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The Yishuv Discovers America

SINCE 1948, and even more since 1967, an intimate Israel-America connection has been so much a part of the international scene that it is hard to imagine a time when it did not exist. In fact, the relationship is not very old, and the alliance is not altogether natural. In the past, oil, geopolitics, and antisemitism have invited United States patronage of the Arabs or at least neutrality in the Arab-Israeli dispute. The European origins and socialist ideology of many Israeli leaders, moreover, pointed them away from America.

From the inception in the late nineteenth century of the modern movement of Jewish return to the land of Israel, the Promised Land of the New World and that of the Old World have been unequal competitors for the allegiance of Jews and for Jewish immigrants. The land of Israel was small and poor in resources; until 1918 it was one of the more backward areas of the Ottoman Empire. Under both the Turks and the British, Jews had only limited access to it. The vast United States, on the other hand, was the fabled goldene medine, the “land of unlimited opportunities,” as Golda Meir used to call it. More important, it was the land of freedom, where inherited privilege and prejudice counted for little, at least in theory. Until after World War I, Jews—and other whites—had almost unlimited access to it; and they flocked there from all over the Old World, creating the world’s largest Jewish community. The Jews of Palestine were typical in their response to the promise of America. In 1891, the United States consul in Jerusalem, Selah Merrill, reported to his superiors that Jewish newcomers to the land of Israel often used it as a stepping-stone to America. Even “those who were born in the country or who spent here most of their lives, [yearn] to go to . . . America, with a view to better[ing] their circumstances.”1

As might be expected, this lopsided competition has sometimes provoked a negative reaction in residents of the Holy Land. In 1881, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Hebrew lexicographer who was instrumental in reviving the ancient Jewish tongue as a modern spoken language, himself an immigrant to Palestine from Russia, published an essay entitled “Palestine or America?” in the Jerusalem journal, HaḤavatzelet. It was a year of Russian pogroms which served as catalysts of the mass exodus of Jews from eastern Europe. That Jews should “settle in a strange land very far from their place of birth, when the land of their fathers beckon[ed] to them to partake of its goodness,” seemed regrettable to Ben-Yehuda.2 He and his fellow returnees and many of the native Jews of Palestine agreed with Consul Merrill about the reason. As the German-born Arthur Ruppin, who headed the Palestine Settlement Office of the World Zionist Organization, put it almost three decades later: “Those emigrants whose aim it was to make much money in a short time, either did not go to Palestine at all, or, having tried it, left it soon. . . . [Palestine attracted only] persons devoted more to the pursuit of an ideal than . . . of money.”3

But the money was not free in America. Yosef Feinberg, a founding settler of Rishon LeZion, one of the first Zionist agricultural colonies in Palestine, raised a red flag in 1882 for Jewish émigrés contemplating a new life in the New World. “America,” he warned, “requires of immigrants total assimilation; one must become there an American, body and soul.”4 Three decades later, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, then chief rabbi of Jaffa and later chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine, was asked by a rabbinical colleague in Europe whether he should encourage his son to emigrate to Palestine or to America. Kook acknowledged that many of the young pioneers in Palestine were godless. Still, he said, “there is more hope for [the boy’s] spiritual condition in the Holy Land.” In the same year, one of those godless workers, Ya’akov Zerubavel, undertook a fund-raising mission to America on behalf of HaAḥdut, a Palestine Labor journal. No less than traditional Jews, Zerubavel was appalled at how public schools in the United States “succeeded in alienating the child not only from the old country, from his people, but also from his parents who still maintained their spiritual independence in the American melting pot.”5


The Israel-America nexus, as it took root in the apparently infertile soil of the yishuv during and between the world wars, is the subject of this book, which examines the American experiences of six of the foremost leaders of Jewish Palestine. Because it has been thoroughly studied by others, the American side of the relationship is not dealt with here.6 The period was chosen because it was in these years that the framework for statehood and, to a large degree, for the new Hebrew-speaking society was erected. Europe and its centuries-old Jewry, with its rich and variegated culture, were in eclipse; the United States and its young and still raw Jewry were on the rise. Many in the yishuv and elsewhere, however, did not discern what was happening or refused to draw the implications. The men and women studied here reflect this changing world. During these years they could—ostensibly—still choose their cultural and political mentors and allies; after 1945 there was really only one option. This book is about the choices they made and the consequences of their decisions.

