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Henrietta Szold

Health, Education, and Welfare, American-Style

ONLY A FEW of the immigrants to Palestine in the pre-state period came from the United States. Among the leaders of the state in the making, the American presence was correspondingly minimal. Surprisingly, however, three of the most prominent figures of the yishuv came from the New World: Judah Magnes, Golda Meir, and Henrietta Szold. That two of the Americans were women who rose to the pinnacle of the male-dominated yishuv leadership cadre is also rather startling. Magnes’s American habits and mind-set, together with his rather unbending personality, have been interpreted, with considerable justice, as having contributed to his increasing marginalization in Jewish Palestine. Szold, his veteran associate in the American Zionist movement and then in the yishuv, is, however, often read incorrectly. She was the founding president, organizer, and visionary of Hadassah, the American women’s Zionist organization, certainly the most powerful Zionist group in the United States and arguably the most successful Jewish organization of all time. In Palestine, she was an outsider as a woman, as a person whose family did not come from Yiddish-speaking eastern Europe, and as an American. To a degree and for a time there, she served as the representative of Hadassah and of other organizations and wealthy individuals in the United States; eventually she emerged as the representative of the yishuv to America.

Her achievements in America, especially Hadassah, as well as her American upbringing, her attachment to her family in the United States, and her nostalgia for the American landscape were widely recognized in her own day.1 So, too, was the fact that she grew apart from her American roots over time,2 although the extent to which she overcame her “outsiderness” was often overlooked, at least by American observers. Her Americanizing influence on the yishuv and the nature of that influence have not been at all adequately considered by her biographers. Nor has the degree to which Szold helped to make America, its Jews, and its ways less alien to the Jews of Palestine. This she did through her forceful, charismatic personality and the institutions she molded.3

Ernst Simon, Szold’s coworker in education, compatriot in politics, and close friend, remarked in a eulogy soon after her death that her “life’s work” had been built upon three foundations: “her family heritage, Lincoln’s America, and her encounter” with eastern European Jews.4 In fact, Szold’s responses to situations in Palestine, especially to the Arab-Jewish conflict and to the refugee crisis of the 1930s, were in large part conditioned by her earlier experiences with outsiders in the United States: women, blacks, and eastern European Jewish immigrants.

A very significant element in her background, which Simon and others did not recognize, was American Progressivism, what Richard Hofstadter defined as the broad “impulse toward criticism and change that was everywhere so conspicuous [in the United States] after 1900.” In those years “the already forceful stream of agrarian discontent was enlarged and redirected by the growing enthusiasm of middle-class people for social and economic reform.” Although “rather vague and not altogether [a] cohesive or consistent movement,” Progressivism promoted the use of science to bring order to a society perceived as increasingly chaotic and to improve it. Progressivism affected “the whole tone of American political life” in the turn-of-the-century years.5 To it can be attributed the advanced technology and the notions of bureaucratic thought and scientific method6 which Szold brought to the health, education, and welfare institutions with which she was associated in Palestine.

Although she became a Palestinian heart and soul, Szold never overcame or abjured her American upbringing. Many of her coworkers, especially those of eastern European origin, resisted her American ways, at least at first. Over time, however, her sensibilities became better understood; her approach mellowed; her charisma won her friends and allies; and the presumably superior technology she introduced was accepted, at least in part. Willy-nilly—but often consciously—in both her faith and her “works” Szold served as an apostle of Americanism.


Henrietta Szold was born in Baltimore in 1860. Although learned and scholarly, her formal education ended with high school, except for courses in Talmud and Bible, which she took at the Jewish Theological Seminary after moving to New York in 1902. Among her formative experiences were the Civil War and the issue of black slavery, the Spanish-American War and World War I, and especially the immigration crisis which lasted from 1881 to 1914. Another was the Westernized Judaism of her Hungarian-born, German-educated father, Rabbi Benjamin Szold, who practiced a moderate traditionalism that emphasized spirit rather than letter. Rabbi Szold had been one of the few supporters of Lincoln in Baltimore, a border city with Southern sympathies. From him she acquired an approach to religion which stressed broad tolerance towards all people, including blacks and other minorities.7 Her memory of viewing Lincoln’s bier while perched on her father’s shoulders acquired the status of personal myth.8 Books, such as Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, the black American educator and social reformer, and The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, 1864–1865 by Eliza Frances Andrews, helped to form her adult consciousness.9 She rejoiced at the victories of black American athlete Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, hoping that “Herr Hitler’s race-conscious soul . . . [was] squirming.”10 At one of her last Passover seders, the ceremony ended—at her request—with the singing of Negro spirituals.11

Only somewhat less influential in Szold’s development was the “wicked, wicked war” of 1914 to 1918, perpetrated, she believed at the time, by “poor old wicked Francis Joseph.”12 In 1917, as war fever gripped the nation, she declared herself “anti-war, and anti-this-war, and anti-all-wars.” Even after the United States entered the melee, she refused to budge from her absolutist position, to the chagrin of Louis Brandeis, head of the wartime Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs with which she, too, was associated, and of other Zionist leaders, who feared that their movement would be branded as unpatriotic.13

Most indelibly inscribed in her memory was the era of mass immigration to America, “when the doors of the country stood wide open and the disinherited of many nations were permitted to crowd in.”14 That period she saw as a golden age, when the United States was living up to its highest ideals and being invigorated by the vitality of the newcomers. Her vision of America as “a composite of nations” was similar to that articulated by Brandeis in The Jewish Problem and How to Solve It (1915) and by other advocates of the new doctrine of cultural pluralism. Szold believed that “each nation” or immigrant group represented in the United States “should apply the fundamental ideals common to civilized peoples in the way its history and traditions teach. That,” she said, and not material prosperity, is “what is meant when . . . [America] is called the land of unlimited possibilities.”15 She herself worked with the immigrants as a teacher. Americanization, she declared, was not “the opposite . . . to Jewish living and thinking.” It meant simply the “process of acquiring [the] power of realizing [the] fundamental ideas and ideals of the Republic,”16 the empowerment of the disfranchised, in the language of a later day.

From these experiences Szold emerged as a fairly typical American Progressive with radical leanings in some areas and rather conservative views in others, a genteel reformer with robust notions colored by a strong sense of both morality and aesthetics, “a liberal of the old school, a defender of the rights of the individual.”17 To her last days she admired “the abolitionist spirit—unflinchingly just and true in the fashion of the day when the spirit of the champions of a great cause lingered in the air.”18 She read The Nation and followed the influential social-work journal, The Survey Graphic, de rigueur for a Progressive, although by 1930 she had canceled her subscription to the The Nation, disillusioned with its “superficialities” with regard to the Palestine issue.19

America to Szold was not the wild, open frontier so admired by Jabotinsky. Like Bialik, she had ambivalent feelings about New York with its “telephonic, tumultuous life in the dust and noise.” She was attracted to Boston with its “machinery well oiled and in good condition,” its “simply exquisite” public park, “walks and promenades . . . lined with benches, where workmen eat their dinner and read their paper.” The New England metropolis, with its order and grace she thought “the most distinctly, characteristically American city” of any she knew.20 And she tried to imbue all her works with similar “American” order and grace.

