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David Ben–Gurion

Building the American Alliance

DAVID BEN-GURION was a diminutive man who towered over his contemporaries in the yishuv. He did not grow up in the United States like Golda and Henrietta Szold; and he set his sights squarely on Palestine earlier in life than Jabotinsky, Bialik, or Berl. He rejected the Diaspora at least as vigorously as any of them and sometimes scorned the American Jewish community. The Diaspora has “deprive[d] us of independence, security, self-respect, and the respect of others, and perverted . . . our image,” he declared in 1944. Jews there, he asserted some years later, “as Jews, are [but] human debris.”1 Yet, of the yishuv leaders under consideration here, it was he who grasped most clearly the importance to the Zionist cause of the United States and American Jewry and who acquired the widest circle of admirers among American Jews and gentiles. He was also the most instrumental in laying the foundations of the political alliance of the yishuv with American Jewry and with the United States. His vision encompassed many of the most trenchant insights of his colleagues and adversaries. During the years under review, he became a master in dealing with Americans.

This relationship has not gone unnoticed.2 Popular and scholarly biographers are generally agreed that, by the early months of World War II, at the latest, Ben-Gurion was firmly oriented towards the United States and that by the fall of the following year his policies presupposed eventual American support for the yishuv in its struggle for independence. Unresolved questions remain, however: When did he discover America, and what did he find there? What prompted him to pursue a trans-Atlantic tie, when Weizmann and others continued to count on the backing of Britain? How sensitive was he to the implications of reliance on America? The answers to these and other questions are important for understanding the origins of the Israel-America nexus.


Ben-Gurion (then Green) was born in 1886 in Plonsk, a town northwest of Warsaw with about five thousand mostly poor Jews and a larger number of mostly poor gentiles. Knowledge of his childhood is sketchy, because the future prime minister of Israel was given to weaving myths about his early life to enhance his image. He seems to have learned Hebrew from his grandfather at the age of three and the “love of Zion” from his father not much later. He was an energetic youngster and a voracious reader. Among the books which left a lasting impression was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One of the few novels he ever read, it “aroused [in him] . . . a deep revulsion against slavery, servitude, and dependence.”3 As a teenager, he spent much of his time with Ezra, a young people’s Zionist society which he organized with his two best friends, Shmuel Fox (Fuchs) and Shlomo Zemaḥ. Zemaḥ, later a noted writer and literary critic, left for Palestine two years before Ben-Gurion. Fox emigrated to the United States, where he became a dentist.

For a time Ben-Gurion sought to study engineering in Warsaw. There he became a somewhat superficial convert to Marxism in 1905 and a member of a Poale Zion club. At the end of that year he returned to Plonsk, where he had a short career as a union organizer and, together with other young revolutionary Zionists, formed a band that extorted funds for Palestine from wealthy Jews, at gunpoint, if more temperate measures of persuasion did not work. In 1906 he left for Palestine, riding the crest of a large wave of emigration from Russia whipped up by the collapse of the 1905 revolution. In Palestine he worked as an agricultural laborer for more than three years before joining the editorial staff of HaAḥdut, the new Poale Zion journal. During 1913 and 1914 he and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the future president of Israel, studied law in Constantinople.4

Focused as he was on Palestine, and determined as he was about building the yishuv, Ben-Gurion had relatively little head space for America during his early years in the land of Israel. He corresponded with his friend Fox from time to time; he undoubtedly came in contact with some of the olim from America, including the longtime business manager of HaAḥdut; and he read Der Iddisher Kemfer, the Yiddish-language journal of the American Poale Zion. His first words in print were a letter to the Kemfer asking support for the newly founded Poale Zion group in Palestine.5 More information came from the pages of HaAḥdut itself and of HaPo’el HaTza’ir, the Palestinian publication of the non-Marxist labor party of the same name.

HaAḥdut, to which Ben-Gurion contributed frequently from 1910 to 1914 and which must be seen as reflecting his views to some extent, carried rather a lot of news and commentary about the United States. In general, the Palestine Poale Zion tended “to look down upon” the “rich aunt” across the water, as would “a learned, impoverished blue blood at his wealthy lout of a father-in-law.”6 HaAḥdut was keenly alert to the injustices of the country that was home to a huge and growing Jewish diaspora and that was seen as the embodiment of capitalism. Ben-Zvi charged in an early issue that “every school boy” knew the source of “America’s gigantic wealth: . . . millions of miserable blacks who irrigated her soil with their blood.”7 Others commented on capitalist sins such as war profiteering, imperialism in Panama on the part of “the insatiable ‘Yankees,’” alienation, intellectual superficiality, and a lack of hospitality towards immigrants stemming from unwillingness to share the wealth.8

Only Palestine offered Jews “a secure foundation for the future,” it was argued, especially in the face of threatened limits on immigration to America; and yet, the New World lured them away from the yishuv. On the other hand, American immigrants to Palestine took opportunities away from those who had come before them and were more deserving.9 Affluent American Jews were depicted as assimilating, as a matter of course, and acting without regard for their poor brethren.10 They also subverted the virtue of the yishuv. When “the rich Jew,” Julius Rosenwald, arrived in Palestine on a visit in 1914, HaAḥdut reported with mocking bitterness that “the notables of the new Jerusalem yishuv,” lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his wife, and “‘the learned’ careerist, the champion of the experimental Arab [agricultural] station [sic!] at Athlit,” Aaron Aaronsohn, had rushed to do obeisance in the hope of patronage.11

These were not mere pro forma criticisms. On the other hand, with regard to the United States, at least, the editors and contributors of HaAḥdut were not blinded by Marxist-Zionist ideology. They celebrated the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, a “scholar and university president” who appealed to “people of the book.” In Mexico, “American politicians, the faithful servants of American capital, came to the aid of the revolutionaries” against President Huerta, who had been bought up by the Japanese, according to Ben-Zvi’s brother, Aharon Reuveni. And those same capitalist lackeys renounced the Russian-American trade treaty in 1911 because of Russia’s treatment of its Jewish population, demonstrating that there was a “place in the world where . . . we [Jews] are considered humans, citizens.”12

As Europe slid into war and chaos, America seemed to HaAḥdut a more likely “Hebrew [cultural] center” and “national haven” for the endangered Jewish people. There, Jews were returning “en masse to the ranks of the proletariat” for the first time in history; and “the American edition of assimilation [was proving] less craven and submissive” than the European.13 Zionism in America was reported to be poised for takeoff. Achooza societies for agricultural settlement were forming in many communities;14 among some Americans there was growing awareness that their “energy and abilities” ordained for them a special role in “the development of [Palestine] industry”;15 and in the last two years before the war Jews from America were a perceptible minority among olim.16 When war came, “American Zionists understood the[ir] obligation . . . to provide for the institutions of the yishuv.17 Relief funds caused dependency and “demoralization” and were often administered in a highhanded manner, but the need for them could not be denied.18

Particularly heartening to HaAḥdut readers was the reported progress of the Poale Zion party in the United States. In 1910 Americans contributed over half the money collected worldwide for the Palestine Workers’ Fund. Although it had “to fight the party of petrified Orthodoxy” while “bearing proudly aloft the flag of Hebrew socialism amidst the . . . hurly-burly of assimilationist [socialist] vandalism,” the American cadre was gradually “growing . . . [and] penetrating the young generation.”19 Inspired by such upbeat reports, the Palestinians dispatched Ya’akov Zerubavel to “the overflowing spring” in 1912 in search of funds for HaAḥdut, which threatened to drain their meager resources. It was the first Palestine-Labor fund-raising mission to America; and it secured the future of the journal until it was closed by the Turks in the early days of the war.20