The six were selected because of their prominence but also because through them can be seen the impact on Israel—still in the pre-state period—of American technology and culture, of American political and social theory and practice, and of American mores and attitudes, to say nothing of American money. The six leaders, who represent different fields of endeavor, crossed paths with one another, especially the three Laborites, Katznelson, Meir, and Ben-Gurion. Yet each wove his or her own network of ties with the New World into a patch in the quilt that became the Israel-United States relationship. A common aspect of their careers is that their authority rested primarily on a power base in the yishuv itself.

After 1930, the center of Zionist gravity shifted from Europe to Palestine, as the Jewish population there grew, and because the major issues facing the movement played out there.7 The Palestine Zionist leaders became the on-site authorities of the state in the making. Chaim Weizmann, the other larger-than-life Zionist figure of the immediate pre-state era, remained staunchly loyal to Britain and was largely indifferent to the potential advantage for Zionism of American connections. Stationed in London, he acted rather like an imperial minister for the colonies, seeking to influence the course of affairs from abroad. As a result, he never succeeded in forming a personal power base in the yishuv. When Israel achieved independence in 1948 he became its first president; but he could be no more than a figure-head. To be sure, Jabotinsky lived in Palestine only for two relatively brief interludes, and, from the late twenties, derived much of his political strength from his popularity in Poland. His Palestinian supporters, however, accepted his absentee leadership to an astonishing degree until shortly before his death, regularly electing him to the Va’ad Le’umi (the Representative Council of the yishuv), even though the British forbade him entry to the country. No local leader even approached his command of the Palestine Revisionist movement.8 These six men and women, then, together with their compatriots, laid the groundwork not only for Israel’s American alliance but for the state itself.


While the friendship between the yishuv and the United States required development and nurturing during the interwar years, earlier events had helped to create an appropriate atmosphere for it. American interest in the Holy Land, rooted in Christian theology but with a unique American dimension, dates from the earliest days of European settlement in the New World.9 A permanent American presence there was established in the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of the first consuls and the first American settlers, and with the institutionalization over the years of charitable contributions. Documented interest of Holy Landers in America dates from the mid-eighteenth century. Jews in Palestine and in the Diaspora were aware of the America-Holy Land relationship almost from its genesis.

Beginning in the early 1830s, the United States posted a minister to Constantinople whose jurisdiction included Palestine and maintained consular agents, most of them not Americans, to look after visiting citizens in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa. In 1844 the United States appointed its first resident Holy Land consul, Warder Cresson. An exotic personality who converted to Judaism as Michael Boaz Israel and spent the rest of his life working for the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, Cresson was never confirmed in his consular nomination. The first bona fide American consul arrived in Jerusalem only in March 1857, establishing a presence that has existed since then except for a few short interruptions.10

Peculiar—but not exclusive—to the Ottoman Empire was the system of “capitulations,” which granted to the representatives of foreign powers extraterritorial privileges applicable not only to their citizens but also to adopted protégés. Over the years, the United States became ever less enthusiastic about assisting anyone other than its native-born nationals; and, like the representatives of other countries, American officials were often biased against Jews. On the whole, however, American officials proved less inimical to Jews than those of other countries. American protection was particularly prized in Palestine in the nineteenth century, because only the United States retained “exclusive jurisdiction over both trial and punishment,” and because, at least after 1887, the Americans generally refused to permit the Turks to discriminate among United States citizens.11 By 1899 the Jerusalem consulate had eight hundred protégés under its wing, a large number of whom were naturalized Jewish Americans and their children, who had no intention of returning to the United States. It was not uncommon by then for consular officials to become involved in the political and social affairs of the Jerusalem Jewish community.12

Often the minister in Constantinople directly influenced events in Palestine. General Lew Wallace, the author of the epic novel, Ben Hur, who occupied the post from 1881 to 1885, gained permission from the Porte for Jews to settle in the empire, although not in Palestine; and the American community in Jerusalem asked his support in their efforts to gain a larger slice of the American Jewish charitable pie. But he was labeled “a republican despot” in HaḤavatzelet, because of his support for Christian missionaries to the Jews, among other reasons.13 With the appointment of Oscar Straus as minister in 1887, Palestine’s Jews gained a valuable friend. Straus, whose family controlled Macy’s Department Store in New York, was a wealthy and prominent Jew. At first he hesitated to become involved in issues concerning his coreligionists, claiming he had been sent to Turkey as the American minister, not as a Jew. As American minister, however, he found himself duty-bound to insist on the equality of Jews before the law; and shortly he became drawn into their affairs. In 1888, he visited Palestine and received an impassioned welcome from local Jews who, along with their gentile countrymen, understood the force and significance of the statement made by “the government of the enlightened American republic,” when it “appointed a Jew . . . to represent its interests at the Sublime Porte.”14 Straus served two terms as minister (1887–89, 1898–99), and another after the position had been upgraded to ambassador (1909–10).