Szold held Justice Brandeis in high esteem; and Brandeis, who paid her salary for years through a private arrangement with the ZOA, much admired her.21 Szold shared with the judge, a leading Progressive and an early proponent of the notion that “small is beautiful—and efficient,” an appreciation for the little man, respect for labor organizations, a suspicion of great wealth, and a sense that “prosperity [had] . . . something vulgar and repugnant about it.”22 She deplored “America’s business greed [which] has deprived us of” beauty in our lives;23 and she was outraged when the United States withheld its assent to the British mandate over Palestine and Mesopotamia “in order to protect the interests of the Standard Oil Company.”24

Szold’s political tastes, although reformist, were decidedly middle-of-the-road. To her, Bolshevism and fascism were “both ugly [and] inconceivably barbarous.”25 When conservative Republican William McKinley, during whose first term the colonialist Spanish-American War had been fought and won, was reelected president in 1900, she could find no “reason to rejoice.”26 In later years, she found Franklin Delano Roosevelt too radical. Like many other Progressives, she considered him unacceptably unsystematic in his approach to the Depression (“too ‘jumpy’ for my taste,” as she put it) and cavalier with regard to individual rights. On one occasion, she compared him to Hitler.27 When, in 1935, the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Act, one of the keystones of FDR’s New Deal program of economic regeneration, to be unconstitutional, Szold “wasn’t surprised.” She had disapproved of the president’s “antics” from the start and believed that in politics, as well as economics, “he was acting impulsively to the point of irresponsibility.”28 Wendell Willkie, the unsuccessful progressive Republican candidate for president in 1940, seemed to be an accurate “interpreter of [her own cherished] principles and attitudes,”29 although she was not blind to Roosevelt’s “extraordinary ability and his great human qualities.”30

In religion Szold was also a centrist. Despite her affinity for eastern European Jews, she rejected their Orthodoxy, which she saw as turning away from the modern world. But she also rejected Reform Judaism, which appeared sterile and removed from Jewish life and learning. A “deeply religious” person,31 she was for many years close to the modernizing traditionalists at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, people such as Solomon Schechter and his wife, Mathilda, Louis Ginzberg, whom she assisted with his research and for whom she developed a romantic attachment that he did not reciprocate, and others. She enrolled in classes at the Seminary, but as a woman she was required to make a public declaration that she did not aspire to the rabbinate.32


Her Americanized values and faith equipped Szold with guidelines and a mind-set with which to approach the political, religious, and economic mine field of the yishuv, not necessarily with success. Religion was a particularly thorny area. Although she recognized the intense commitment and humane values of the labor leaders of the day, she was uncomfortable with the propensity of many of them to devalue religion altogether. She sought “a Zionism which stressed the positive worth of a living and growing Judaism”; but only Ḥaim Arlosoroff, who had been educated in Germany, and a few others in the labor movement sympathized with that goal.33 The traditionalists, on the other hand, were foreign to her enlightened and scholarly spirit. Rabbi Kook, the chief rabbi of the Ashkenazi community from 1921 to 1935, was regarded by many, even by secularists, as saintly. Szold, however, could see in him “not an iota of grace or even human-ness,” she declared in 1922.34 The Orthodox Zionists of the Mizraḥi movement were closer to her in spirit, but not quite to her liking, nor she to theirs.35 She was “disappointed” that the Orthodox of the yishuv contributed little to the development of Jewish religious law, especially in areas “touching women,” where she found the tradition “very reprobate.”36

In her early years in Palestine she and a few American friends, including Magnes, gathered together on sabbath mornings for the study of sacred texts or for an informal worship service. Those sessions, she wrote to the mother of poet Jesse Sampter, one of her American acolytes who also immigrated to Palestine, “save[d her] . . . from [spiritual] homesickness.”37 In later years she attended the partially modernized Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem, where a small circle of followers looked to her for spiritual guidance.38 At the same time, she began to show increasing impatience with the “clap-trap” of Westernized Judaism.39 On the whole, her Americanized religious sensibility proved irrelevant in the yishuv.

Although pacifism cannot be considered typical of Americans, it was a philosophy that Szold, together with many of her contemporaries in women’s movements, had espoused in the United States; she brought it with her to Palestine. Despite the dangers of life in the yishuv, she did not abandon the notion easily. The Palestine reality did, however, force her to reevaluate her uncompromising stance. In 1939 she wrote to the Hadassah National Board that she concurred with their opposition to military training in Youth Aliyah villages. The “international relations of recent years,” however, and “the state of Palestine itself, no longer allow[ed her] . . . to see things with the simple, single-minded directness with which [she had] . . . once happily looked upon them.”40 Palestine in the late 1930s and 1940s was not the United States of 1917. Still, in 1941 she insisted on the right to help a young man withstand pressure to volunteer for the British army by securing a position for him as a clerk in the Youth Aliyah office.41 As a result of such actions, many yishuv militants considered her, along with Magnes, Martin Buber, and their associates, nothing less than “quislings.”42

In the area of Arab-Jewish relations Szold’s American baggage was most evident and also ultimately irrelevant, if not misguided. Her pacifism, her commitment to cultural pluralism, and her empathy for blacks all came into play on this issue. Although she supported the idea of a binational, Jewish-Arab state in Palestine, she often felt that her official positions constrained her not to “go beyond the expression of platonic sympathy.”43 Already at the time of the 1921 Arab anti-Jewish riots, she came to believe that Jews bore some responsibility for Arab discontent. Two years later, she secured from Nathan Straus a sum of money “to be spent for the benefit of Moslem children.”44 In the 1930s she lent tacit approval to the Brit Shalom organization, which sought to foster Arab-Jewish rapprochement; in 1937 she wrote to Judah Magnes, concurring, in general, with the approach to Arab-Jewish relations which he had outlined in a speech at the recent Zionist Congress. She cautioned her old colleague, however, that she did not agree that “the consent of the Arabs” needed to be sought in advance of any Zionist initiative and that she was uncertain of her response should negotiations with the Arabs fail.45

In the 1940s, when the Iḥud was founded to promote the idea of a binational state, she served on its executive committee along with Buber, Magnes, and others. (Many members of both the Brit Shalom and the Iḥud were intellectuals or technocrats who had come to Palestine from the English-speaking countries or from central Europe. Both groups exhibited many of the patrician reforming characteristics of American Progressives.) Together with the writer S. Y. Agnon, the philosopher Shmuel Hugo Bergman, and others in 1939, Szold signed the self-critical Manifesto Against Internal Terror, which circulated in the yishuv. Of the leaders of the Labor faction with whose approach to Arab matters she often agreed, only Berl Katznelson signed. Two years later she angered many friends by issuing a public statement equating stink bombs thrown by Jews at Arab targets with explosive bombs thrown by Arabs at Jewish targets. In 1942 she proved less than enthusiastic about the assertive Biltmore Program for achieving Jewish statehood authored by Weizmann and Ben-Gurion, of which more below.46

Szold perceived the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine to be analogous to black-white friction in the United States; the solutions she favored were also American-made. In a 1934 article published in the United States in Yiddish on the first anniversary of the murder of Ḥaim Arlosoroff, the Labor leader and “foreign minister” of the Jewish Agency, she remarked that “the fulfillment of the Jewish-national ideal on the soil of Palestine is altogether bound up with the solution to the Arab problem.”47 Two years later she wrote despairingly to her sisters of the joy and alacrity with which the residents of Tel Aviv constructed a new harbor in response to the Arabs’ having closed the Jaffa port to them. “Matters are not going to be mended,” she asserted “if the alienation between us and the Arab population is emphasized. . . . It is not the way—this way of creating race-tight compartments—of healing the breach, of destroying the seeds of race-hatred.”48

In these years she expressed fear that “racial pride” among the Jews in Palestine would “lead to Nazi-ism.”49 Some time later she referred to the Arab-Jewish standoff as “a racial problem” and declared Jews “not to have stood the acid test of finding the way to [its] . . . solutions.”50 These were unmistakably the words of a Progressive who had experienced “the American dilemma” at first hand. Zionists of eastern European background also deplored the fate of America’s blacks, as noted earlier. They, however, viewed it as analogous to the fate of Jews in czarist Russia and vowed to avoid being placed in a similar position in Palestine.51 Ernst Simon noted the connection between Szold’s American experience and the Palestine reality. “She, herself,” Simon asserted, “had pointed to the source of her extraordinary sensitivity to the Arab problem” in the “‘anguish and injustice and [the] exalted efforts to free the slaves.’” Simon felt that Szold “erroneously (but naturally, for an immigrant from America) considered . . . [the Arab-Jewish conflict a] ‘racial problem.’” He agreed with her, however, that it was “the most important of the political questions” in Palestine.52