Although he was not unreservedly enthusiastic about the American brethren, Zerubavel believed that their “distance from local issues” made them ideal allies for the Palestinians. They were, he said, “nourished either by [memories of] the old home in Russia or [dreams of] the new home in Palestine.”21 By 1914 Aḥva, a scheme conceived in the United States for cooperative settlement in Palestine, was growing apace. Naḥman Syrkin, no fan of the Diaspora, suggested that prospective European settlers come first to America for a few years to save up the investment needed to participate in the Aḥva project.22 To Ben-Gurion the American Poale Zion had become a model for others to emulate. In a speech to the fourth world conference of the party in Cracow in 1913, he urged that groups like the Aḥva be established in Europe “to attract worker-power to Palestine.”23

War evoked mixed emotions among the Jews of Palestine, as it did elsewhere. Some, like the Aaronsohn family, cast their lot with the British. Others, including Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi, believed that “only one country in the world” deserved their unqualified support: Turkey, which had welcomed Jewish exiles from Spain in 1492 and now provided a nurturing home for Jewish “national consciousness.”24 They were prepared to fight in the Ottoman army, although their Russian origin and the suspicion of Zionism harbored by many Turkish officials blocked that path.25 The arrest of the editorial board of HaAḥdut for having contravened censorship laws and the threatened expulsion from Palestine of Zionist Congress participants prompted the adoption of an alternative wartime agenda: work in the United States on behalf of the yishuv. According to Ben-Zvi, he, Ben-Gurion, and their compatriots “decided that if we should be expelled from Palestine—we would go immediately to America to begin preparing for the future together with party members [there] with whom we were in close contact.”26

On 21 March 1915 the expulsion order was carried out. On the eve of Pentecost “the two Bens” arrived in New York inspired by the glowing accounts in HaAḥdut and full of optimism regarding the possibilities of Zionist achievement in the New World. Ben-Gurion, who had spent his “time on the boat learning English,”27 bubbled over in his diary about the adventure ahead:

For some time I’ve dreamt about a trip to America. [The] teeming, noisy, . . . modern, acquisitive life of the most developed and democratic country has attracted me. . . .

Besides, I have wanted to see the friends I parted from twelve years ago. . . .

And I—how many times—I have dreamt, and now suddenly, . . . I’m coming to America.

This was more than a young man’s caper. For the Zionist visionary, America was a model pioneer society; those “who seek to build a new country in the desolate wilderness and arid land need to see how the hounded, exiled emigrants from England established a wealthy, mighty state, the resources and creative powers of which are incomparable.” At the same time, he proclaimed to his diary the imperative at that “great historic moment . . . to repair the historical distortion of the Diaspora” by ending it.28


In some ways the New World lived up to Ben-Gurion’s expectations. The shoreline parks of New York were as beautiful as “the Golden Horn”; the “proud Statue of Liberty” was breathtaking. “Of the gigantic splendor of Niagara Falls” it was “possible to absorb only a tiny bit.” In his entire life, “he had never seen magnificence like that” of Buffalo.29 “Americans knew the secret of speed” and efficiency, although the “noise, bustle, confusion, excitement, and running about” of New York were bewildering. A Salvation Army girl was “stunning.” The United States had “already” spawned 401 labor-oriented Jewish schools and, “for the first time in Hebrew history, a book of poetry for children.”30 Even later in life, weighed down with the burdens of office and jaded by extensive travels, he could be moved to lyrical ecstasy by the sights of America. In 1935 he flew from Chicago to New York and recorded the following in his diary:

A magical sight like that I shall never forget. The houses can’t be seen in the murkiness, the ground is wrapped in black, but a sea of lights twinkles below, spots of fire spread over a vast area, squares and diagonals and lighted towers as if on a lower heaven, black and unseen, together with this ship floating on the darkling air, as if plucked from a fairy tale.31

The high hopes were a setup for disappointment, which came quickly. A few days after his arrival, Ben-Gurion visited a cousin whom he hadn’t seen since leaving Europe. His relative’s “thin face and somewhat bent frame” made him almost unrecognizable. That his children could “barely speak Jargon” (that is, Yiddish) was a further shock. A get-together with acquaintances from Plonsk who had also lived in Palestine was even more disturbing. Young people who had been among the most ambitious and “the most creative” in their home town and in the yishuv had become “in America—vacuous hobbledehoys, hollow, without substance or aspirations.”32

When Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi plunged into Zionist activities, the disillusion mounted. Their principal goal, as Ben-Zvi stated it, was “to awaken among the Jewish workers in America, in general, and among our [Poale Zion] comrades, in particular, an orderly aliyah movement to Palestine once its doors opened [again].”33 The instrument they created for this purpose was HeḤalutz, a semisecret paramilitary organization akin to the youth associations of central Europe. Before his arrival, Ben-Gurion had targeted for enrollment “the many young people who had been workers in Palestine and, for a variety of reasons, departed” without severing their ties altogether. Later the pool was widened to include anyone who would adhere to the group’s demanding principles. To promote HeḤalutz Ben-Gurion planned to publish a Hebrew newspaper, something he mistakenly believed Americans “were unable” to do on their own. Hebrew, he wrote in his diary as his ship sailed past the fabled coast of Spain, “required a romantic atmosphere,” not the “materialistic culture” of the New World.34 It was an odd observation for a Marxist Hebraist.

Although Ben-Gurion would remember the American Poale Zion leadership as apathetic towards HeḤalutz, even towards Palestine altogether, and uncooperative with him and Ben-Zvi during their stay,35 in fact the veteran party officials seem to have been reasonably accommodating, at least at first. The newcomers’ arrival was widely announced; the party’s Central Committee endeavored to arrange speaking engagements for them and agreed to establish a Palestine Committee with Ben-Gurion in the chair.

In his first few weeks in the new country, Ben-Gurion spoke to Poale Zion branches in the New York area about events and conditions in Palestine and wrote the occasional article.36 In early July he set out on his first “round” of recruiting, inauspiciously missing the train to Rochester. At Buffalo, the next stop, no one met him at the station; lodgings had not been arranged; and the comrades appeared “too apathetic and laid back” for HeḤalutz. The trip was interrupted when he fell ill with diphtheria on a return visit to Buffalo later that month and had to remain for weeks, first in hospital, then recuperating in the home of Jewish farmers.37 In early August the missionary for Palestine arrived in Detroit. Since there was already “a fair [sized] Aḥva group” there, he assumed there would be interest in HeḤalutz. But only twenty people came to a meeting; of those only six signed up, none of them Aḥva members. By the end of August, the Bens had visited more than a score of cities between them; but they had enrolled fewer than one hundred HeḤalutz members.38 A second tour a few months later was no more successful. Several branches refused outright to receive Ben-Gurion. In Canton, Ohio, four people came to hear his talk, only two of them Zionists. The Cincinnati audience made a better “impression, even upon” the increasingly dispirited emissary, although they, too, seemed “to lack a Poale Zionist sensibility.” Back in New York the HeḤalutz group organized months earlier had “yet to meet even once.”39

What caused the Palestinians’ tribulations is not hard to imagine. For one thing, they had misread the news from America, taking at face value the enthusiastic reports in HaAḥdut and elsewhere. They may not have understood Americans’ tendency to self-congratulation and bluff; and they did not realize that the American comrades were measuring small gains for Labor-Zionist values and institutions in the inhospitable “land of business” against their earlier failure to accomplish anything. Perhaps, too, the Palestinians missed the implicit warnings in the accounts they read because they had no alternatives to America at that time. The dearth of organizational skills among the American Poale Zion was a contributing factor, as was Ben-Gurion’s own approach. Goldie Myerson met him when he was “on tour” in Milwaukee, as noted earlier. Much later in life, she would recall that, eager, ardent, and fearless though she was in 1916, she found him “one of the most difficult people to . . . approach.” He made few friends during his three years in America, although he did find a wife, Paula Munweis, a European-born New York nurse. The party leaders thought him pushy; most believed his obsession with Palestine and lack of concern for the Diaspora to be wrongheaded and insensitive to their needs. He confided to his diary in September 1915 the attitude they suspected: “If we want to solve the problem of the Hebrew nation in Palestine, why bother with the Diaspora?”40 Another impediment to success, before late 1917, was Ben-Gurion’s stance towards the Jewish Legion and the Jewish Congress movement.