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the work of the consuls and ministers, especially Straus, had led many traditionalist Holy Land Jews to look upon the United States as the guarantor of their safety, and they took upon themselves a reciprocal obligation. In 1881, when President Garfield was shot, Sir Moses Montefiore, the venerable English philanthropist, appealed as a matter of course to “the Spiritual Heads of the Spanish and German Hebrew Congregations of Jerusalem” to pray for his life.15 In 1898, the United States embarked on its “splendid little” imperialist war against Spain. Jews of Jerusalem crowded into the Beit Ya’akov Synagogue in the presence of Consul Merrill, himself a Protestant minister, to pray with Shmuel Salant, the chief rabbi of the city’s German, Russian, and Palestinian Jews, for the welfare of the aggressors. No American jingoist could have written a more one-sided supplication than Salant, who believed the United States was redressing the wrong done to Jews when they were expelled from Spain in 1492. The rabbi begged “compassion” for the people in whom “the love of Liberty and Humanity [was implanted] more than in any other [who] . . . went out to battle against a mighty foe, not to widen territory . . . [but] to bring eternal justice.” He invoked God’s favor on “the army . . . actuated by the feelings of righteousness,” but besought Him to “annihilate the . . . power” of their “adversaries,” thereby avenging “the blood of thy servants that has been shed by a cruel nation.”16


Another American presence in nineteenth-century Palestine was exerted by gentile expatriates, whose efforts at colonization sparked the interest of contemporary Jews abroad and later Jewish settlers in Palestine.17 In 1851 and 1866 two groups of millenarian American Protestants attempted to establish agricultural colonies. Although they failed at farming, some of them remained in the country; one colonist, Rolla Floyd, became the first local representative of Thomas Cook’s tours and then a popular dragoman, hotelier, and omnibus operator. In 1908, Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi boarded at his hostelry in Jerusalem. The pioneer and future president of Israel was unaccustomed to luxury; Mr. Floyd’s, however, he considered a rabbit “warren,” and its denizens “a cluster of sharks.”18 In 1881 a small group of Americans with idiosyncratic notions about religion and collective living established the American Colony in Jerusalem to bring education, faith, and medical care to the natives. Their ideas and life style aroused the suspicion of traditionalist Jerusalemites, including Consul Merrill. But Raḥel Yana’it, Ben-Zvi’s future wife and, like him, a socialist, was very favorably impressed by their dedication and sharing, and in “later years . . . became friendly with members of the Colony.”19 Eventually the American Colony achieved bourgeois respectability; and during the Mandate its hotel became a meeting place for government officials and the Jerusalem upper crust, a status it has maintained until the present day.

American Jews, also motivated by religion and a desire to rebuild the Holy Land, followed their gentile countrymen, with similar results in the nineteenth century. In 1870, Simon Berman, who was Polish-born but had lived in the United States for eighteen years, sought without success to establish an agricultural colony. The 1890s saw at least two more abortive attempts at settling North American Jews on the land.20

The new century brought a change in fortune. The number of Jews and gentiles from America grew steadily, although numbers remained quite modest. On the eve of World War I there were about 85,000 Jews in the country out of a total population of less than 700,000, of whom only a very few were Americans. The Jews from the United States included both pietists who came to live out their years in the Holy Land and young Zionists eager to rebuild the Jewish homeland. In 1910, a few Russian-born olim who had lived for some time in the United States and acquired agricultural training at the Jewish farm schools in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and Woodbine, New Jersey, arrived in Palestine. Two years later the “Young Farmer[s],” as they called themselves, led by Eliezer Lippe Yoffe, arrived at the Kinneret Training Farm operated by Ruppin’s Settlement Office. There they were known as “the American Group,” and with their technical training and modern equipment they almost succeeded in making the farm profitable for the first time in its history. Yoffe, in particular, tried to demonstrate to the undisciplined, angry young Russian Jews of the Second Aliyah that a new society could be built “in an orderly fashion with [scientific] methods.”21 The approach was seen as typically American by others at the Farm, including Berl Katznelson, one of the subjects of this study. Eventually they scattered, but most remained in the yishuv; Yoffe became the moving force behind the moshvei ovdim, or smallholders’ settlements.22