Like many genteel Progressives in America, but unlike most Palestinian Jews, Szold tried to remain above politics, or at least nonpartisan, “Not because I don’t consider politics important or interesting, but because I trust my judgment on political matters even less than on others.”53 She particularly “hated [the kind of] acrimony which carries political strife into personal relations.” But she discovered early on that such “relations [were the norm] in Palestine.”54

As overseer from 1920 to 1923 of the American Zionist Medical Unit-Hadassah Medical Organization, she encountered considerable opposition from Laborites who assumed her to be a political foe. In December 1923, by chance, while sailing toward Palestine, she met Ben-Gurion, who was returning from a mission to Moscow. Perhaps inspired by Soviet equality, the labor leader noted with scorn that Szold, by then a woman of sixty-three, was traveling in first class. When she told him that American Jews were unlikely to meet their fund-raising quotas that year, he responded furiously, albeit to his diary, with a general diatribe against the “unimaginative [American] blockheads who think that the messianic dream of generations sated with suffering and oppression is nothing but an empty illusion.”55

As a Hadassah insider remarked retrospectively, the period was characterized by “an extreme distrust of Americans, both individuals and institutions.”56 The Laborites, who, as noted earlier, feared that their fledgling medical institutions could not withstand what they perceived as Hadassah’s colonialism and imperialism, were especially hostile.57 Between 1927 and 1930 Szold was one of three people on the Palestine Executive of the World Zionist Organization, which had been charged with making ends meet on a starvation budget. At first, she was the object of frequent “fierce denunciation[s]”58 by disgruntled Laborites, who, like Berl, felt that she and her compatriots were insensitive to the needs of working people, insufficiently Zionistic, and shortsightedly tightfisted. In a confrontation between the leadership of the Histadrut and the Executive a short time after Szold’s arrival, Ben-Gurion, then secretary general of the Histadrut, accused her to her face of stalking “the teachers and workers of Palestine dagger in hand.” Behind her back, he said she exhibited “the sadism of a hangman.”59 The labor leaders also resented her inability to extract funds from her fellow Americans, most especially the ZOA, which consistently reneged on its obligations, to her chagrin as well as theirs.60 Before her departure, her American Zionist colleagues had acknowledged that not enabling Szold “to grapple with . . . [her] task adequately [by remitting the promised funds] would be a sort of personal betrayal of one who had merited the love and help of every Jew and Jewess in America.”61 Once she was out of sight, however, they “fail[ed] . . . to keep [their] pledge”;62 and, as their representative, she was held accountable by the Palestinians.

As the writer Moshe Smilansky noted, Szold’s longstanding distrust of “‘Wall Street,’ . . . the bank trusts, and the industrial cartels that enslave peoples . . . to the god, Mammon”63 made her a natural ally of organized labor. So, too, did her idealism and her Brandeisian affinity for unions. Already during her first months in Palestine in 1921, she felt attracted to “the almost unparalleled idealism of the Haluz [that is, pioneer].”64 Her life style there resembled that of the spartan pioneers; she had virtually “no possessions.”65 Despite her professed impartiality, her aversion to the militant, anti-Labor Revisionists was well known. In the 1930s she steadfastly refused to allow Youth Aliyah immigrant children to be placed in their settlements; and the Revisionist press regularly snubbed her.66

Eventually most of the Laborites came to see in her a kindred spirit. An American commentator affiliated with the Palestine labor movement remarked in 1931 that because of “Miss Szold’s broad sympathy and understanding . . . today the working element of Palestine look to her as their friend in the Palestine Zionist Executive.”67 By 1931 she could write in response to the seventieth birthday greetings of the HEC, “Happy am I, who has had the privilege of joining with you in the great task of fulfillment that lies before our generation.” The men and women of the Histadrut, she said, “know from their lives and souls . . . the meaning of daily labor and genuine creative efforts that seek to make aspirations reality.”68 A few years later, another commentator writing in Davar acknowledged that Szold’s “organizational achievements had been extraordinary and that her human qualities had endeared her to the entire yishuv.”69 In the internal politics of the yishuv, if not in religion or Arab-Jewish relations her American experiences and vision served her well.


Like Magnes, her fellow American Progressive, Szold went to Palestine “because of an inexorable passion to serve, to fashion . . . a useful destiny, on the pattern of the Quakers, the Social Gospelists, the Social Reformers.”70 According to Ernst Simon, as a child she wished nothing so much as to become “a Quaker lady,” a goal achieved in part through her dedication to pacifism and to a life of good deeds.71 Towards the end of her life, she modestly claimed but “one distinction, a strong sense of duty.”72 She was not, however, “the obedient slave of her assignment, . . . the [happy] humble housewife whose work is never done,” as Louis Lipsky fatuously described her.73 She enjoyed music, books, theater, and movies; she had a passion for flowers; and she exhibited a measure of vanity with regard to her appearance.74 In 1923 she complained to an old friend: “I never do the things I want to do—not the good things, not the useful things, not even the naughty things. Alike in America and in Palestine, fate has ordained that I must do what is thrust upon me from the outside.”75

In Palestine she devoted her energies and talents to medical and social work and to education through the Hadassah Medical Organization, through Youth Aliyah, which established villages and training schools for refugee children during the Nazi period and for local children with special needs, and through the education and social welfare agencies of the yishuv. On all of these “works” she left the mark of her American background. Sara Feder, an active American Labor Zionist and longtime friend of Golda Meir, wrote in 1941 that Szold “belongs to that group of American liberals who built many of our great social service institutions [and] settlement houses, and encouraged labor and adult education.”76 Here her American experience proved most adaptable to Palestine and her American connections extremely useful.

As a prelude to her career in Palestine, Szold had founded and organized Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, an organization that exemplified in many ways the Progressive spirit. Channeling women’s activities into the areas of social and medical work and child care was typical of the Progressives, who maintained “the traditional image of women as tender mothers, angels of mercy, and keepers of the morals,” but liberated at least some of them from the traditional role of homemaker.77 In 1896 Szold argued that “sexless work [that is, gender free] is the great desideratum”;78 later she willingly accepted certain endeavors as appropriate for women.79 Brandeis and others strongly believed in a special role for women. The “supreme task” in Palestine, he asserted in 1921, was “the moral regeneration of the Palestinians. That task,” he said, “was the reason why Miss Szold’s going there was significant. . . . Our meagre forces on the firing line should be strengthened by other women of the right calibre as soon and so far as this is possible.” Brandeis feared that Szold’s return to America “even for a brief visit,” might endanger the character of the Palestine work.80

As Carol Bosworth Kutscher has observed, Hadassah “modeled itself after . . . prestigious American women’s organizations, rather than . . . [male] Jewish religious or Zionist groups with European origins. . . . [From those women’s organizations came its] practical . . . emphasis on health, hygiene, and sanitation. . . . The Hadassah leaders were ardent believers in [Progressive] American [methods and] institutions; they sought efficiency of operation, while enforcing strict financial accountability.”81 Szold herself was acutely conscious from the first of the differences between her women’s group and the disorganized, male-dominated American and international Zionist organizations.82 From its founding in 1912, she remarked some years later, Hadassah was characterized by its “achievement, its trained and willing forces, [and] its tested organization.”83 In 1926, she proudly described the organization to Irma Lindheim, her successor as president of Hadassah who also followed her to Palestine, as “a sharp knife set into a finely-turned handle” that could “be used” effectively “to exert weight in Zionist circles on all issues.”84

Henrietta Szold (standing center, with lace collar) with the staff of the Safed Hadassah Hospital at the hospital, 1926. (Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.)

