and in the attitudes of the leadership group, made the Portland Jewish community far less receptive to anti-Zionism than generalizations about western Jewish communities would lead us to expect.
While the Zionist movement had long caused discomfort for many American Jews, particularly those in the Reform Movement, anti-Zionism did not coalesce into a political movement until the early 1940s. The formation of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) took place just as the destruction of European Jewry served to convince the majority of American Jews that the establishment of a Jewish state was essential. As anti-Zionist sentiment dissipated among most Reform rabbis in the face of Nazism, the organizational body of Reform rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), moved from an explicitly anti-Zionist position to non-Zionism and official neutrality in 1935, and, finally, to sympathy to Zionism at the end of the decade. 5
In the face of this shift, those rabbis who maintained the classical Reform, anti-Zionist position became alarmed at what they saw as a nationalistic form of Judaism, threatening their commitment to a Jewish identity based solely on religion. Their alarm led to the formation of the ACJ in 1942. 6
While initially expressing concerns rooted in Reform Judaism, the ACJ message became increasingly political in the years following 1942. 7 At the time of the Council’s formation, Reform rabbis held sway, and articulated a position based on the sensibilities of the Pittsburgh Platform, arguing that embracing a Jewish identity based on nationalism would sap the religious basis of Reform Judaism. Quickly, however, lay leaders who presented the ACJ position in political terms—arguing that Zionism was racist, undemocratic, and a threat to the political status of American Jews—eclipsed the influence of these rabbis. President of the ACJ, Lessing Rosenwald, explained the organization’s position in the June, 1943 issue of Life magazine, arguing that Zionism revived the [End Page 310] obsolete conception that Jews were a racial or national group and in doing so “embrace(d) the very racist theories and nationalistic philosophies that have become so prevalent in recent years, that have caused untold suffering to the world and particularly to the Jews.” He contended that
The result must inevitably be that here in America, or for Jews elsewhere, the...