The Achooza movement was an early twentieth-century colonization project that spanned Europe and North America. The fourteen American societies formed between 1908 and 1914 were composed of middle-class American citizens, recent eastern European immigrants, and former residents of Palestine, with enough means to contemplate purchasing their own farms and emigrating. They were not “rich Americans,” as some of the penniless pioneers from eastern Europe thought.23 Copious publicity in the yishuv about the American Achooza notwithstanding, only two of the groups succeeded in establishing colonies (Saint Louis at Poriya, and Chicago I at Sarona); and those two settlements were abandoned in the early postwar period. After the war most of the remaining societies in the United States were folded into the American Zion Commonwealth, a semipublic settlement company under the aegis of the Zionist Organization of America. The AZC was successful in aiding and establishing urban and rural settlements in Palestine, including Kibbutz Merḥavya, where Golda Meir lived for a time, and Herzliya, where her parents made their home.24

As noteworthy here as the settlement endeavors themselves is the assistance provided by American consuls and ministers directly to American citizens and indirectly to all Jews immigrating to Palestine in the pre-World War I years. The Americans were friendly towards Turkey. Yet they naturally “opposed an Oriental regime inherently suspecting and condemning anything . . . foreign.” United States diplomats considered it “a sacred mission to uphold the principles of freedom and democracy abroad”; more specifically, they helped in obtaining the removal of restrictions on land acquisition directed at non-Muslims and in many other ways.25 Such activities served to heighten the impression that the United States could be counted on to protect Jewish interests in the Holy Land.

Another of the prewar Palestine ties to America related to agriculture was of a different nature and, although involving in the main one person, Aaron Aaronsohn, had broad ramifications. Aaronsohn’s family was among the founders of the agricultural colony, Zichron Ya’akov, in 1882. His brother, Alexander, worked for the American Department of Agriculture for a number of years and even took out naturalization papers, although he did not remain in the United States long enough to become a citizen.26 Aaron himself was a trained agronomist who, by the early years of the century, had earned a considerable scholarly reputation for his research into dry farming and wild wheat. In 1909–10, at the invitation of the Department of Agriculture, he visited the United States, touring areas of the country where dry farming was practiced and lecturing in scholarly forums on the strain of wild wheat that he had discovered in the Galilee. He also arranged for his Agricultural and Botanical Explorations in Palestine (1910) to appear as an official United States government publication.

Thanks to his official connections, Aaronsohn was introduced to a number of America’s most prominent Jews, both Zionists and non-Zionists. During his stay, his Agricultural Experiment Station at Athlit near Zichron Ya’akov was incorporated in the United States with a number of Americans as directors, including Henrietta Szold, who also served as secretary, and Julius Rosenwald, a noted philanthropist, who controlled Sears Roebuck. The directors and their friends advanced twenty thousand dollars for startup costs and promised ten thousand dollars annually for the running expenses of the station.27 Later, Jacob Schiff, one of the wealthiest Jews of his time and a non-Zionist, although a rather traditional believer, offered to support five Palestinians for two years to “be educated in American agricultural methods.”28 Along with the American Exploration Society and the American School for Oriental Studies, Aaronsohn’s Agricultural Station and his Hebrew Health Station for Bacteriological Research, established in 1911 with the help of Nathan Straus, the philanthropist brother of Oscar Straus, represented the first significant America-Palestine cooperative scientific ventures.

On his several trips to the United States, Aaronsohn involved himself in Zionist affairs, as well as advancing his research activities. In 1910 he met with the Young Farmer society and urged them to complete their studies before heading for Palestine; and he tried to discourage the Achooza movement, which he considered “naive and ill-founded.”29 In early 1912 at a dinner given by the Rosenwalds, he met Louis Brandeis, then a Boston lawyer prominent in Progressive circles. Brandeis thought Aaronsohn’s talk on wild wheat “the most thrillingly interesting” he had “ever heard, showing the possibilities of scientific agriculture and utilization of arid or supposedly exhausted land.”30 The meeting took place during the period of Brandeis’s conversion to Zionism; and Aaronsohn’s vision of the potential contribution of the Zionist enterprise to the betterment of humanity probably played a role in that process.31 Had he not been killed in a plane crash in 1919, Aaronsohn would undoubtedly have figured prominently in the America-yishuv relationship in subsequent years.32

One other important aspect of the pre-World War I American presence in Palestine was charitable funds. The Jews of the Old Yishuv were, for the most part, pietists who saw their task in life to be prayer and contemplation, not for themselves alone, but on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Most of them refrained from gainful employment which might detract from their sacred vocation; they considered it the obligation of fellow Jews to support them in this enterprise. In the nineteenth century they organized themselves in kolelim, that is, communities based on their lands of origin, largely for the purpose of tapping the charitable resources of their native countries more efficiently.