In Palestine she discovered that the ethos of the yishuv resembled that of Diaspora Zionist organizations. The “systemless” eastern European immigrants “hate[d] efficiency,” she wrote to her sister Adele in 1921, making it difficult for her to “accept them,” at least at first. “Disorder,” she declared, “nauseates me.”85 Some months earlier she had remarked that American salaries were “the only American element that is acceptable over here. American brains, American efficiency, American system are spurned.”86 Szold readily assumed the task of imposing “order and [the] disciplined acceptance of rules of precedence upon the workers,” although she believed “a regiment of Hoovers [might be needed] for this stupendous piece of organizational work.”87 (In 1927 the future president, Herbert Hoover, an outstanding Progressive, was still best known as the successful organizer of American relief to Belgium during the World War I.)

To all of the endeavors with which she was associated in Palestine Szold brought the Progressive notions of sound financial practices, scientific management, and hard work. When anyone asked her support for a new project, her inevitable reply was, “Where is the money to come from?”88 She took special pride in her early days in Palestine that Hadassah paid its salaries on time, unlike other Zionist enterprises;89 and she implored the WZO to manage its affairs and its funds with good sense and probity.90 On one occasion she lent two thousand pounds of her own money to the Palestine Zionist Executive, so that it could meet its obligations.91 When Szold agreed to serve on the Executive in 1927, she did so with the conviction that “in competency it is essential at this moment that we American Zionists should attain and hold the hegemony.”92 She had come “to the conclusion that an American system of administration must be introduced.” By that she meant “a small, non-partisan Executive” similar to the city manager plans promoted by American Progressives. This was not to be “an Executive of experts, [but one] . . . that can supervise and manage the work of the experts.”93

Like other American reformers of her day, she regarded highly honesty, intelligence, and good sense, as well as expertise. She remarked to a friend in 1943 that she did not believe in courses “in administration [although] . . . doubtless there are techniques which [it] would be well to know and acquire.” Most important for an administrator, she maintained, were “a sense of organization and, above all good common sense and interest in and knowledge of the work in hand.”94 No less, Szold valued hard work, a concept then associated with America. In fact, despite her cultural interests, she was a workaholic, who, at the age of seventy-six, slept only three to five hours a night and spent all her “waking hours . . . strenuously at work . . . never, never relax[ing].”95 At an eightieth birthday celebration for her in 1940, Laborite Moshe Shertok (later, Sharett), then head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency and later foreign minister and prime minister of Israel, remarked upon Szold’s “enormous capacity for work, her perseverance, her ability to get to the bottom of a matter, her thoroughness, [and] her concern for performance and for finishing a job.” In many ways “she has enlightened us,” he said, “but chiefly through” her seemingly inexhaustible energy for work.96


As noted earlier, Progressivism was characterized by the desire to apply the methods of the natural sciences to most areas of human endeavor; and Szold’s first arenas of service to the yishuv were in the areas of scientific agriculture and medicine. Between 1909 and 1919, she served as a member of the board of directors and secretary of Aaron Aaronsohn’s Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station. In 1913, Aaronsohn addressed the Daughters of Zion, as Hadassah was first called; and Szold, whom he considered “the greatest Jewess [he had] . . . ever had the opportunity to meet,” helped him to raise funds for the Station.97 Although she remained interested in the agricultural colonies of the yishuv (one was named for her), Szold’s involvement with scientific farming seems to have ended with Aaronsohn’s death.

Public health was one of the most important concerns of American Progressives in the turn-of-the-century years;98 and, as already observed, it was a field for which women were presumed to be particularly well suited. The American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton in 1882 and chartered by Congress in 1905. Other health-care organizations also came into being in these years, which saw feverish activity designed to improve the physical well-being of Americans. Influenced by the concerns of their time and place, the women of Hadassah under “the leadership of Henrietta Szold . . . [made] available [to Palestine] the best of American medical standards and practice.”99

What sparked this thrust was Szold’s trip to the Holy Land, in 1909, during which she was struck by the widespread incidence of trachoma.100 With the help of Nathan Straus, Szold and her Hadassah sisters dispatched two American nurses in 1913 to “instal [sic] a system of American District Visiting Nurses in Palestine.”101 The guidelines for the nurses’ activities were essentially those of the state of New York. Among other things, the nurses would “train helpers and probationers and organize ‘Little Mothers’ circles” like those run by the New York City Board of Health.102 Shortly after the nurses began their work they were visited by Jane Addams, the settlement house pioneer from Chicago, and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who “heartily expressed their appreciation of the work being done.”103 When she returned to Chicago, Addams, one of the country’s foremost Progressives, tendered Szold (to whom Brandeis and others referred as “the Jane Adamms [sic] of our Jewish world”) a “big luncheon” at Hull House and presented her with a copy of her memoirs.104

As described earlier, the First World War caused considerable dislocation and suffering in Palestine, especially for the Jewish community, which had always depended upon outside aid. At Brandeis’s suggestion in 1916, Hadassah took upon itself the task of organizing the American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU), including doctors, nurses, a field hospital, and dentists, to be sent to Palestine. Soon after the arrival of the AZMU there in August 1918, it began to revolutionize medical care by introducing American methods and technology. It took over the new nursing school and the Rothschild Hospital in Jerusalem and opened clinics and hospitals elsewhere; it established a Schools Hygiene Department and an X-ray clinic in Jerusalem, dental clinics in Jerusalem and Jaffa, and infant welfare stations in a number of communities; and it mounted a Medical Sanitary Expedition “to visit all the Jewish villages and the Jewish communities in the cities.” Even its hospital laundry was innovative, the first steam laundry in the country. And in the absence of municipal garbage collection in Jerusalem, Hadassah organized the city’s first sanitation service, which was turned over to the municipality in 1920.

Between the summer of 1919 and that of 1920, when Szold arrived in Palestine to take personal charge of the Unit, the AZMU recorded almost 400,000 visits to its clinics.105 In 1921 with money donated by Brandeis, the Unit, now renamed the Hadassah Medical Organization, undertook a program of malaria control, “which closely resembled the methods of the International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation.”106 Aside from its personnel and technology, the AZMU could be identified as a liberal American institution in the spirit of Szold, by its rule, “that no discrimination be exercised in any of its . . . branches of service as to race, creed, or colour,” a policy maintained to the present by the HMO.107

Although on several occasions she was called upon to take a more active role, after 1923 Szold served largely as a watchdog or advisor to the HMO, albeit one whose advice could not be easily ignored; and in 1925 she returned to Palestine as resident mentor to the new HMO director, Dr. E. M. Bluestone, an American. The organization continued to adapt recent American medical innovations to Palestinian needs, often at her suggestion. Among these were the first hospital social service department in the country in 1934, the first medical social worker in 1937 (an idea still very new in America), and the medical center concept for the new Hadassah Hospital opened in Jerusalem in 1939.108 In 1944, only months before her death, Szold coauthored with the then HMO director, Dr. Ḥaim Yassky, a proposal for the control of venereal disease, an outbreak of which was expected with the return of Palestinian soldiers from the war in Europe.109 The goal of all these undertakings, as Szold told a Hadassah reception in New York in 1923, was the “development of public health work to the same degree of efficiency attained by our [that is, American] hospitals.”110 By 1940 it was widely recognized in Palestine and in the United States that the goal was on the way to achievement, that thanks to Szold and Hadassah the yishuv enjoyed “American standards of health and hospitalization” to an extent unparalleled in other developing countries.111


The second major area of Palestine life in which Szold became involved was education, yet another of the central concerns of American Progressives, and one to which she had already given considerable attention as head of the Education Department of the ZOA from 1918 to 1920 and in her Hadassah work. Alexander Dushkin, an American Jewish educator and close friend of Szold, noted that one of “the fundamentals of” the “pedagogic credo which guided her throughout her long and blessed life [—even in Palestine—was the] . . . complete integration of Jewish and American traditions.”112