At the time, he understood his difficulties differently. More than a year after his arrival, the discouraging recruiting missions notwithstanding, he remained very sanguine regarding American Zionism, which he found to be “unlike that of any other country.” He marveled naively (and mistakenly) that “the American Jew

who has never known any religious or national oppression, who has never been . . . discriminated against because of his Jewishness [sic!], a Jew who enjoys all rights and full equality in the most free and democratic of countries . . . [has been drawn] to Zionism . . . [only by] national consciousness and a desire for national freedom.

Moreover, Jews who strayed from the fold and then found Zionism, “such as Brandeis and Mack,” retained, he noted with wonder, “the inner bond connecting them to the American people.”41 Zionism, he was sure, could be marketed in America with the proper techniques.

Ben-Gurion believed the cause of his failures was ignorance of the yishuv, which he set out to correct.42 He and Ben-Zvi published a number of propaganda pamphlets in Yiddish;43 and they wrote for the Yiddish press. Although for a time Ben-Gurion boycotted Der Iddisher Kemfer because its editor refused to print one of his articles, his long essay, “The Labor Problem in Palestine,” was serialized there in the summer of 1916.44 Even though the potential readership and the honoraria were much smaller, he preferred writing in Hebrew, the classical tongue of the Jewish people, to writing in Yiddish. One of the pleasant surprises about America was that there was no need to found a new journal, because the Hebrew press was flourishing. He and the other Palestinian exiles became its mainstays.45

The most “vital need,” as he came to see it, was a book “explaining Palestine problems.”46 Three volumes in Yiddish were the result: two editions of Yizkor [Remember], and The Land of Israel in Past and Present. The first Yizkor was edited by Ben-Zvi, Zerubavel, and Alexander Ḥashin, a comrade who returned to Russia after the Revolution and was murdered in the purges of the 1930s. In part a revision of a 1911 work published in Palestine as a memorial for the martyrs of the yishuv, it included a new piece by Ben-Gurion, “Selected Reminiscences—From Petaḥ Tikva to Sejera,” and easily sold out its run of 3,500 (according to one report, 5,000) copies. The second edition was edited by Ben-Gurion and Ḥashin, ostensibly because the other two were unavailable, perhaps because Ben-Gurion pushed them aside. It had a press run of more than 14,000 copies. The Land of Israel was authored by the two Bens and dealt with the history, geography, economics, and politics of the Holy Land. Like the others, it was a best seller.47

In addition to his missionary efforts and writing, Ben-Gurion engaged in other public activities during his first American sojourn, not all of them directly related to Palestine. Until he became thoroughly disaffected towards the end of his stay, he was involved with Poale Zion Party affairs, not only as head of the Palestine Committee but also as secretary of its Workers’ Council. As a Party representative or in his own right he participated in meetings of the New York Kehilla (the organized Jewish community), the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs, and the Histadruth Ivrith.48 Together with Rabbi Fishman, he founded an association of Palestinian exiles in 1916. He took part in the first national conference of the People’s Relief fund for Jewish war victims. He lent his support to the notion of “a great national institution” to train Hebrew teachers in the United States, and raised his voice in opposition to socialist Congressman Meyer London of New York, who had spoken out against Zionism.49

By the last year of his stay, Ben-Gurion had learned to emphasize to good effect those of his character traits that were most appealing to Americans: “energy, efficiency, ambition, and resourcefulness”; and he had honed his leadership skills. As head of the Palestine Committee, he “organized . . . lecture tours, mass meetings, and local Action Committees all over the United States,” signed up 1,500 people for aliyah, and accumulated a substantial reserve fund for Palestine. He learned how to deal with the patrician Jewish fund-raising organizations, and together with Ben-Zvi secured a promise of ten thousand dollars from the Joint Distribution Committee in 1918 for a yishuv labor office.50 His oratory had also improved. In late 1917, he was a featured speaker at celebrations of the Balfour Declaration: at a Hebrew-speaking gathering in the Bronx, at a “demonstration” held by a Hebrew-speaking branch of the Poale Zion, and at a mass meeting sponsored by his own Palestine Committee at New York’s Cooper Union Hall. At the last event, the assembly adopted by acclamation a resolution urging “every Jew to devote all his energies, ‘and if necessary, his life’ to the establishment of a national home” in Palestine. A second resolution drafted by Ben-Gurion, in which “Jewish socialist workers and revolutionaries pledge[d]” themselves “to aid the immediate enlistment of the Jewish proletariat to Eretz Israel, for Eretz Israel, and in Eretz Israel,” (emphasis added) echoed in Yiddish the cadences of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”51

According to his biographer, Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion’s triumphs alarmed the shortsighted, small-minded American Poale Zion leaders who became jealous of their power, apprehensive regarding his charisma, and anxious about the impending disintegration of their organization as a result of large-scale aliyah.52 One might note, as well, the inherent contradiction between Zionism and aliyah. For the yishuv to prosper and for olim to be attracted to it, vigorous Zionist societies in the Diaspora were essential. But a thriving organization requires a considerable investment of time and emotional involvement which together engender loyalty to the group itself. Had the Poale Zionists ignored the immediate concerns of members and group dynamics to focus solely on the long-range goal of aliyah, they would surely have put their group at risk and jeopardized the prospects of aliyah, as well. In any case, the party stewards removed Ben-Gurion from the Palestine Committee on trumped-up charges of inactivity and refused to appoint him and Ben-Zvi as delegates to the Zionist Commission about to leave for Palestine, where it was to represent Zionist interests to the military authorities. A furious Ben-Gurion, by then familiar with the seamy side of America, charged that he had been euchred by politicians schooled at “Tammany Hall.”53

Not only his latter-day successes caused friction with the local Poale Zion. An earlier contentious issue was the American Jewish Congress movement. As noted above, the Congress was intended as a grassroots, Zionist-oriented organization to unite and represent American Jewry, to coordinate public community activities in wartime and beyond, and to defend the interests of Jews in distress beyond the borders of the United States. The American Jewish Committee and others opposed it, because they objected to Zionism, because they feared antisemitic reactions to the image of a united Jewry, and because they sought the mantle of leadership themselves.

Some Zionists, however, including a number of Poale Zion leaders, gave the Congress only lukewarm support, but for another reason: it would inevitably provide a platform for the public condemnation of Russia. Although outraged by the pogroms, they soft-pedaled their criticism in the belief that it was in the Jewish and Zionist interest to side with the Triple Entente, which would be endangered by highlighting Russian atrocities. Ben-Gurion, the Turkophile, tended to favor the Triple Alliance. As such, he was “persuaded that it would amount to shameful treachery . . . towards the Jewish people if the Congress were not to come about.”54 Ironically, there was also anxiety in pro-German quarters. Their fear was that the constraints regarding Zionism imposed on Germany by Turkey would be denounced by the Congress. And in the yishuv, it was feared the new group would not be Zionist enough.55 Ben-Gurion, Ben-Zvi, and other Palestinians took part in the Congress preparations. But the opening session was postponed until the end of hostilities, and convened after the Bens had left the United States. There is scant evidence to substantiate Ben-Zvi’s later claim that they “exerted a very great deal of influence” in the movement.56

