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The Downfall of Abba Hillel Silver and the Foundation of Israel

by Ofer Shiff

Publication Year: 2014

In early February 1949 American Jewry’s most popular and powerful leader, Abba Hillel Silver (1893–1963), had summarily resigned from all his official positions within the Zionist movement and had left New York for Cleveland, returning to his post as a Reform rabbi. In the immediate years prior to his resignation, during the second half of the 1940s, Silver was the most outspoken proponent of the founding of a sovereign Jewish state. He was the most instrumental American Jewish leader in the political struggle that led to the foundation of the State of Israel. Paradoxically, this historic victory also heralded Silver’s personal defeat. Soon after Israel’s declaration of independence, he and many of his American Zionist colleagues were relegated to the sidelines of the Zionist movement. Almost overnight the most influential leader—one who was admired and feared by both supporters and opponents—was stripped of his power within both the Zionist and the American Jewish arenas. Shiff’s book discerns the various aspects of the striking turnabout in Silver's political fate, describing both the personal tragic story of a leader who was defeated by his own victory, and the much broader intra-Zionist battle which erupted in full force immediately after the founding of Israel. Drawing extensively on Silver’s personal archival material, Shiff presents an enlightening portrait of a critical episode in Jewish history. This book is most relevant for anyone who attempts to understand the complex homeland- diaspora relations between Israel and American Jewry.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Series: Modern Jewish History

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication, About the Author

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-4

In early February 1949, Clark Clifford, special counsel to President Harry S. Truman, telephoned the New York office of American Jewry’s most popular and powerful leader, Abba Hillel Silver, to personally inform him that the first American loan to Israel—$100 million in economic aid— had been approved. ...

Part One. The Early 1950s

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pp. 5-6

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1. The “Bridges and Walls” Approach

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pp. 7-16

When asked to describe Silver’s brand of Zionism, I often refer to it as the “bridges and walls” approach, relying on his mid-1950s construal of the aphorism, “Good fences make good neighbors,” in the context of the well-known poem by Robert Frost, “Mending Wall.” ...

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2. The “American Century” in the Wake of the Holocaust

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pp. 17-37

Every few years, Silver would formulate a kind of template for repeated use in his lectures and sermons. The last of these templates would ultimately serve him through nearly the entire final decade of his life. In this book I will refer to it as Silver’s “hope lecture”—a lecture that was primarily an affirmation of his optimistic faith in the inner strength ...

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3. Where Judaism Differed: A Call for External and Internal Reform

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pp. 38-54

Silver identified the “dark glass” approach with the heritage of the Hebrew prophets. In his view, it was precisely man’s cognitive limitations that provided the foundation on which the Hebrew prophets had built their edifice of religious faith (Silver 1954c). ...

Part Two. In Retrospect: Silver’s Pre-State Zionist Career

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pp. 55-56

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4. Silver’s Early Struggle against Anti-Semitism and Nazism

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pp. 57-79

How much of Silver’s post-statehood Zionist stance could be traced to the early pre-1948 years of his career? At first glance, Silver’s Zionist leadership during the 1940s appears to take an opposite direction, emphasizing anti-Jewish hostility and expressing mistrust toward the non-Jewish American surroundings. ...

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5. The 1940s: The Holocaust as Political Leverage

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pp. 80-105

The 1940s were Silver’s peak years as a Zionist leader. During this period he based his Zionist stance on an idealized hyphenated American-Jewish identity—one that affirmed the reciprocal relationship between Jewish solidarity and American patriotism. ...

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6. 1947–1948: An American-Jewish or a Pan-Jewish Leader?

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pp. 106-118

By February 17, 1947, even before Bevin’s proposal to bring the issue of Palestine before the United Nations had been authorized by the British Parliament, Silver had proclaimed the opening of a new chapter in the Zionist endeavor. The current challenge, he declared, was to ensure American support for the founding of a Jewish state. ...

Part Three. Israel Becomes an Ideological and Political Challenge

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pp. 119-120

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7. In the Wake of Israeli Statehood

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pp. 121-143

The complexity of the dilemma faced by Silver in the wake of Israeli statehood is illustrated in the speech he gave on June 16, 1949, following a five-month leave of absence from his post as chairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC). ...

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8. Identification without Subordination

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pp. 144-166

Following the first years after the establishment of Israel, Silver gradually realized that the most challenging problem he faced was that of remaining committed to Israel while advancing an alternative American-Zionist agenda. Compelling evidence of this concern is found in a volume of journal entries in which he reported on Israel-related events. ...

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9. The Attempt to Regain Status in the Wake of Eisenhower’s Election

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pp. 167-194

During the early part of 1951, as he was coming to terms with his secondary importance in the eyes of the Israeli political leadership, Silver still tried to maintain his bipartisan strategy of the 1940s in the American political arena and cultivate political connections among the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties. ...

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10. A Recurrent Existential Threat to the Jews

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pp. 195-216

A key issue that contributed to the critical turn in Silver’s attitude toward the Republican administration was the debate regarding American policy on supplying weapons to Israel and the Arab states. Although this issue had previously come up during the Truman administration, it became more pronounced within the “New Look” and containment policies adopted by Dulles. ...

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11. Unequivocal Support for Israel during the Suez Crisis

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pp. 217-242

Silver’s involvement in US-Israeli interactions during the Suez Crisis began the day after hostilities broke out, on October 30, 1956, and continued intermittently until Israel’s withdrawal on March 7, 1957. Silver suddenly found himself in a position of senior mediator—the very position that he had so coveted since Israel’s foundation. ...

Epilogue: Reform Jewish Prophet or Zionist Leader?

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pp. 243-244

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12. Silver as a Progressive Visionary

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pp. 245-256

It should be recalled that when Silver strove to demonstrate the importance of Israel’s establishment, he depicted it as an act aimed at ensuring an adequate air supply. Israel was now supposed to become transparent, like air; essential though it was to Jewish survival, it could by no means be regarded as the ultimate purpose of Jewish existence. ...

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13. Nonetheless, a Zionist Leader

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pp. 257-272

An additional, quite surprising, dimension of Silver’s self-assigned prophetic role could be seen in the special relationship he developed with the North American financier Cyrus Eaton—a 1960 Lenin Peace Prize recipient known in the height of the Cold War as “the Kremlin’s favorite capitalist.” ...


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pp. 273-284


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pp. 285-290

About the Author, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780815652809
E-ISBN-10: 0815652801
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815610359
Print-ISBN-10: 0815610351

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Modern Jewish History