One of Szold’s first acts as director of the AZMU was to revamp the school for nurses to bring their “training . . . up to the point at which it stands in the United States.”113 Another early foray into Palestine education was the endorsement of the progressive school founded in Jerusalem in 1920 by Deborah Kallen, an immigrant from America and the sister of Horace Kallen, the theoretician of cultural pluralism who had had much to do with Brandeis’s conversion to the Zionist cause.114 Just a few months after her arrival in Palestine, Szold expressed the hope that wealthy parents there, like those in the United States, “would make demands which the public school system could not satisfy.” That would make “it possible for progressive teachers” like Kallen to offer children the kind of [private] education they deserved.115

In 1922 Szold brought Dr. Frances Cohen, assistant to the director of school inspection in New York City, to Palestine as a consultant to the HMO school hygiene program. Cohen taught her that Americans did not always have useful advice to offer. Szold wrote to her sisters that the New Yorker, who spoke only English, “came to our work for 10000 or 12000 children, in inadequate, rented school buildings under teachers for the most part not trained professionally, from a system that deals with 930,000 children under luxurious, regulated American conditions.” Szold found it “interesting” that Cohen “often did not realize that we were already doing the very things she advocated, in a modified form, adapted to the Palestinian peculiar [sic] situation.”116

On the Palestine Zionist Executive, Szold held the health and education portfolios. Since the HMO had already brought some order to the medical system by the mid-1920s, she devoted most of her time to education, at least at first. When she arrived in the country in late 1927 the Jewish education system was in total disarray; the WZO was on the verge of bankruptcy; and most of the Mandatory government’s education budget was reserved for Arab schools. There was no money for supplies or even to pay the teachers, who were resorting to strikes; and there was little sensible structure in a system riven by political and religious disagreements.117 “My cursory examination,” Szold wrote in controlled understatement to the New York Junior Hadassah on New Year’s Day in 1928, “indicates that a very thorough reorganization will be necessary.”118

Already when elected to the Executive the previous summer by the Zionist Congress, Szold had resolved to secure expert American assistance for her educational work. She turned to two friends, Alexander M. Dushkin, an erstwhile Palestinian who then headed the Chicago Board of Jewish Education, and Isaac B. Berkson, the school and extension program supervisor at the New York Bureau of Jewish Education.119 Berkson—a follower of the educational theories of W. H. Kilpatrick, “the father of progressive education,” and of philosopher John Dewey—was the author of Theories of Americanization (1920), in which he proposed applying the notions of cultural pluralism to Jewish education. He agreed to come to Palestine to conduct a survey of the education system. “Objective, experienced, [and] calm,” like “every expert,” Berkson sailed with Szold. Their “discussions [during the journey] . . . of the education problems ahead . . . had the tendency to tranquillize . . . [Szold] concerning the task . . . thrust upon [her].”120

When he had completed his survey, which included recommendations for the future, Berkson was invited by the Executive to remain in Palestine as the director of its Department of Education. Although “his candidacy was met openly and secretly unsympathetically, beginning with his rumored salary up to his knowledge of Hebrew [sic],” he accepted the “challenge.” At the time of Berkson’s appointment, Szold noted, there was “no restored confidence as yet; . . . [and] our [American] methods and outlook are as unpopular as ever.”121 She understood well that her “attitude toward educational reforms as expressed through the person of the new director of my choice, Dr. Berkson,” would cause her more than “a few private difficulties.”122

In his first year as director, Berkson and Szold “worked out the Education Budget [together], reducing it and reducing it to a minimum beyond which reduction is not possible if the existing system is not to be broken up completely.”123 Substantial gifts for education were solicited by the Zionists from Baron Rothschild and from Felix Warburg, an acquaintance of Szold. Salaries were to be paid on time but only by firing teachers; and nonessential institutions, such as the Bezalel School of Art, were to be closed.124 Szold realized that sound budgetary principles were “forcing the educational system into [a] . . . straight-jacket,” and that “high excitement” would result.125

As director of education of the yishuv from 1928 to 1935, Berkson—and indirectly Szold, his “minister” until 1930—succeeded in imposing a degree of American Progressive reform. Besides balancing the budget, Berkson had American books on school architecture, pedagogy, and education translated into Hebrew, and introduced into the yishuv the philosophy of Dewey and Kilpatrick and the Thorndike-Terman measurement systems. “He continued with . . . reorganization, eliminating duplication and needless expenditures,” and raised teachers’ salaries “through more efficient” collection of tuition and other means.126 Some of his ideas for reform were not successful, however, such as the suggestion in the name of efficiency to close the Haifa Technical Institute (Technion) and send engineering students to the United States for training. He also failed to gain approval for the establishment of a teacher-preparation institution like his alma mater, Columbia University’s Teachers’ College, or of a model school along the lines of the Horace Mann School in New York.127

By 1930, if not earlier, Berkson and Szold were having their differences. Szold came to suspect that Berkson had “always [been] restive under [her] leadership.”128 In any case, with the reconstituted Jewish Agency now in place, the temporary suspension of party politics in the Zionist Congress, which had allowed a nonpartisan Palestine Executive to be chosen in 1928, ended. Moreover, the American non-Zionists who wielded considerable power in the Agency, most especially Warburg, its chairman, insisted upon trained managers, rather than self-taught amateurs such as Szold. Warburg was also eager to purge the Agency of Zionists and to replace them with non-Zionists who would ostensibly ensure its nonpolitical character. Szold and her compatriots were fired unceremoniously. “Here is my summary of . . . [Warburg’s dismissal] letter,” she wrote to her sisters: “Damn the Zionists, and as for you, get thee to a Home for Genteel Old Ladies.”129

She returned to the United States, leaving behind, Berkson acknowledged, a “school system [that] had not only been lifted out of the hollow of the wave of depression, but . . . set on the way to orderly and effective administration and financing.”130 As the educational publisher and Tel Aviv municipal councillor Shoshana Persitz wrote in the teachers’ journal, Hed HaḤinuch, Szold had managed to get education legitimized in the yishuv, despite the high value the Palestinians placed on productive labor. Her insistence on sound financing, Persitz asserted, had freed education officials from fund raising and enabled them to devote their attention to pedagogy.131 In less than three years Szold had had a major impact on Palestine education. She had successfully battled widespread anti-American prejudice and the animus of the labor movement and succeeded in opening the door to Progressive American educational thinking and practice.

If the Zionist politicians abroad and the wealthy non-Zionists participating in the Jewish Agency did not appreciate her accomplishments, the yishuv did.132 Even Berkson felt “an inner compulsion [guilt?] to join” the public outcry against Szold’s dismissal;133 and she would shortly be called back to Palestine to serve the newly organized Jewish community in the area of social work. Although she did not have official responsibility for education in subsequent years, she continued to function as a conduit for American educational ideas. In 1934 she opened Palestine’s first school of social work under the aegis of the Knesset Yisrael, the quasi-governmental representative body of the yishuv. The school, funded at first by contributions from wealthy American admirers of Szold, was headed by an immigrant from Germany; but it was heavily influenced by developments in America.134 In the early 1940s, at her suggestion, Hadassah supported the establishment in Jerusalem of a trade school for girls, the first in the country.135 Some years later at the age of eighty-three, Szold was still interested in bringing the latest American educational developments to the yishuv. She explored the possibility of adapting methods for teaching basic English developed in the United States, for the teaching of Hebrew to immigrants from Nazi Europe.136