Ben-Gurion’s involvement with the Legion was somewhat more complicated. Soon after his arrival in New York, he met Pinḥas Rutenberg, Jabotinsky’s ally who had come to the United States to agitate for a Jewish fighting force. Rutenberg explained the proposal to the newcomer who remained impassive.57 Here, too, the war was at issue; and here, too, Ben-Gurion clashed with Poale Zion leaders. Those who were not pacifists or persuaded that patriotism demanded lip service to American neutrality, favored the Legion, because they supported the Entente. He opposed it, because he stood behind Turkey and thought she might win. In fact, he seems to have harbored thoughts about a pro-Turkish Jewish battalion, despite the Turks’ growing unfriendliness to Zionism. After the Balfour Declaration, the picture changed. Some of the Poale Zion stuck to the socialist line of opposition to the “imperialistic war”; the Central Committee neither endorsed nor condemned the Legion.58 Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, became its advocate. In later years he would sometimes claim to have founded the force together with Ben-Zvi. This was certainly untrue, as earlier chapters here indicate. In 1920 Jabotinsky referred to Ben-Gurion as “one of the chief organizers of the volunteers in America,”59 an assertion closer to the truth but also exaggerated. Still, he did employ his considerable persuasive powers in the recruiting drive; many of those who had enrolled in HeḤalutz enlisted in the Legion. Over the objections of his pregnant wife, he volunteered himself, when the Poale Zion closed off the only other early return route to Palestine by refusing to nominate him to the Zionist Commission.60

David Ben-Gurion (second row, fourth from left) at a convention of the Poale Zion in Boston, 1916. (Courtesy of the Pinhas Lavon Labor Archive, Tel Aviv.)

When the time came for the inductees to report for duty, the Poale Zion tendered them a farewell dinner in New York’s Clinton Hall; and Der Iddisher Kemfer devoted a lead article to them “emphasizing their great contribution to the American party and to the Legion, and wishing them safety from hostile bullets.” At the banquet Hirsch Ehrenreich remarked that “their entry into the Legion . . . [constituted] liberation,” freeing them from exile and setting them on their way to the Promised Land. He was undoubtedly less than sincere in questioning how the Americans would “manage without” the Palestinian presence.61 It is safe to assume that Ben-Gurion was eager not only to return to the yishuv but also to leave the New World behind—especially the Poale Zion—his new wife notwithstanding.

A quarter century later in the midst of another war and facing the decimation of European Jewry, Ben-Gurion took courage from the promise America held for Palestine. He recalled that “the first large-scale aliyah after the Balfour Declaration had come from America, olim in uniform.”62 At the time, however, he was not as enthusiastic about the Legionnaires, certainly far less enamored of them than either Jabotinsky or Katznelson. At first he had been close to his American comrades in arms. He was all but commanded to accept the rank of corporal, because his superiors believed his popularity would make control of the independent, if not ornery, troops easier. But where Katznelson admired their efforts to learn Hebrew, he became increasingly disturbed by the propensity of the men to speak Yiddish and by their inability to close the book finally on the Diaspora. One of his motivations for merging the Palestine Poale Zion into the new Aḥdut Ha-Avoda labor grouping was a desire to reduce the potential influence of the American Legionnaires in the party, to protect its Hebraic character and Palestine orientation from their Diaspora focus and from Yiddish.63

Still, like Jabotinsky and Katznelson, he endeavored to find the money needed to settle the Legionnaires, and begged the Zionist Commission to create jobs in Palestine rather than acquiesce in the soldiers’ repatriation. In the fall of 1919 he demanded that the Central Committee of the American Poale Zion “attend to . . . [the] task” of fund raising for the veterans “immediately.” And he berated Nellie Strauss (later Mochenson), the Palestine representative of the American Zion Commonwealth, for the colonial mentality of her group. The AZC was underwriting the settlement of demobilized soldiers in what was to become Merḥavya, the kibbutz where Golda would settle. Ben-Gurion not only demanded their money, he insisted on complete Palestinian control over the colonization process. Like her Zionist mentor Henrietta Szold, Strauss had a Progressive American’s sense of proper procedure and thought the AZC should have some control “over what is being done . . . so that there may [be] no surprises later on.” To get his way Ben-Gurion publicized the dispute in Kuntres and elsewhere, naturally from his own partisan point of view.64

Back in Palestine after the war, Ben-Gurion manifested considerable disenchantment with the United States. His initial optimism inspired by reading and hearsay seemed to have foundered on the shoals of reality. In June 1921, a few months before Katznelson’s departure for America on his fund-raising mission for the Histadrut and the Workers’ Bank, Ben-Gurion issued a grim warning regarding the difficulties that awaited him there. “America,” he said, “will shorten our lives.”65 But in fact, Ben-Gurion’s notions of the New World had never been one-dimensional; nor were they now. His disappointment was chiefly related to the Poale Zion, not all American Jews nor the country itself. It would take some time yet for him to formulate a coherent, workable American policy based on a realistic assessment of New World realities. For now, experience had been gained, tools acquired, and seeds planted. One of those tools was a library of almost 350 books in English, which he would update regularly.66


Ben-Gurion returned home to major responsibilities. From the inception of Aḥdut HaAvoda, he served on its secretariat, at first primus inter pares, then as the acknowledged party leader. In November 1921, just a few months after the founding of the Histadrut, he became a member of its secretariat as well, and in 1925 secretary general, a post he would occupy for a decade. Yisrael Kolatt has written that “Ben-Gurion’s leadership aimed at changing . . . [the] fate of a people and a social regime.” Towards that end he developed “a comprehensive vision of a new and better society,” which, as a political and labor leader, he attempted to implement.67 Shlomo Avineri and others have observed that “pragmatic considerations” almost invariably caused the man of action to alter his original “ideologically determined goal.”68 In that, Ben-Gurion had an American sensibility. He himself observed approvingly that in the New World “dogmatism did not rule; and the approach to matters . . . [was] practical.”69

Not once during the 1920s did he visit the United States.70 But that did not mean that he had lost interest in the country or given up on American Jews as allies of Zionism. Bed’s 1921–22 mission with Manya Shoḥat and Yosef Baratz he described as “the first important” attempt of the new Histadrut to “establish ties with Jewish workers abroad.” The destination, he noted in 1923, had not been an arbitrary choice:

In America there are half a million organized Jewish workers. Their unions are the largest and most secure in the worldwide Jewish labor movement. The[ir] . . . daily paper—Forverts—has half a million readers and over 200,000 subscribers. A workers’ life insurance and mutual aid society—the Arbayter Ring—has 80,000 members. They constitute a gigantic national political and economic force, and its sway over all Jewish affairs in the New World is enormous. Many [workers] . . . had been estranged from Zionism. But the events of the war, the destruction of European Jewry, [and] the growth of Zionist hopes have awakened the masses. . . .

To influence the Jewish worker in America, to draw him near to our philosophy and our work—was the main goal of our delegation.71

Ben-Gurion visited the Soviet Union in 1923 in conjunction with an exhibit of Palestine agricultural products. He came away with high regard for Soviet egalitarianism and economic planning. Jabotinsky could discern no good in the new Russia and tended to see good where there was none in the United States, as with President Warren Harding. Ben-Gurion, however, admired Lenin for his decisive style of leadership, and perceived the contrast with President Harding, who, he observed, had the “good fortune” to die before being fully exposed as the “characterless and mediocre” man he was. In Russia, Ben-Gurion averred, were to be found “the best [of Jewish] youth,” who combined “the beautiful tradition of the Russian revolutionary movement with great dedication to the land of Israel.” But Russian communism was the rival of socialist Zionism for the loyalty of left-leaning Jews. He rightly suspected that antisemitism would not disappear under the Soviets, and the suppression of Zionist organizations and the Hebrew language, as well as the refusal to allow the emigration of that “best youth” or of anyone else to Palestine, dimmed the luster of the USSR.72

