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  • "Girded for the Superhuman Task":American Jews and the Trope of the Zionist Pioneer, 1925–19561
  • Mark A. Raider (bio)

The America-Israel nexus has long intrigued scholars of the American Jewish experience, modern Jewish history, and American religion. Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Rabb dub Israel "the X-factor in American Jewish existence" and suggest it shapes Jewish life in "fundamental ways … not often fully fathomed, either by American or Israeli Jews."2 Viewed historically, Naomi W. Cohen observes, the trajectory of this phenomenon has been nothing short of meteoric. While Zionism was largely an "in-house affair" up until the Balfour Declaration of 1917, it thereafter emerged in the public square as "an Allied war aim" enmeshed with US domestic politics and foreign policy.3 "The course of Zionism and especially of American Zionism," Cohen concludes, "from then until the establishment of Israel some thirty years later, was significantly shaped by American opinion."4 Jonathan D. Sarna emphasizes the centrality of "Zion of the American Jewish imagination," especially in the first half of the twentieth century, as a reflection of the "yearnings and dreams" of American Jews even as it helped them "to counter the malicious [End Page 303] slurs of their enemies."5 Michael Brown enhances our understanding of the America-Israel "connection" by examining the parade of Zionist luminaries who spent extended time in the United States and played a crucial role cultivating American Jewry's relationship to "the apparently infertile soil of the Yishuv" (pre-state Israeli society).6 Vladimir Jabotinsky, Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion, and other Palestine emissaries, as he demonstrates, worked assiduously to fashion ties between political Zionism's fledgling institutions and a loose but developing nationwide coalition of American Jewish communal leaders, voluntary organizations, and synagogue movements. Such a transnational web of activity, Michael Berkowitz points out, was consonant with the Western Jewish milieu of the early twentieth century including the American Jewish environment where the Zionist project was "styled increasingly as a rescue mission and object of philanthropy."7

The present study seeks to complement the foregoing discussion by investigating the theme of Zionist heroism, specifically the cultural myth of the haluz (Zionist pioneer) and its dynamic impact on American Jewry's relationship to Zionism and the Yishuv (and later Israel).8 Taking a page from scholars of folklore and semiotics who consider "textual shifts as signs of cultural shifts," American Jewry's romantic perception of haluziyut (Zionist pioneering), it will be argued, offers a useful lens for assessing the evolving cultural-political and transnational matrix of Zionism in the American setting.9 The contours of this [End Page 304] phenomenon came into focus in the decades that spanned the 1920s through the 1950s, a period in modern Jewish history framed by, on the one hand, US restrictions on eastern European Jewish immigration, the Fourth Aliyah (the wave of middle-class Polish Jewish immigration to the Yishuv), and Jewish land acquisition and colonization in Palestine's Jezreel Valley, and, on the other, the rise of the State of Israel and what historian Arthur Goren describes as American Jewry's "golden decade" (1945–1955), during which Zionism and Israel became integral to the "communal consensus."10

Folklore scholar Dan Ben-Amos explains that while forms of popular cultural expression may be "classified" into discrete categories such as "history, tradition, dance, music, games, and tales," they nevertheless possess "symbolic significance reaching far beyond the explicit content of the particular text, melody, or artifact."11 "Legend," Ben-Amos asserts, "often signifies a chronological truth; myth symbolizes a religious truth; and parable implies a moral truth … All these forms are but different phases in the same process."12 In a similar vein, art historian Carol Zemel notes the "cultural space of a minority population" can be "fluid and irregular," defying "a fixed geography," and should be considered "interactively, as cultural life in relationship to—and with—a neighbor, a contiguous but different society."13 The salience of such insights for modern Jewish history is not to be underestimated.14 Indeed, they can be productively applied to unpacking the image of the Jewish hero in the West and, by extension, the trope of the...


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