Social work was the third area of life in the yishuv to which Henrietta Szold made a significant and lasting contribution. Here perhaps even more than in other fields, American Progressive precedents exerted a paramount influence. From afar she perceived similarities between the problems of Palestine and those of the United States. There is no “hope,” she asserted in 1913 sounding as if she were a reformer speaking of New York or Chicago, of building “up a sane, healthy life” in the Holy Land “until the problems of the cities . . . are . . . corrected in a modern, systematic, organized way.”137 Years later, when living in Palestine, she set about solving those problems by reorganizing along advanced American lines social service, which “in the sense of family welfare work, was not known”; and she oversaw the institution of “modern, American-style casework.”138 Still in America, Szold had sensed the need to improve the lot of the women of Palestine and proposed that

a few American women go to the colonies and do settlement work there. They can teach modern housework and other domestic industries . . . so that hand and head are developed. The chief thing that the settlement worker should do is rouse a noble discontent among them. The women are too patient! If they had only risen up and demanded better sanitation and better living conditions.139

Soon after she arrived in Palestine in 1920, she visited with young pioneers at work in the fields and discovered that the lot of men was also harsh. She felt a need to arrange “some lightening up of their monotonous, hard lives. . . . When I am with them,” she wrote to her sister, Rachel, “I realize what I never realized before, that the Y.M.C.A. activities are a great need for young men and young women gathered in camps.”140 Her experience in organizing American women volunteers prompted her to coax into existence in that same year the Histadrut Nashim Ivriyot (the Federation of Hebrew Women) to engage in social work activities in the yishuv.141 As she noted some years later, she hoped that American Jews’ ability to unite for the good of the Jewish people would serve as an example to the Jews of Palestine.142

Already in the prewar era Szold was aware of the “lack of system” that made “it almost impossible to do anything comprehensive for a Palestinian [welfare] institution.”143 During the 1920s she advised Americans how to support social work projects in the yishuv and on occasion acted on their behalf. In 1926 when Israel Belkind asked the ZOA for a contribution to his orphan home, her account of his incompetence, which, she felt, actually endangered the children in his care, persuaded them to refuse.144 As a member of the Palestine Executive she received funds from Hadassah for the Hadassah School Luncheon Fund, which provided food for “undernourished children” in a number of communities.145 More extensive was her involvement with the Nathan Straus Soup Kitchen and its successor, the Nathan and Lena Straus Health Center. For many years the Soup Kitchen fed large numbers of Jerusalem’s poor, most of them pietists who lived in the adjacent neighborhoods. Soup Kitchen personnel were unacquainted with newfangled notions regarding the distribution of charity; and its clientele had come to accept the dole as their due. At the request of the Strauses, who were eager to upgrade the facility, Szold was involved in an extensive investigation in 1926–27, which led to reforms and the building of the Health Center.146

A few years later Szold returned to the Soup Kitchen and Health Center at the request of Mrs. Irving (Sissie) Lehman, the Straus’s daughter and heir. The Great Depression in the United States affected Lehman’s fortune; and she had requested that costs be pared. In any case, she was less committed to the Zionist enterprise than her parents. Szold had never been satisfied that the operation had been sufficiently streamlined.147 She suspected that it encouraged “people to look upon free food as a general right” rather than engaging in “constructive social work” to help them “become self-supporting,” a criticism that resembled the standard accusation leveled by Zionists of the New Yishuv against the ḥalukah (that is, the charity system of the Old Yishuv).148 In 1931–32 a second, more “thoroughgoing,” more “scientific” investigation of the facility was undertaken by “a trained corps of investigators,” although eliminating cases “from the Soup Kitchen rolls . . . elicited such warmth,” that Szold felt obliged to tread lightly lest other projects be endangered.149 She was caught, she said, between “the modern outlook and the medieval,” but she concluded, as might be expected, “that the Soup Kitchens are not a constructive activity” and “that there should be a rapid elimination of all rehabilitable cases.”150

Szold’s most important contributions to social work in the yishuv were made between 1931 and 1939, during which time she held the social welfare portfolio for the Knesset Yisrael. As noted earlier, her expertise had become so widely recognized by 1931 and her ability to function in the hurly-burly of Jewish Palestine so greatly admired by the once suspicious Palestinians that they summoned her back from the United States, where she had retired after her summary firing from the Jewish Agency. (Her valuable connections with American donors, especially the Hadassah women, were also appreciated.) In her new post she would deal with three main issues, all of them related: the institution of scientific social work; immigrant aid; and the problems of young people, especially those who came to Palestine as refugees from Nazi Europe without their parents. Although no one could foresee the social problems that lay just ahead for the yishuv, her appointment proved to be most fortuitous.

Her work on the Palestine Zionist Executive, as noted earlier, had focused mainly on education. But social welfare was also a “matter . . . which . . . received the special attention of Miss Szold” during those years. She was prodded along by the American Zionists, who sought assurance that their meagre funds were being well used.151 One of her main goals had been to end the dole system for the unemployed and to persuade the government to institute a system of public works.152 In her 1930 report, “The Future of Women’s Work for Palestine,” she acknowledged that the yishuv had “developed a long series of social service agencies and institutions” and was “alive to needs and generous in meeting them.” What was still lacking, however, was “a systematizing, strengthening, stimulating instrumentality.”153 There was, moreover, considerable resistance to the whole issue of social welfare. As Szold recounted a few years later in a speech to the Hadassah National Board in New York, the “Zionists,” by whom she meant chiefly the Laborites, had “dogmatically opposed” social work at first. In their eagerness to replace the life of the Diaspora, which they saw as “base[d] . . . on charity” with “justice and social righteousness,” the Palestinians had refused to undertake “this nasty piece of work.” Despite a high incidence of broken homes and the poor health of immigrants, the leaders of the yishuv insisted that employment would solve social problems.154

By 1931 dogmatism and optimism were being eroded by stark reality. Yishuv leaders viewed Szold’s return and her new post as “important steps that will restore hope.”155 She set out to persuade the Laborites that social work was not “non-productive” labor, but rather, “a public welfare undertaking,” like education and medicine.156 And she succeeded, becoming in the process “one of the leaders of the yishuv in the fullest sense of the word.”157

She came “set [in] her heart on introducing modern reforms in the various social [welfare] activities.”158 Although she took a year to learn about social work and was in touch with Jewish social service agencies in many places,159 her model from the beginning was Progressive America. Soon after arriving back in Palestine, Szold wrote to Mrs. Lehman: “Until we have in each center, what in America used to be called United Hebrew Charities, that is to say, an organization prepared to do ‘case work,’ to deal with the rehabilitation of the family, no sort of modern social service will be possible.” The existing arrangement, she said, “is the old Lady Bountiful system, based on hysteria and not on justice to the unfortunate.”160

In 1932 Szold started to organize local social welfare agencies with the help of “a small fund secured for me through Judge [Julian W.] Mack.”161 Two years later there were agencies in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Petaḥ Tikva, although not yet the hoped-for federated charities, their “corollary.”162 In 1933 she established the Social Service Department of the Knesset Yisrael, which was maintained for its first two years by a grant from the Nettie Lasker Foundation of New York.163 The next year came the social work school mentioned earlier. By the end of the decade, “a comprehensive network of local social welfare offices had been established” throughout the country; and, as a Labor observer noted, the Social Service Department had become “one of the most vital instruments” of the yishuv.164 “An efficient and well-organized body,” it was “equipped with [all the latest American tools:] records, a library, a bulletin, and a statistical section.”165 For most people by 1939 it had become “impossible to imagine life in the country without [either] the ‘Hadassah’ [that is, the HMO] . . . or the many social welfare institutions” Szold “had initiated.”166 The “model” for all these accomplishments had been “chiefly that of American” practice and experience.167