During these years, Ben-Gurion never lost sight of the “virgin territory” that awaited Labor Zionist conquest in eastern Europe and America, if only “sufficient forces [could be found] to do that great work.” Labor emissaries in the United States repeatedly confirmed his vision of its prospects; and discussions at the Histadrut Executive Committee often focused on American affairs. Avraham Harzfeld, for example, while participating in the mission that bedeviled Jabotinsky in 1926, urged Ussishkin to plough “the wide field” of America for the Palestine Foundation Fund. David Bloch (Blumenfeld) thought “the Reform rabbis” with their “richer temples” likely sympathizers. As “they become disaffected with tradition,” they often turn to Zionism, he noted perceptively.73

Despite the sour note on which his relationship with the American Poale Zion had ended in 1918, Ben-Gurion respected “the extraordinary continuing efforts” of the group “to maintain the party apparatus” in the face of financial constraints. The party had “a reserve of excellent manpower dedicated to . . . [its] cause,” he asserted in 1921, even though his old nemesis, “that creature” Party Secretary Hirsch Ehrenreich, “injects poison” into the organization, while “broken-down . . . machinery undermines its ability to act.” It was necessary, he maintained, to revitalize the faltering American party, since all of Labor’s “economic efforts in Palestine depended]” on it.74

An American organization for which he developed grudging respect in the early 1920s was Hadassah, with its “considerable accomplishments . . . in the fields of medicine and sanitation.” Ideology told him that “only an independent labor institution based on mutual [aid] and self-help [emphasis his] could fulfill the very responsible function of providing medical assistance to workers.”75 He championed the cause of Kupat Ḥolim, the Histadrut health care system. But when his daughter Renana fell ill with meningitis in 1925, and when he and his family and Katznelson were injured in an automobile accident three years later, they were treated in Hadassah hospitals. In the spring of 1927 a Histadrut delegation which he headed and a Hadassah delegation led by Henrietta Szold hammered out an agreement for the treatment of Kupat Ḥolim patients in Hadassah institutions whenever that should prove appropriate.76

While Ben-Gurion’s enthusiasm for the United States survived, his understanding of its relevance to the yishuv changed somewhat. Before the war he had viewed Jewish workers everywhere in the Diaspora as a reservoir for aliyah and as partners in the worldwide class struggle. Now American aliyah became much less of a concern. With “the closing of the gates” to the United States and Canada in the early 1920s, Ben-Gurion observed, eastern European Jews desperately needed the scarce Palestine immigration certificates issued by the Mandatory authorities. Americans could wait, and Palestine could wait for them.77

The yishuv could not wait, however, for increased financial support, as has been noted repeatedly. In the 1920s the Labor leadership sought the rapid and wide-ranging expansion of their institutions; and Ben-Gurion was particularly eager to free the movement from its dependency on the WZO.78 From London, where he was working with the Poale Zion and WZO offices in 1920, he wrote to Syrkin in New York, that starvation was prevalent in the yishuv; conditions were worse than during the war. “Just . . . at this point in time,” when there “are great opportunity [sic] for wide-ranging activities . . . we lack the means. . . . There is no word from America; in [the last] six months not even a penny has been sent from there.”

Almost half a year later, “telegram after telegram from Palestine demanded money,” but in London the coffers were “empty.” Towards the end of 1921, the People’s Relief sent the Histadrut £1229.40 and a large shipment of old clothes. The clothes were refused. Early the next year, the HEC requested assistance from the Zionist Executive, but Ben-Gurion was certain it would not be given and considered resigning. In 1924, with several Histadrut enterprises, including the Workers’ Bank, the Solel Boneh Construction Company, and the marketing cooperative HaMashbir, about to topple, Remez and others wanted to seek aid in America. Ben-Gurion preferred Europe, where donors would be less inquisitive about management practices; but in the end, the dimensions of the crisis required fund raising on both continents.79 When Solel Boneh collapsed in 1927, it had to be rescued by a loan from the Zionist Executive secured by future donations to the Histadrut from the United States. That year and the next, unemployment soared in Palestine, pushing the labor federation to the wall. In May 1929, Ben-Gurion wrote to Mereminsky in New York that “the financial condition of the Histadrut was disastrous.” Salaries were unpaid; creditors were suing; in March the phone had been cut off.80

By then, the Histadrut secretary-general had come to see Diaspora Jewish workers—especially the Americans—primarily as “suppliers of the means for the upbuilding of socialist Palestine, and as a support system for the WZO.”81 Virtually without local resources, certainly in the early 1920s, he “pinned his hopes . . . on the Jewish workers in America.”82 The annual Histadrut missions, which Berl inaugurated and in which Golda took part, have already been discussed. Ben-Gurion took them very seriously; and in that era of inveterate amateurism urged that emissaries be trained for their task.83 Later, he felt the Geverkshaften Campaign, the principal instrument of Palestine Labor for fund raising in the United States, had done “a great service to the Zionist Movement” by winning “the sympathy of . . . leaders of the Jewish labour movement in America . . . for Palestine labour . . . [and] for Zionism” in general.84 In the 1920s, though, he seemed more appreciative of “the decisive role of the [American] Jewish worker[s]” in ensuring through their donations that “socialist values” would triumph in Palestine.85 On occasion, he advocated soliciting aid from middle-class Zionists rather than non-Zionist laborers; but the “dangerous decline” of the ZOA in these years blocked that route.86 The idea itself, however, indicates the relative value he assigned to Zionism and to socialism.

Ben-Gurion was almost always willing to sacrifice a principle for the sake of a more important one; and he understood the necessity of nurturing potential allies and donors. Although a patriotic and even abrasive champion of Hebrew over Yiddish, he expressed willingness in 1927 and 1928 to accede to requests from America for a Yiddish-language paper to communicate Labor’s message. On many occasions throughout the twenties, he reminded his colleagues to look after important visitors; and he encouraged American labor leaders to tour Palestine.87

Although he preferred to raise money “from the Jewish people at large,” he discovered already in 1920 that Weizmann’s policy of turning to the wealthy few who had the resources was unavoidable.88 There were problems with such bedfellows. Louis Marshall and his associates in the American Jewish Committee often failed to see the need for things Ben-Gurion thought essential, such as Labor-run elementary and secondary schools. Marshall, however, he believed to be “a warm and dedicated Jew” with whom he could work.89 Sometimes reluctantly, more often with a sense of entitlement, he and his compatriots turned to the Zionist Executive, the Jewish Agency, and the WZO’s Keren HaYesod during the 1920s for what they considered to be a fair share of the funds raised in America. In addition, they appealed directly to the Joint Distribution Committee, to Brandeis, and to other American individuals and agencies to supplement the inadequate funds they raised themselves from the common folk in the Geverkshaften Campaign.90 As secretary general, Ben-Gurion considered turning Histadrut enterprises into joint stock companies in order to attract American investors.91

The inclusion of well-to-do non-Zionists in the Jewish Agency, the plan so despised by Jabotinsky, gained Ben-Gurion’s initial approval. After seeing the “Jewish plutocrats” in action, however, he admitted to having made “a criminal error,” to feeling “shame . . . at the lowering of the national flag . . . and the surrender and toadying before the servants of the masters of great fortunes who [in any case] don’t give [us] their money.” He urged, without success, that non-Zionist socialists be added to the Agency Council and Executive as a counterweight.92 In every political crisis before 1939, Ben-Gurion found the non-Zionists—most especially the Americans—unhelpful, often harmful to what he believed to be the interests of the yishuv. In the midst of the partition debate in 1937 he had a surprisingly encouraging interview with Osmond d’Avigdor Goldsmid and Lionel Cohen, two of the British non-Zionists on the Council. He confided to his diary afterwards that “there was a difference between fair-minded, cultured non-Zionists and American non-Zionists.”93 Still, the chairman maintained a measure of equanimity in dealing with the moguls, such as Felix Warburg, and their designated civil servants, such as Maurice Hexter. Occasionally the money men proved to be useful window dressing; and their appointees were usually skilled professionals. But he stoutly resisted their demand for equal representation with the Zionists on the Executive, because they abjured responsibility for political affairs and frequently avoided their financial obligations, as well.94

