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  • The Emergence of American Zionism
  • Rafael Medoff
The Emergence of American Zionism. By Mark A. Raider (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998), 296 pp. + xvii

Minority factions in the American Jewish community have attracted increased scholarly attention in recent years. Studies of the non-Zionists [End Page 367] and anti-Zionists have shed important light on previously-neglected topics. 1 They are now joined by Mark Raider’s The Emergence of American Zionism, the first full-length scholarly study of Labor Zionism in the United States. 2

The history of the U.S. Labor Zionists, or Poalei Zion, is a familiar, and in some ways quintessentially American, tale. Utilizing previously untapped archival sources, Raider describes how a handful of East European socialist-Zionist ideologues, transplanted to America’s shores by Czarist oppression, sought to import their version of Zionism to their new homeland. It was not an easy task. After decades of frustration in their efforts to win American Jews to their original, old-world socialist platform, the Laborites eventually recognized the need to Americanize, and began “discarding irrelevant and anachronistic doctrinal assumptions,” as Raider puts it. They “hoped to market a more palatable version” of socialist Zionism. By the time of the 1932 Poalei Zion convention, “any indication of the party’s militant Russian socialist inheritance” was “conspicuously absent” from the party’s literature. Yet even after casting aside the rhetoric of revolution and class struggle in favor of generalizations about independence and progress, the Labor Zionists struggled to emerge from the fringes of the American Zionist community. Even at the peak of American Zionism’s early popularity, in 1918—on the heels of the Balfour Declaration and the British conquest of Palestine—Poalei Zion’s national membership of 7,000 was minute compared to the Zionist Organization of America’s 149,000 and far less than the 18,000 of the Mizrachi religious Zionists.

Seeking to establish for Poalei Zion a measure of popularity that the statistical evidence does not seem to bear out, Raider maintains that “Labor Zionism’s growing influence on the popular level can be discerned” from the history of the American regiments of the Jewish Legion, the Jewish military force that helped England capture Palestine from the Turks in World War I. Raider emphasizes that several prominent Labor Zionists played leading roles in organizing the Legion. Yet a [End Page 368] survey of the Legion’s ranks, cited by Rider, found only slightly more than one-third were Poalei Zion members. For Raider, the success of the Legion in attracting American volunteers “reflects Labor Zionism’s steady penetration of American Jewish life.” More likely it demonstrates merely that the dramatic events of 1917–1918 tugged at the hearts of a relative handful of idealistic young American Zionists, Laborites and non-Laborites alike.

With the Zionist movement seemingly having accomplished its primary objectives, American Jewish interest in Zionism waned, and membership levels of all U.S. Zionist factions plummeted during the early 1920s. It would be worth examining whether those Zionist groups most closely associated with foreign ideologies, such as the socialist Zionists, suffered a greater decline as a result of the anti-foreigner “Red Scares” of that period. In any event, the Palestinian Arab pogroms of 1929 and the rise of Hitler in 1933 resulted in increased membership for all American Zionist organizations during the 1930s. The Labor Zionists, however, achieved only modest gains. Raider estimates that in the early 1930s, Poalei Zion and its women’s division, Pioneer Women, had a combined membership of only about 8,000, and the circulation of the Labor Zionist newspaper, Der Yiddisher Kemfer, was “never more than 6,000 before World War II.” A Labor affiliate, the Hehaluz Organization of America, established a number of farms where young Zionists received agricultural training that they subsequently put to good use on kibbutzim and other settlements in Palestine. But of Hehaluz’s 350 members at the end of 1933, only a minority were Labor Zionists; the largest single faction described themselves as “stam haluzim” (“simply pioneers”). Perhaps that should come as no surprise; after all, most American Zionists were “stam Zionists.” They were convinced...

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pp. 367-376
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