Thanks to Szold’s persistence, aspects of immigrant-aid work became an integral part of the activities of the Social Service Department. As with social work in general, the yishuv was not predisposed to offer special aid to immigrants. Those who had come in the early years of the century and risen to leadership positions had succeeded by dint of hard work and perseverance; and they tended to think that those who came after them could and should do the same. There was awareness that immigrants, like veteran settlers, needed jobs, medical treatment, and schools. The general assumption, however, was that newcomers unable to look after themselves could be served within the mutual-aid frameworks in place for the whole population of the yishuv. Szold, however, recalled what had happened “half a century ago in America, when the early stream of immigration came from Eastern Europe.” Even though the United States then had been “the land of unlimited [economic] opportunities,” unlike Palestine in the 1930s with its very limited resources, the immigrants had needed considerable special assistance, “and it was not withheld.”168 She was not unmindful, however, that by the 1930s the United States was no model haven for immigrants. The yishuv, she told the Survey Graphic associates in 1936, was keeping “its gates ajar if not wide open,” while the United States barred entry to most Jewish refugees.169

“When the Hitler business was threatening,” Szold understood immediately the promise and the challenge to the yishuv. She recalled a few years later having warned her “associates on the Va’ad Le’umi” that her Social Service Department was “going to have . . . [its] hands full with the immigration when it comes.” She reminded Ben-Gurion, the outstanding Labor leader who was also a member of the executive of both the WZO and the Jewish Agency, that she had “come from a country of immigrants—America—and,” as a result, knew “that there is no immigration without social service.”170 What she saw “in Palestine and in the classical land of immigration—in America—demonstrated to . . . [her,] that any person moving from one place to another . . . needs . . . emotional and intellectual support.” She proposed the creation of “an advising center, an address for anyone overwhelmed by his difficulties [and] . . . a special immigration department.”171

Although she did not succeed in concentrating general immigrant-aid work in the Social Service Department, Szold did bring youth immigration and settlement under her wing, despite her initial hesitations regarding the project.172 From 1932 Youth Aliyah brought thousands of refugee children to Palestine, settling them in youth villages, usually adjacent to kibbutzim, and overseeing their education and acclimatization. It was an aspect of her work, which in substance owed little to her American roots, although she was familiar with American methods of dealing with child welfare cases and young deviants.173 Szold did bring to Youth Aliyah her usual “American . . . love of order [and] . . . systematisation.”174 To the annoyance of Ben-Gurion, who on one occasion in 1942 considered wresting control of the organization from her, she remained true to her Progressive ideals in limiting the intake of children to ensure that only “professional personnel” would care for them. Ben-Gurion, who then headed the Jewish Agency, seemed to be at least as interested in enlarging his empire as he was in accommodating more children. Golda Meir backed him, although Katznelson and others blunted his attack on Szold, reminding him that, unlike the bureaucratic and anonymous Agency, she genuinely cared for children. Ben-Gurion, who knew how to hold a grudge, may have harbored resentment against Szold for not including his wife, a nurse, in the original AZMU, despite her energetic entreaties, or for her tough stance vis-à-vis Kupat Holim in 1923 and the unemployed workers in 1927. In 1942, moreover, Ben-Gurion feared that Szold, the erstwhile pacifist who still sought accommodation with the Arabs, might try to rally American Jews against the Biltmore Program and his aim of immediate Jewish statehood. He may well have hoped that by clipping her wings within Youth Aliyah he could neutralize her political influence in the United States.175

The most American characteristic of Youth Aliyah was its financing. As conceived, the organization was to have been funded by the German Jews for whom it was intended. Beginning in 1935, however, the American Hadassah began to contribute to its budget; Szold, of course, was the link with Hadassah, as Katznelson reminded Ben-Gurion.176 Like the practiced fund raiser she was, Szold praised the women for assuming an additional burden and for meeting their “new commitment brilliantly.” On the other hand, she let them know that they were fulfilling a responsibility and benefiting themselves. “To its healing activities Hadassah . . . added a creative activity,” Szold wrote to the organization’s convention in 1936, and in doing so “itself has been rejuvenated.”177 By 1941 Hadassah was supplying 75 percent of the Youth Aliyah funds; and Szold repeatedly told the women how “filled with admiration” she was at their “courage and unfaltering energy” in raising large sums even in depression times, not only for Youth Aliyah, but for the HMO, as well.178


What emerges, then, from a consideration of the faith and works of Henrietta Szold is a portrait of a woman shaped to a great degree by America, who brought with her to Palestine American ideas, some of which proved uncongenial to the new setting and others that guided her most successful endeavors. Szold was not, however, an uncritical admirer of the United States. Throughout her life she was acutely aware that “Anti-Semitism [was] . . . pervasive everywhere—[the] U.S.A. not excepted.”179 Moreover, with all of her closeness to American Jews in general, to Brandeis, and especially to the Hadassah women, she was often quite disappointed in them. As she put it in 1918, her “Jewish experiences . . . made a hardened Zionist” of her. “We in New York,” she wrote from Texas to her friend, Elvira Solis, “haven’t a conception of Jewish laxity—the distance between the Jew and Judaism. It is not a question of reform and orthodoxy—it is Judaism and non-Judaism. Zionism is the only anchor in sight.”180

She had an aversion to the bluster, bluff, and dishonesty that Bialik, Katznelson, and other Palestinians found so offensive in Americans. When in 1927 the ZOA perpetrated a publicity stunt designed to create an image of solvency, she protested mightily. “Can’t you see,” she wrote to her former coworkers in New York, “that my method of telling the truth is the proper one, even from the propaganda point of view?”181 American tourists were a reminder of what Szold liked least about her native land; and her reaction to them was as negative as that of any native-born Palestinian. Often she poured out her exasperation to her sisters. After an encounter with “Hadassah members from the Middle West and from New York” in 1935, she wrote:

To me there are no tourists, but the Tourist. He is a type, almost an abstraction. In his collectivity he is stupid, uninformed, hasty in judgment, has pettifogging interests, won’t let you either praise or criticise or even analyze. And if he stays only two days, he possesses all these qualities to the nth degree.182

In 1920–21, at the outbreak of the conflict between the forces of Weizmann and Brandeis over the shape and control of the Zionist movement, Szold was “arraigned . . . on the side of ‘business Zionism,’” that is to say, of Brandeis.183 Even then, however, she disagreed with the Brandeisists’ desire to remove cultural and educational work from the agenda of the Zionist movement; and she perceived “tactlessness” and “unwisdom” in many of their actions.184 By the late 1920s she had come to view the seven-year-long, “holier-than-thou” aloofness from active involvement in the ZOA of the Brandeisists as destructive.185 Over the years, she also drew apart from the Hadassah women, although she never severed her ties, because she realized their economic importance to the yishuv.

To her sister, Bertha, she admitted that the decision to return to Palestine in 1931 stemmed, in large part, from her alienation from America and its Jews. America, she said, now meant to her little more than “desultory speechifying, eating dinners and luncheons, attending meetings and teas, and being ‘inspirational.’ I am not in tune with the powers that be either in Hadassah or in the Z.O.A.”186 To her former associates in Jerusalem she wrote sadly that she could find among American Jews “no cohesion, no well-directed effort to change sentiment into action. And the young,” she noted, “have been allowed to drift away.”187 She came to resent especially Hadassah’s “ruthlessness in exploiting . . . [her] as propaganda material.”188 On a fund-raising tour of the United States in 1937 primarily for Youth Aliyah, she remarked to Berl Katznelson that she “wanted to kill” a Hadassah woman who had boasted of having traveled from California “just for her.” Katznelson, himself no admirer of American “bluff,” was both shocked and amused at the vehemence of her reaction.189 In 1943 Szold wrote to Rose Jacobs, her longtime coworker in Hadassah, that she had completely “lost touch with . . . [her] own Jewish America.”190