Important as it was, money was by no means all that Ben-Gurion saw in America in these years. After he became a member of the Jewish Agency Executive in 1933, he began to develop a concept of world Jewry—and after the Nazi conquest of Europe, of American Jewry alone—as the hinterland of the yishuv with a legitimate interest there parallel to or greater than that of the Arab world in Palestine’s Arab community. What followed from that notion was the right—even the obligation—of American Jews, the American public, and the United States government to interfere in Palestine affairs, as had been done during the Ottoman era.95 By the eve of World War II, this theory would be elaborated in full. It had been present in adumbrated form much earlier, perhaps from the moment he heard Weizmann’s report of the assistance rendered the Zionist cause by Secretary of State Lansing at the Versailles Conference. In response to anti-Zionist remarks by the French Jew, Sylvain Levi, Lansing had invited Weizmann to define the “Jewish National Home” and then backed his maximalist interpretation. “America extricated us from our difficulty,” Weizmann said later to a Zionist gathering in London. “We owe them a great debt. We shall at no time be able to repay it.” Although Ben-Gurion was never eager to enlarge Weizmann’s reputation, he included the full account in his reminiscences. It had obviously made an impression.96

It was more this conception of their political role than their potential as an economic resource for the yishuv that lay behind Ben-Gurion’s cultivation of American Jewish and gentile workers in the 1920s. In 1923 he drew a comparison between American Jewry and the yishuv, two immigrant societies capable of mutual understanding. The “Hebrew laborer in . . . Palestine,” he wrote,

is deeply conscious that he is only the vanguard of the world Hebrew worker. . . .

Our firm belief is that our Jewish laboring comrades all over the world will cooperate with us during the difficult hours of struggle and suffering and will extend to us moral, material, and personal aid. It has fallen the lot of the Jewish worker in America to assume the major role in this cooperation and aid. Into his hand Jewish history has delivered the power and the means needed to perform the task begun by the Jewish worker in Palestine.97

Support from the American Federation of Labor aroused in him “deep feelings of spiritual satisfaction” and reinforced his “faith in the worldwide solidarity of the working class in its struggle for liberation.”98

Several times during the postwar decade Ben-Gurion attempted to pressure the Soviets, Britain, and even his opponents in the yishuv through America. In early 1924, for example, he requested that Judah Magnes use his influence with the editor of the Nation, Oswald Garrison Villard, to place an exposé of the Soviet suppression of Hebrew culture and Zionism in that journal, in the hope of stirring up American public opinion. On another occasion, he suggested to the HEC that American pressure might be one of the only means of prying open the doors of the Soviet Union for Zionist emigration.99 During the 1920 Arab pogrom, he sent letters and telegrams to the American (and British) press, in the hope that an aroused public would bring about the appointment of a more friendly Palestine administration. And in 1927 he publicized widely in America and Britain a strike of farm laborers against Jewish orange grove owners, who preferred Arab workers to Jewish, in the hope of coercing the owners.100 Little resulted from these efforts, although in retrospect they can be seen as trial runs for more successful initiatives to be undertaken in the years to come.


In Palestine the 1920s began and ended with violent Arab riots against the Jewish presence. The intervening “seven years of plenty” were also not without problems, most notably the severe downturn in the economy in 1927–28 already mentioned. But their relative tranquility afforded a nurturing setting for the dramatic growth and development of the yishuv.

By contrast, the tumultuous thirties witnessed crisis upon crisis. The decade opened with a white paper which responded to the Arab riots the previous year by restricting Jewish immigration. That led to a battle with the British government which would not end until Israel became independent in 1948. The Great Depression in North America reduced contributions and exacerbated the financial difficulties of the yishuv. It was another problem that would not go away. From 1933 the Nazis menaced European Jewry. The Palestinians sought to respond by accepting more olim but were seriously hampered by Britain’s policy of keeping peace with the Arabs by limiting the number of Jewish immigrants. All during the decade the Laborites and Revisionists fought, usually with great acrimony, sometimes with violence. In 1935 the British proposed to grant Palestine a measure of home rule. Central to the proposal was a legislative council with proportional representation, which would have the power to restrict Jewish immigration and development. It had to be contested, even at the cost of appearing to oppose democracy. In response to the Arab rebellion of 1936 a royal commission suggested partitioning the country into a small Jewish state and a larger Arab one. Ben-Gurion was prepared to accept even a mini-state with control over immigration. Others were not; and considerable division in the yishuv ensued. A new white paper issued on the eve of war in 1939 capped Jewish immigration and interdicted land purchases by Jews. It pointed the way to permanent minority status for Jews in the land of Israel.

As the leader of Mapai, the largest political party in the yishuv, as secretary general of the Histadrut until 1935, and as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine from that year, it fell to Ben-Gurion, in effect, the prime minister of the yishuv, to lead the fight on all of these issues. His focus shifted in these years from Labor to the yishuv, as a whole, “from class to nation,” as he titled a 1933 manifesto. He told a Cleveland audience in 1930 that the yishuv thrived on crisis.101 But the Palestinians could not do battle on their own; and increasingly during the 1930s they turned to America for help. Ben-Gurion assiduously maintained old alliances there and cultivated new ones to help meet the challenges.

Aliyah from the United States ceased altogether to concern him in these years. Many of the Histadrut emissaries still believed, like Golda, that “for the sake of Palestine it was definitely worthwhile to bring people from America” (emphasis in original). Poale Zionists complained to Ben-Gurion in 1930 about the Palestinians’ lack of “concern [whether] . . . the members in America . . . settle in Palestine.”102 He remained unyielding. “We do not need American ḥalutzim of the usual kind,” he wrote to his wife in 1937, although he conceded that it might be wise to open the doors to young Americans with “military, aeronautic, and naval training.”103 Until the end of the decade, he remained committed to selective aliyah, which would bring to Palestine young, able-bodied pioneers. “Jewry as it is constituted now,” he told readers of Jewish Frontier in June 1935, is not “ready for Palestine. A people of middlemen, trades people, professionals, spiritual and sociological luftmenschen cannot emigrate en masse.”104 In any case, European Jews, who were “being strangled and destroyed,” took precedence over Americans. “Germany is only the prelude,” he wrote to Weizmann in 1933: “I saw the situation of the Jews in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia. It is impossible to exist this way. Not only the poverty, the lack of a job, the political pressure, the growing antisemitism. Worst of all is the hopelessness.”105 In early 1936 he told the Mapai Political Committee that the German situation was making it necessary “to begin . . . turning Palestine into a . . . haven for masses of Jews.” But as late as 1938 he did not advocate indiscriminate aliyah, even for the endangered Europeans.106

Money remained a paramount concern. Without it, the new chairman of the Agency Executive acknowledged in 1936, “there will be nothing” in Palestine. And, of course, the “main front in this respect” was America. Any “hope for swift” change in Palestine rested on “a major campaign” in the United States; but no one seemed capable of mounting it.107 On his four trips to North America during the 1930s, Ben-Gurion did what he could. In December 1930, he conducted parlor meetings at the homes of labor leaders and well-to-do sympathizers, addressed conventions and banquets, and negotiated with Felix Warburg, chairman of the Jewish Agency Council.108 In the spring of 1935, there were the usual banquets for the Geverk-shaften Campaign and visits with individuals. He also tried to convince Rabbi Wise and Judge Mack to conduct a campaign for Palestine outside the United Jewish Appeal. The UJA, which collected money for a variety of community needs, invariably shortchanged the yishuv in times of crisis, Ben-Gurion felt, because “the non-Zionist” partners “were unenthusiastic” about Palestine as a solution to Jewish distress. On a quickie trip in January 1939, he failed again to effect separation.109 During his 1937 stay, he was unsuccessful in persuading the Americans of the wisdom of mounting an emergency campaign for the yishuv, which was faced with large numbers of immigrants from Germany and increasing defense needs.110