From the mid-eighteenth century, Palestinian Jewish institutions had been sending fund raisers to North America with varying degrees of success. A century later, several American organizations were collecting money on a regular basis for the maintenance of the Old Yishuv pietists. In 1854, Judah Touro of New Orleans bequeathed sixty thousand dollars, an enormous sum at that time, for Jews in the Holy Land, to be disbursed by Sir Moses Montefiore. The Englishman used the funds for the construction of new neighborhoods in Jerusalem, for which he, rather than Touro, was given credit. In the same year, the North American Relief Society for the Indigent Jews in Jerusalem was founded; and The Occident carried one of the first appeals in print to American Jews on behalf of the poor of the Holy Land.33 The next two decades saw considerable bickering in Palestine over the riches of America.34

By the mid-1890s, American donations had become an important source of funds for the pietists; some groups, however, mainly the Sephardim and Jews with a personal connection to North America, felt they were receiving less than their share. In order to ensure that American expatriates would get their due, Kolel America was organized in 1897 with the aid of the American consul in Jerusalem, Edwin S. Wallace. In subsequent years the American kolel not only disbursed funds to individuals, but also built housing for its members and provided burial plots for them on the Mount of Olives.35

Zionists from abroad, as well as the native Jews who joined their ranks (the New Yishuv, generally referred to herein, simply as the yishuv), objected strongly to the notion of living on welfare in order to serve God. Many were not believers; but the religious Jews among them thought that the Divine would be best glorified by the renewed vitality of the Holy Land. They set as principal goals for themselves the productivization and self-sufficiency of Palestinian Jewry. Unfortunately, in such a poor country, those goals were readily perceived to be beyond immediate reach; in fact they have been only partially attained even today. As a result, these groups also began looking to America for help. By the turn of the century both yishuvim were heavily dependent on foreign funds; and America was on its way to becoming their chief financial backer.36


The onset of World War I proved disastrous for the Jews of Palestine, and no boon for the other residents of the country. The fragile economy deteriorated immediately with the interruption of the flow of remittances from abroad and of exports from Palestine. Suspicion of foreigners inevitably becomes heightened in wartime, and the Turks had a proclivity to xenophobia even in peacetime. That many Jews in the yishuv came from Russia, Turkey’s traditional enemy with which she was once again at war, endangered their position. In such a situation, the United States was propelled to the forefront of people’s consciousness. America remained neutral until 1917, and although it broke relations with Turkey, it never declared war. That made it possible to intercede repeatedly on behalf of Palestinian Jews (and their institutions), large numbers of whom became American protégés when the British, French, and Russian ambassadors left Constantinople at the start of the war. During the war, the material and manpower resources of the United States, which was untouched by the fighting, were drawn upon to sustain the already dependent community in the Holy Land in unprecedented ways. And many more Palestinians than usual now planned to emigrate to North America.

Two dramatic American interventions in wartime Palestine were the Jewish Legion and the American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU). Their story, however, properly belongs to later chapters, and only a word of introduction can be included here. The Legion brought about 1,500 North American soldiers to Palestine in all-Jewish units of the British army. Most of them returned to North America after the war, but their willingness to volunteer for service in Palestine left a memory of American Jewry’s concern for the fate of the Zionist enterprise. The AZMU marked the beginning of a prominent and permanent American presence in the health care system of the yishuv.

American diplomatic activities on behalf of the yishuv were no less remarkable than the Legion and the AZMU. The last two American ambassadors in Constantinople before the interruption of relations in 1917, Henry Morgenthau and Abram I. Elkus, were Jews; and that fact proved to be of inestimable importance to the welfare of their coreligionists in the Holy Land. Their presence, which implied great Jewish power, together with the good offices of the German ambassador to the Porte, may have ensured that Jews would not suffer the fate of the Armenians in wartime Turkey. President Wilson apparently intended his representatives to look after their fellow Jews. He advised Morgenthau before he left for the Middle East that “anything you can do to improve the lot of your co-religionists is an act that will reflect credit upon America, and you may count on the full power of the Administration to back you up.”37

American soldiers in the Jewish Legion in Palestine shortly before their return to the United States. (Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.)

Morgenthau was not himself a Zionist; in fact he later became an opponent of the movement, although his wife had been an early donor to Henrietta Szold’s Daughters of Zion group in New York.38 One of his first official acts in Turkey was a 1914 Passover pilgrimage and grand tour of the Jewish communities in the Holy Land. He visited Jaffa, Hebron, the colony of Petah Tikva, the American Achooza settlement of Poriya, and other places. In Jerusalem he hosted an official banquet for the local governor and other dignitaries. At the dinner, which was held in a kosher hotel, he recited the traditional blessing over the wine, and pronounced himself “happy, as a Jewish ambassador, to break bread with his guests in the ancient capital city of the kingdom of Israel.”39 Palestine Jewish leaders “recognized at once that his hand and heart would be extended for their welfare and salvation,” as President Wilson had instructed.40

Within months of the ambassador’s triumphal tour came war and privation. In late August, Jacob Schiff received a communication from Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, relaying a cablegram from Morgenthau which advised “that the Jewish charities and colonies in Palestine require[d] immediate assistance.” Morgenthau requested that Schiff and their mutual friends “raise and send funds with [a] warship.” Bryan was willing to help with the ship.41 Thus began one of the more extraordinary episodes of America-Holy Land relations.

