In this important contribution to the historiography of American Zionism, Ellen Eisenberg has examined the prevailing assumptions about anti-Zionism in the Jewish West in light of her own research concerning Jewish life in Portland, Oregon, and found the Portland Jewish community significantly less sympathetic to the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism than previously believed. Why did Portland break the anti-Zionist mold?
Professor Eisenberg’s thorough research has pinpointed three factors that help explain the phenomenon of Portland Jewry’s disinterest in anti-Zionism. Which of the three is the most significant is a question that deserves further consideration. One of the factors is what might be called influence “from the top down,” in this case the impact of Stephen Wise as leader of Portland’s large Reform synagogue, Beth Israel, from 1900 to 1906. The second possibility is influence “from the bottom up”—the spread of Zionist sentiment among the grassroots, in this case the byproduct of an influx of immigrants of East European lineage who were predisposed to Zionism. A third possible source of influence is the media—in Portland, that meant the pro-Zionist newspaper The Scribe, in particular the columns written for it by the Zionist firebrand Rabbi Louis Newman.
Eisenberg is undoubtedly correct that Stephen Wise’s Zionist activity had a lasting impact on the community, although it is difficult to estimate how long his influence lingered. Wise was only in Portland for six years—during one of which he was physically incapacitated—and his Zionist work was limited by the time he devoted to rabbinical duties, finishing his doctorate, and leading local campaigns on a variety of social reform issues. The impact of Rabbi Louis Newman’s Scribe columns is even more difficult to assess. There are, however, some interesting parallels in the two men’s experiences. Newman, like Wise, spent six years out West as the spiritual leader of a prominent West Coast Reform synagogue—San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El, from 1924–1930. Newman, who was one of Wise’s own students, spoke out as passionately for Zionism in San Francisco as Wise did in Portland. But by the time Newman reached San Francisco, anti-Zionist sentiment was already strong in the community, and it is hardly surprising that in the 1940s San Francisco became, as Prof. Eisenberg puts it, an “ACJ stronghold.” [End Page 323]
Perhaps, then, the reason Portland’s reaction to anti-Zionism was so different from that of San Francisco and other Western U.S. Jewish communities, has more to do with the sociological factors cited by Prof. Eisenberg, than with individuals such as Wise or Newman. Professor Eisenberg describes how “Portland’s East European Jewish population grew rapidly in the early decades of the 20th century [and displayed] decidedly pro-Zionist sensibilities.” She shows how this pro-Zionist trend among the grassroots was reinforced by the settlement in Portland of veterans of failed Jewish agrarian settlements in the West and Upper Midwest, who had always looked to the pioneers in Palestine as spiritual kinsmen.
Professor Eisenberg also points to the Hebrew-centered orientation of Portland’s Jewish school, and the absence of even a single anti-Zionist rabbi in the city, as factors that influenced the community in favor of Zionism. Both of these phenomena may well have been the result of the East European influx, and thus good examples of change “from the bottom up.” A school with many pupils from pro-Zionist East European families, would naturally act to ensure its curriculum conformed to the parents’ preferences. A synagogue with many members who were East Europeans sympathetic to Zionism, would naturally refrain from hiring an anti-Zionist rabbi.
As a western Jewish community supportive of Zionism, Portland was the exception; as a community that embraced Zionism as a result of East European immigrant influence, Portland was the rule. Professor Eisenberg has skillfully illuminated the lessons of the Portland experience, and pointed the way for future researchers.
Rafael Medoff is Visiting Scholar in the Jewish Studies Program at Purchase College, the State University of New York. His most recent book is Zionism and the Arabs: An American Jewish...