In 1938 Ben-Gurion proposed an alternative means of raising revenue: a tax that Jews everywhere would levy on themselves, the proceeds to be used for Palestine settlement. Fearing that European Jewry might soon be cut off by war, he suggested focusing on America. Katznelson and others felt it was irresponsible not to concentrate on rescuing the Europeans and recovering their assets before they disappeared.111 By 1939 Ben-Gurion had found several American friends, including Brandeis, to help defray the costs of illegal immigration and defense; but his urgent requests for major assistance elicited nothing more than sparse words of encouragement from the ZOA president, Rabbi Solomon Goldman.112

Among the few financial bright spots were Hadassah and the Brandeis group. In 1936, Hadassah refused to hold an emergency drive but responded immediately to Ben-Gurion’s plea for aid with ten thousand dollars “to ease the situation for the Executive under the present stress and strain.”113 Brandeis was personally generous; and the institutions maintained by his group now became very responsive to the needs of the yishuv, particularly the Labor sector. Grants were given for a number of initiatives, including the Histadrut Arab newspaper and the purchase of land on which the city of Eilat now stands.114 Brandeis considered Ben-Gurion (and Moshe Shertok) “practical leaders of great ability, men of understanding, vision and wisdom rare in government,” who deserved “unqualified, ardent support.” So complete was his trust that he occasionally sent undesignated funds to be spent “as Ben-Gurion may direct.”115


More and more in the 1930s, Ben-Gurion devoted his attention to realizing the political potential for Zionism of the United States and its Jewry. He set two main goals for himself in this area for the decade and beyond. One was to strengthen American Jewry in order to maximize its Zionist promise; the other was to marshal its resources to influence the course of events in Palestine. One major concern was to ensure that the Revisionists would not gain the upper hand at the Zionist Congress or in the yishuv. In America there appeared to be “no conception of the danger from Revisionism,” which to him in 1933 seemed “no less than that to the labor movement in Germany from Hitler.”116 A second vital concern was to obtain support for open immigration and—sooner or later—statehood.

In the early fall of 1930, Ben-Gurion presided over the World Congress for Labor Palestine in Berlin. The Congress, his brainchild back in 1919, was an attempt at Labor-Zionist political theater on the world stage. The intended audience included Revisionists, Bundists, the British government, and, of course, like-minded Labor Zionists, although each group was meant to draw a different lesson from the pageant. It took Ben-Gurion years of lobbying in the yishuv and abroad to bring off the project. It had been “clear” from the start that “without America there [would be] no value to the Congress,”117 although the haphazard way in which it took shape militated against significant American participation. In the end, the Americans came, as did others, but the event proved less spectacular than Ben-Gurion had hoped or than he claimed afterwards. Of particular note here is his exaggerated estimate of its impact on America.118

His trip to the United States at the end of 1930 may be seen as an attempt to impart substance to his claims regarding the Congress. His natural starting point was the Poale Zion, which had “captured an important sector of America’s workers” but remained peripheral to the Jewish labor movement. The Histadrut secretary general looked forward to the eventual enrollment in the Labor Zionist party of tens of thousands of workers sympathetic to Zionism but still reluctant to join a group outside the socialist mainstream. He advocated two contradictory strategies: uniting all American Zionist parties including the Poale Zion in a single organization; and merging the Poale Zion with non-Zionist socialist groups such as the Arbayter Ring, the union/landsmannschaft/mutual-aid society. The achievement of either goal would have been acceptable; both proved elusive.

He opened his campaign with a suggestion that the party outflank the anti-Zionist Bundists by becoming “the Jewish branch” of the Socialist Party of America, thus gaining a seal of approval in wider circles. At the same time, he urged courting the Bundist group associated with Forverts, a task in which he participated himself during the next few years by cultivating a warm relationship with the paper’s editor, Abe Cahan.119 In early January 1931, he met with the Arbayter Ring national board and excoriated them for extending a hand to workers in all countries, but “excluding the Hebrews” of Palestine. To underscore their self-hatred and soften them up for a merger with the Poale Zion, he said that last phrase in Russian, although the rest of his speech was in Yiddish.120 He was unsuccessful on all counts except personally with Cahan.

When Ben-Gurion returned to America in 1935, he tried again. This time he sought an agreement with Baruch Charney Vladeck, the Forverts journalist and municipal politician who headed the Jewish Labor Committee. He and Vladeck negotiated a ten-point program for joint Zionist-non-Zionist action in the United States and Palestine to which the Poale Zion leadership as well as some Arbayter Ring and Jewish union leaders agreed in principle.121

When Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who was head of the United Palestine Appeal, president of the American Jewish Congress, the initiator of the World Jewish Congress movement, a member of the governing council of the ZOA and soon to be its president, and a member of the Actions Committee of the WZO, got wind of the agreement, he exploded in high dudgeon. For his own partisan purposes, Ben-Gurion had made a pact with the “most bitter and virulent foe of our ideal of a Jewish National Home,” a deed incomprehensible to Wise. The rabbi upbraided him for failing to distinguish between “his status as a socialist and . . . [his] position as one of the leaders of the Zionist Movement.” He had, Wise charged, done “no good to Palestine and . . . infinite harm to our Jewish democratic point of view as against the grand dukes and their associates [that is, the wealthy non-Zionists, such as Warburg] with whom . . . Vladeck has consistently associated himself for twenty years.”122 Israel Mereminsky, one of the most knowledgeable members of the HEC on American affairs, also opposed the agreement but for other reasons. He believed that merging the Geverkshaften Campaign with the fund-raising efforts of the non-Zionist labor groups would result in reduced donations and the disappearance of a valuable pro-Zionist institution.123

Vladeck visited Palestine in 1936 and in an interview with the high commissioner proved himself a faithful confederate of the Laborites by asserting that non-Zionists in America also expected Britain to keep open the doors to Palestine in those troubled times. Rubashov and others backed Ben-Gurion; but more than two years after the nuptials, the marriage remained unconsummated.124 During his brief visit to America in September 1937, Ben-Gurion renegotiated the deal, this time taking care to obtain Wise’s approval and that of the Poale Zion leaders. In the end, as noted earlier, when Katznelson and Vladeck could not persuade the non-Zionist workers to accept the accord, organizational unity on the Left became a dead letter.125

During the war, American Labor—both Jewish and gentile—came generally to favor the Zionist cause and Jewish statehood, although Ben-Gurion believed the leadership to be more strongly supportive than the rank and file.126 The kind of institutional integration he had sought in the 1930s proved unnecessary in terms of securing Labor backing. And yet, probably more out of old bitterness than cold analysis, he continued to accuse the Poale Zion of having prevented genuine unity. They wanted, he claimed, “to exploit the labor movement for their own party ends, without participating in general labor matters . . . moving away from both Zionism and socialism, with no trace of true creative or revolutionary content, . . . as Jews or workers, . . . Zionists or socialists.”127 This was a harsh and—considering his own willingness to compromise when necessary—unfair pronouncement on a group that had attracted him to the New World thirty years earlier. Like other organizations of working-class, immigrant Jews, the Poale Zion had, indeed, allowed its socialism to be tempered by middle-class American values; but it had remained steadfast in its commitment to Zionism.