In early October the USS North Carolina arrived in Jaffa harbor with money and supplies provided by Schiff, the American Jewish Committee, and the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs, then acting for the WZO, which had been rendered impotent by the war. In charge of the shipment was Morgenthau’s son-in-law, Maurice Wertheim, whose detailed “Report on the Condition of the Jews of Palestine” provided American Jewish leaders with a firsthand description of the suffering in the yishuv from “one of their own.”42 A later consignment was brought by Louis Levin, a Baltimore Jewish community worker and a brother-in-law of Henrietta Szold. Until the winter of 1916–17, when submarines made eastern Mediterranean waters too dangerous, more than a dozen such trips were made by American warships. The food, fuel, funds, and medical supplies they brought, not only for Jews but for other residents of Palestine as well, helped greatly to alleviate suffering there and to enhance the reputation of America, the bountiful. Abraham Elmaleh reported that some twenty-three thousand people in Jerusalem received an allotment of food from just one ship in 1915.43

The World War I Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs. Seated second from right is Committee secretary Henrietta Szold. At her left is Louis Brandeis; at her right, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Standing second from left is Louis Lipsky. (Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.)

In Jaffa the warships took on a return cargo: refugees, almost all of them Jews. Some, like Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the leader of the Mizrahi Orthodox Zionists, had been expelled as “dangerous enemy aliens,” and others were voluntarily fleeing the hardships of war. (Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi were expelled, but they left on a commercial vessel.) In late 1915, Mordecai Ben-Hillel HaCohen of Tel Aviv, whose diaries provide the most complete contemporaneous chronicle of the war period in Palestine, lamented that “a thousand Jewish souls had left the country in one day” on board the USS Tennessee, a naval cruiser. Like the other ships, the Tennessee took its passengers to Egypt, where some remained throughout the war, and others booked passage abroad. Many eventually went to the United States.44

The ships were an advertisement for America. Among their most vital functions was providing a means for uncensored communication between Palestine and the outside world. Captain Decker of the Tennessee, who made a number of runs to Jaffa, interviewed leaders of the yishuv and submitted to the State Department an accurate assessment of the dangers facing the Zionists. His report motivated the government to intensify its aid efforts.45 After the first months of the war, the American ships were the only ones available to transport passengers to a neutral port. The sailors acquired instant fame for treating their charges with exceptional “politeness, friendliness, and humanity.”46 According to Alexander Aaronsohn, “the natives were especially impressed by the manliness and quick action of the American boys. Frequently a few sailors were involved in a street fight with scores of Arabs, and they always held their own. In a short time the Americans become feared, which in the Orient is equivalent to saying they were respected [sic].”47 Aaronsohn also claimed that the ships had saved “the Russian Jews in Palestine” who had all been marked for “massacre and outrage like the Armenians.”48 To Jews, these were “ships of salvation,” but also “ships of exile.” The Tennessee was “our good angel”; to Arabs, it was “the Jews’ frigate.” When it sank in 1917, Mordecai Ben-Hillel HaCohen gave it the traditional benediction for the dead: that its “memory . . . be blessed for all eternity.”49

The Jews of Palestine appreciated not only the exploits of the navy but also the generosity of their coreligionists who footed the bill for the supplies and for other relief efforts. Julius Rosenwald, for example, pledged one thousand dollars a month for Palestine relief for the duration of the war and for a year afterwards. Abraham Elmaleh, a member of the native Sephardi community, praised American Jews’ “substantial and speedy aid,” while the Luaḥ Eretz Yisrael compared them to the Israelites in the desert who responded with alacrity to Moses’ call for donations to God’s Tabernacle.50 In his account of the wartime travails of his city, the longtime mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, expressed gratitude for the “American Fund” (he meant the American Assistance Council), which filled the void left when remittances from Europe ceased in 1914.51 The pioneering Laborites, mostly immigrants from eastern Europe, criticized the hoity-toity manner of American donors and their failure to meet all needs. But they, too, acknowledged that the American Jews were “fulfilling a function that would never be forgotten. . . . American assistance,” wrote one author in the Labor journal HaPo’el HaTza’ir in July 1915, “is what has saved the yishuv [from] . . . hunger and destruction.”52

Refugees on board the USS Tennessee at Jaffa, late 1914 or early 1915. (Courtesy of the United States Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.)