Szold traveled with American baggage. She could wax nostalgic about the American landscape and long for her family. Although she spoke Hebrew fluently and was deeply rooted in Judaism and Jewish culture, she remained attached to American culture and was always most at home in English. (She was elected a life member of the International Longfellow Society in 1916.) After all, her first extended stay in Palestine occurred when she was sixty years old! And although she was not blind to American antisemitism, she “reached Zionism, not by the road of anti-Semitism” but through her own deep roots in the United States and those of her family.191 Ben-Gurion, Katznelson, Bialik, Jabotinsky, and even Golda Meir, all came to Palestine with personal memories of anti-Jewish violence in Europe. Szold, on the other hand, could recall a memorial in New York for the victims of the 1882 Russian pogroms in which gentiles marched beside Jews, while the bells of Grace Church peeled in sympathy.192

If she “brought America to Palestine,”193 less and less over the years did she seek to make the yishuv into an American outpost. In 1920, as overseer of the AZMU, Szold acted like an apostle of Americanism, although even then she recognized that the AZMU’s “ultimate success depend[ed]. . . upon . . . having a Palestinian head-nurse.”194 By 1926 she saw her task to be “to translate Palestine statements of fact into Americanese” for Dr. Bluestone, the new HMO director, so that he could adapt himself to local conditions.195 When she appeared most out of step with the yishuv, while trying to balance the budget of the Palestine Executive in 1927 and 1928, she was still much more critical of American Zionists than of the Palestinians. “I wonder whether anyone in America,” she wrote to the Executive Committee of Junior Hadassah in early 1928,

has a notion of what [it] . . . means when the budget is so curtailed that no piece of new work [however] infinitesimally small can be begun. I wonder whether anyone over there knows what it means to balance the budget when even the curtailed budget does not . . . [arrive from America]. To us in the Executive it means the summoning of every power of resistance we are capable of, only to fall back in despair when we find that our heroic efforts at resistance to demonstrations . . . of empty stomachs resolve themselves into futility.196

To the ZOA she wrote more bluntly: “While you have sent us here to be stern for twenty-four hours of the day, you follow the line of least resistance. You have deserted the Executive of your choice.”197 By 1939 she seemed to have lost patience with American “business principles” altogether, at least as applied by Berl’s bugbear, Harry Viteles of the Palestine Economic Corporation. Only after much pleading on her part, she complained, did Viteles “pull . . . the ramrod out of his back” and make possible a loan for the building of Youth Aliyah facilities.198

In the early 1920s one of Szold’s chief concerns was maintaining the organizational independence of Hadassah from the ZOA and its financial independence from the Keren Hayesod. By 1930, she had come to “respect the inclusive character and integrity” of the Keren Hayesod and “the centralized expenditure of its funds by the Executive of the Jewish Agency.”199 In 1923, she instructed the Hadassah women: “You must have your own representative in Palestine . . . [to] keep you informed of what is happening to your work,” although she insisted that that representative “be a Palestinian from the moment she sets foot on Palestinian soil.”200 Five years later, she still agreed with Gertrude Rosenblatt, a fellow founder of Hadassah, that the American organization should have a resident representative in Palestine to monitor its contributions.201 Two years after that, however, she had come to “see the evils of . . . [Hadassah’s] system of absentee government” which “insist[ed] upon holding a community of 160,000 [Palestinian] Jews in tutelage.” The members of the “Hadassah National Board,” she remarked with asperity in 1930, “at a distance of six thousand miles . . . know it all.”202

She came to favor local control over Hadassah hospitals and programs and even of the Straus Soup Kitchen, although she recognized the need for Americans to fund those institutions for years to come and believed they had an obligation to do so.203 Over time her view of the proper relationship of American donors to the yishuv came to resemble closely that of Katznelson. About other aspects of life in Palestine she became even more adamant. To Rose Jacobs, the president of Hadassah, she asserted in 1930 that she would “never consent to do anything that will give a body outside of Palestine anything but advisory powers on educational matters.”204 Her appreciation of Hadassah’s fund-raising efforts on behalf of Youth Aliyah notwithstanding, she was “definitely and unalterably opposed to [its] . . . having a voice in the management” of that organization.205 After the sinking in 1940 off the shore of Palestine of the S.S. Patria, a ship carrying illegal Jewish refugees, the chairman of the National Youth Aliyah Committee in New York wrote to Szold instructing her in the future to use Youth Aliyah funds to save children’s lives first. Szold replied in fury: “Will you understand that if there had been a possibility of transferring them from the vessel or from the port . . . it would have been done whether your ‘250000 Dollar commitment’ had been made or not?”206

Henrietta Szold talking to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise at a Hadassah Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1937. Rose Jacobs is at right. (Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.)

From the ship taking her to the United States in 1937, she wrote to the Jewish Agency Executive in Jerusalem that she fervently hoped she could “increase the sense of responsibility [of] American [Jews] . . . towards Palestine.”207 In 1940, when “many Americans [in Palestine, including veteran residents, were] . . . planning their return home” to the safety of the United States, Szold “consider[ed] it right and proper that I stay with the community I have lived with these last twenty years.”208 She had cast her lot irrevocably with the yishuv despite the pain of being cut off from her surviving family.

Although one of her biographers has claimed that Szold remained an unloved outsider in the yishuv,209 the evidence is contrary. As HaAretz noted shortly after her death, she became over the years “one of the few [genuine] bridges between . . . [the yishuv] and American Jewry,”210 in the end, much more the representative of Palestine to America than of America to Palestine. On her seventieth birthday in 1930, a writer in Moznayim, the journal of the Hebrew Writers’ Association, described her as “our righteous grandmother” and noted that the yishuv regarded her as “one of its own.” HaAretz declared in a front-page editorial on the same occasion that “for generations . . . . there has been no Jewish woman as great and outstanding in Torah, wisdom, and human qualities, as vital, active and sagacious as Henrietta Szold.”211 In 1935 the Tel Aviv Council made her an honorary citizen of that city, the first woman to be so honored. And in the same year, a writer in Do’ar HaYom, the Revisionist-leaning daily that sometimes derided her pacifism and Labor sympathies, acknowledged that it was she who “had breathed enthusiasm and dedication to [Zionist] work into the women of America.”212 In fact, she was much loved in the yishuv and better accepted than any other American of her time.

From the earliest days of Zionism, Palestine was, for Szold, “the central Jewish undertaking, which alone” held “the promise of quickening Jewish life,” as she wrote in 1929.213 Twenty years earlier on her first trip to the Holy Land, she had remarked that whatever the difficulties of life in Palestine, in America Jews “could not keep the Sabbath. And,” she added with prescience, “how long will America take them?”214 Szold acknowledged that Palestine in the interwar period depended “upon the Diaspora for material aid; tomorrow, [however,] Palestine, resplendent intellectually, will pay back to the Diaspora its whole investment, capital and interest, in terms of spiritual succor, stimulation and strength.” Hers was a magnificent vision of mutuality between America and Palestine, one in which the Americans would be the donors at first, but finally the recipients. For its own “salvation,” she asserted in 1930, “the Diaspora . . . should prolong the period of its attachment to Palestine as much as possible.”215 There might be “disappointments in Palestine”; and she retained “optimism about the Jewish people” everywhere, including the Diaspora, together with a conviction that they “have the greatest possibilities of all peoples.” Nonetheless, she averred in words that echoed those of Bialik, “philosophically considered, there is nothing but Zionism for us to save us.”216

Long before she lived there, Szold considered Palestine, not America, the indisputable center of the Jewish world. She devoted the last quarter century of her long life exclusively to strengthening that new center. She contributed to the yishuv what she had: her American connections; American work habits, sensibilities, and beliefs; Progressive American notions and technology which, in the areas of health, education, and welfare, were widely regarded as the most advanced available. Most generously, she gave herself. And as she did, she seemed to fulfill her own vision, becoming ever more the Palestinian and ever less the American. She brought to the yishuv what she believed to be the best America had to offer. Although some of her most American beliefs were rejected, most of her gifts were gratefully received.

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