Besides the supply ships, Ambassador Morgenthau assisted the Palestinians in a number of ways. The fear of a massacre was never far from Jews’ minds; even Morgenthau is said to have thought it likely. Acting on Secretary Bryan’s instructions, he urged the Turkish government time and again to safeguard the lives of both Zionists and Armenians.53 Whether the Turks had intended to slaughter the Jews of Palestine is a moot point. But they did expel large numbers at the beginning of the war, a process that Morgenthau, together with the German ambassador, was able to halt, at least temporarily. In 1917, with the British armies moving up from Egypt, there were new expulsions from Jaffa and Jerusalem conducted with considerable harshness. By then the American ambassador had left Turkey. But as Jabotinsky and others recognized at the time, there could be no doubt that the Turks had been impressed by the nature of the American interposition on behalf of Palestine’s Jews.54 The forthright advocacy of Morgenthau and his successor may well have influenced the behavior of the Turks.

What the yishuv recognized as special about Morgenthau himself was the attitude with which he approached his task. In late 1914, Arthur Ruppin wrote to thank him and Schiff for the first allotment of funds. In his gracious response, the ambassador reflected a Jewish patrician’s understanding that noblesse oblige, and he affirmed his pride in the connection to fellow Jews. “I do not know,” he wrote, “whether you and your friends or I have to be grateful for the fact that I am ambassador. It makes me feel that I have been the chosen weapon to take up the defense of my co-religionists, and that I have been blessed with the opportunity to render them some service. So I really believe that I am the one who should be the most thankful and not the beneficiaries.”55

Unfortunately, the relationship soured soon after Morgenthau left his post. In the spring of 1916 he returned to Turkey, at the behest of the American government, ostensibly on an investigatory mission to prevent further depredations against Jews. The real goal was to find grounds for detaching the Ottoman Empire from its alliance with Germany and Austria. When he returned to the United States, Morgenthau reported in a public speech in Cincinnati that he had proposed to the Turks selling Palestine to the Jews in order to liquidate the Turkish debt. (The next day in Chicago he gave a somewhat different version of his proposals.) The Turks were embarrassed and wreaked vengeance on Zionist officials whom they banished from Palestine. The British, by now secretly planning to invade Palestine, opposed a separate peace with Turkey; and Weizmann (and the Armenians) feared that maintaining the Ottoman Empire in any form would hinder plans for Jewish (and Armenian) autonomy. The government disavowed the initiative. Morgenthau was left looking as though he had embarked upon a foolish personal embassy, which may, in fact, be the case. Unfairly, he held the Zionists mainly responsible and felt they had repaid him ill for his exertions on their behalf. Ever after he was numbered among their outspoken opponents.56

One other aspect of American wartime diplomacy in Palestine deserves mention here: the work of the consulates in Jerusalem and Jaffa. Although not as dramatic nor as public as Morgenthau’s interventions, the activities of Otis Glazebrook, the consul in Jerusalem, who was a personal friend of President Wilson, served to enlarge the fame in the yishuv of the country he represented. Ruppin considered him “the most helpful of all” in directly alleviating suffering, “a thoroughly decent man . . . averse to all bureaucratic measures.”57 Alexander Aaronsohn called him “a true American . . . rendering at Jerusalem the same sort of service that Ambassador Morgenthau has rendered at Constantinople . . . practically the only man who stood up for the poor, defenseless people of the city.”58

The two consulates assisted in the distribution of the money and supplies sent from America and supported Russian nationals waiting to be expelled from Palestine.59 When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his family left for America, Glazebrook took charge of his manuscripts. When Ruppin resigned from his position with the Palestine Settlement Office in 1916 because of Turkish objections to his activities, Glazebrook put an apartment at the American Archaeological Institute in Jerusalem at his disposal. And when Aaron Aaronsohn, operating as a British spy unbeknownst to the consul, sought an interview with the governor, Jemal Pasha, Glazebrook arranged the meeting. What most Jews probably did not realize at this time was that Glazebrook was an anti-Zionist, although he seems to have rendered service to all in need regardless of his feelings. This was less the case when he returned to Jerusalem after the war.60

The prewar and wartime diplomatic and consular assistance rendered to Jews in Palestine by the United States became a precedent only in a very limited way. Isolationism, increased antisemitism in government circles (especially in the State Department), trust in Britain, a feeling that it was inappropriate to badger the British as they had hounded the Turks, and improved conditions in Palestine served to restrain the Americans from intervening in Palestine in the interwar period. In the yishuv, however, the earlier period was not forgotten; the leadership continued to hope for renewed help from Washington, which eventually was forthcoming. Memories of the early patronage, moreover, served to reinforce positive attitudes towards the United States.


One way in which the yishuv became further acquainted with the United States during the World War I years was through American activities in Palestine. Another was through the prolonged stay in the United States of exiles and refugees from the Holy Land, and of Europeans who would later emigrate there. As already mentioned, Ben-Gurion, Ben-Zvi, and Rabbi Fishman (Maimon) were among the exiles. Another was Ben-Zion Mossinsohn, principal of the Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, the country’s first modern Hebrew secondary school. Among the refugees were the Ben-Yehudas; Israel Belkind, one of the pioneer Zionist settlers; and three members of the Aaronsohn family, Alexander and, for a time, Aaron, and their sister Rivka. Europeans who found themselves in America during the war but who were destined to play a major role in yishuv affairs included Shmaryahu Levin and Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan), the Mizrahi leader.

Their stay in America enabled the Palestinians to get acquainted with their future partners. All of them participated in American Jewish life, especially in Zionist affairs and the Hebrew and Yiddish press. Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi were active in the Poale Zion Labor Zionist party, wrote and published prolifically, and recruited for the Jewish Legion, all of which will be discussed later. Levin played a key role in the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs; Berlin published and edited HaIvri, a significant Hebrew weekly for which Fishman wrote frequently, while providing dynamic leadership for the Mizrahi. Ben-Yehuda wrote and published in Hebrew, lectured to various audiences including the American Oriental Society, and launched an abortive “plan for securing restoration to Palestine of important archaeological treasures” looted by the Turks.61

In retrospect, Ben-Zvi claimed that his three years in America had taught him “much about life in the Atlantic republic.”62 Rabbi Fishman’s daughter and biographer said that his years of exile “enriched his conceptual world and taught him a lesson in practical affairs,” although he himself would never have admitted it.63 There is little evidence, however, to suggest that many of the Palestinians acquired much of a sense of non-Jewish America. The Aaronsohn brothers were exceptional, because they had been in the United States before, knew English well, and mixed with gentiles. In his diaries, Aaron comments on American cuisine (“very thoroughly bad”), on an Arkansas congressman (“ignorance . . . regarding the most elementary matters concerning Europe . . . beyond the bounds of the permissible”), on President Wilson (“doctrinaire”), and on the American people (they have “their own good, healthy logic”).64

For the most part, the America that the Palestinians came to know was Jewish America, which they found wanting—although not altogether. Ben-Zvi thought Jewish workers in America lacking in revolutionary spirit, “more superficial and more mechanical” in their approach to life than Europeans. American Zionists, he said, made “a sport” of their beliefs, a common refrain of Palestinians.65 Rabbi Fishman found “cause to worry” when he surveyed “the spiritual state of our brethren” in the New World. And Menaḥem Sheinkin was shocked by “the neglect, the foolishness, and the apathy” of the “virtually petrified” American Jews, so different from the patriarchs of ancient Israel with their deep sense of purpose.66 But Sheinkin also realized that, unlike other countries of the Diaspora, America sometimes evoked in “children and young people a natural religious and national instinct.”67 And Ben-Zvi was heartened by the Zionist revival that occurred in labor circles in the wake of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which committed the British government to the Zionist dream.68 His experience with fellow Jewish Legionnaires from America encouraged him further.

For the most part, their American exile weighed heavily upon the Palestinians. Rivka Aaronsohn longed to return to “the sweet, warm sunkissed little home,” she wrote to Henrietta Szold, as her train to California sped past scenery that bore “the same relation to our country, as a homely looking face bears to a handsome looking one.” Ben-Zvi could not wait to “shake the dust of America from . . . [his] feet,” he wrote to Raḥel Yana’it on the eve of his departure in 1918.69 The Palestinians returned home with mixed, but generally negative, impressions of the United States. Most of them had seen only a narrow slice of American life; and they had experienced only a moment of a society that was in rapid and constant flux, something they would not always remember when dealing with Americans in the future. What they saw had neither tempted them nor distracted them from their Zionist mission. Yet their knowledge of the New World and its ways, however limited, as well as experiences with Americans in Palestine itself in the prewar decades, ultimately helped to prepare the way for the more extensive and deeper contacts between leaders of the yishuv and Americans in the interwar years. Although it has not been much noticed by observers and analysts, it was those latter contacts which laid the groundwork for the America-Israel alliance of more recent times.

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