Ben-Gurion’s second strategy for augmenting the political clout of American Zionism was his unity scheme; again the starting point was the Poale Zion. In 1930 he proposed its merger with a smaller socialist Zionist society, Zeire Zion, most of whose members in the yishuv were affiliated with HaPo’el HaTza’ir. That group had just recently joined with Aḥdut HaAvoda to form the Mapai Party. Shortly after his arrival in America Ben-Gurion all but ordered a Zeire Zion convention to close up shop. This time he achieved his goal.128

Further efforts at Zionist amalgamation proved less rewarding. He had no success in bringing about a consolidation of pioneering youth groups in 1930 and abandoned the task to others, including Golda.129 Beginning in 1935 he pursued a grand union of all Zionist parties in the United States. As chairman of the Agency Executive, Ben-Gurion now had broader concerns, although he had hardly become nonpartisan. He believed the party structure of American Zionism to be an impediment to mass recruitment; but he also expected that union “would enable [his Labor] . . . comrades to influence the proceedings of the entire movement,” as he explained to a sympathetic Brandeis.130 To the realistic—and therefore sceptical—leaders of the Poale Zion, the Pioneer Women, and the League for Labor Palestine in Chicago, New York, and Milwaukee, he held out the prospect of becoming “the ruling party in Zionism destined to impose Zionism on the nation.”131 The Hadassah women, whom Jabotinsky had courted a few months before, agreed with Ben-Gurion about the desirability of unification but were adamant about retaining their independence. The ZOA men were even less open to his blandishments. In disgust, the visitor declared their president, Morris Rothenberg, to be “a non-Zionist with zero political value”; and he showed little regard for the “politicians” on its Executive Committee who, he claimed, greeted his recommendations with “obstructive discussion.”132

Debate over the proposed legislative council in Palestine and preparations for the upcoming Zionist Congress required the Agency chairman’s hasty return home. He left the United States convinced that “only . . . help from the outside,” by which he meant the yishuv, could bring about the required restructuring of the American Zionist movement.133 At a Mapai Party Center discussion in July, he noted that 23 percent of Latvian Jews were dues-paying Zionists, but only 1 percent of American Jews. “The difference,” he asserted, “did not stem from American Jewry’s having no interest in Palestine. On the contrary—except for Poland, no country was as interested . . . as America. . . . The only reason [for the poor showing] was that no Zionist movement [to speak of] existed [in the United States].” In early 1936, Rubashov reported from New York that he was making no progress towards union.134

The outbreak of the Arab rebellion in Palestine later that year made a strong American Zionist voice even more desirable. It turned out to be wishful thinking, but Ben-Gurion at first believed the crisis would provide “an opportunity . . . to put [the American movement] . . . on its feet.” He reminded his colleagues in the Mapai Center, that

The power of American Jewry is all the political force we have in the world. . . .

At the moment we have a chance of taking the Zionist movement in America in hand. The president [Rabbi Wise] is one of our people. . . . Behind us we have an old man [Brandeis] with moral strength. He could swing Hadassah in our direction.

The party leaders responded by sending a delegation to New York to develop a plan of action.135 But the “insistence of the Laborites” on unification and on open Zionist Congress elections met with general opposition, even from “their man,” Wise.136 In January 1939, Ben-Gurion was once more in America with a familiar message: “The weakness in the Zionist movement in America is due [primarily] to . . . disunity among Zionists.” Elsewhere there was “a single Zionist address,” but not in the United States. With war clouds on the horizon, that weakness constituted “a great political danger.” Again he called for change. Only war would bring it about, however, and then in a halting and temporary fashion: the Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs founded in 1939 to coordinate Zionist activities and represent the movement during wartime. A weak union of parties at war with each other, the Committee functioned fairly well after 1941 but self-destructed when peace came.137


While a unified Zionist movement and a united Jewish labor movement remained beyond reach, Ben-Gurion was actually quite successful in the 1930s in cultivating American allies for the yishuv, in general, and for his own policies, in particular. Grassroots Zionist sentiment grew steadily, at least in part because of the effective propaganda of the Palestinians. Perhaps even more significant was the cementing of friendships with well-placed sympathizers.

First among these were Brandeis and his associates who returned to power in the ZOA in 1930. The judge’s high regard for Ben-Gurion was reciprocated. In 1930 Ben-Gurion still thought of Brandeis as “one [of the] complications” of America, but within a few years he and his close coworker and erstwhile Zionist surrogate, Felix Frankfurter, had become “our faithful friends.” In retrospect, he was “the greatest Jew in the United States.”138 Each saw in the other a man of character; they shared a dislike of the wealthy, assimilating Jews like Warburg, despite the fact that Brandeis himself was assimilated and a millionaire; more importantly, they shared sympathy for working people and a social vision, even though Brandeis was a Progressive, not a socialist. From the mid-1930s on, Ben-Gurion consulted regularly with Brandeis (and Frankfurter) in person, by mail, and through intermediaries. The judge not only offered sage advice and money, he and the men of his circle could open doors in Washington, including the portals of the White House, although they were not always willing to do so, and did not always get what they wanted.

From within American Zionism stronger leaders finally began to emerge towards the end of the 1930s: Rabbis Solomon Goldman and Abba Hillel Silver, and Henry Montor, the executive director of the United Palestine Appeal. Henry Monsky, the president of the B’nai B’rith fraternal order, gradually brought his group into the Zionist orbit. Rabbi Wise, who was connected to the Brandeis circle but stood outside the perimeter of the judge’s shadow, made his mark much earlier than the others. Not only did he hold major offices in the largest American Zionist and pro-Zionist organizations all during the thirties (except, of course, for Hadassah), he was a significant figure in his own right in the worlds of liberal religion and liberal politics. He and Ben-Gurion did not always agree on policy or even like each other. On occasion Wise found the Palestinian duplicitous, and pined for the “day in Zionist circles [when he would] . . . come upon someone in whom one could place unlimited and unquestioning confidence.”139 Ben-Gurion thought the rabbi sometimes behaved like “a baby” when it came to “political questions”; he saw in him “a typical American tribune” whose “spiritual world [was] . . . limited” and who lacked “political insight”; and like Jabotinsky he found Wise inconstant.140 But the two cooperated closely on many issues; and Wise proved often to be a valuable political ally.

The early 1930s were a period of preparation for renewed American intervention in Palestine affairs. During the investigatory visit there of Sir John Hope-Simpson in 1930, Katznelson suggested that American Jews be mobilized to counter British pressure on the Zionist Executive in London. Ben-Gurion and others were not yet ready for that step.141 None of them was aware how jittery the British were about such an eventuality. After the 1929 riots the Colonial Office had attempted to neutralize negative publicity in the United States with its own propaganda program. Albert M. Hyamson, an observant British Jew who, during his service in the Palestine Mandatory government, became a hardened foe of Zionism, was engaged to “provide some material to be used in America for counteracting mendacious abuse of the British Government that was going on there.” Although Hyamson admitted to his superiors that his disinformation had not “made the slightest difference to the attitude of American Jews either then or later,” serious consideration was given to employing him to try again.142

By 1933, Ben-Gurion was prepared for Brandeis and Frankfurter to intercede with the British. Early the next year, he reiterated to the judge his belief that “the friendship of England . . . [is] a necessary condition for our political success.” At the same time, he suggested that “America is perhaps in a special position [with regard to Britain], and a hint from its Government [to London] might help us a good deal.” Perhaps nervous about Brandeis’s reaction, he added that this was “a subject” upon which he was “not qualified to express an opinion.”143 At home, however, he made no effort to conceal the link he saw between “the necessity for political action in America” and the existence there of “Jewish personalities with connections and important positions in the government.”144 Although he was not unwilling to send Frankfurter to act for him, Brandeis guarded his image as a detached jurist. He proved reluctant even to offer Roosevelt advice on the appointment of a minister to Russia who might help Jews there wishing to emigrate to Palestine.145 “The question” for Ben-Gurion remained, then: “How to set these political wheels in motion?”146 During his American visit in 1935, he sought advice from Frankfurter and Brandeis regarding the legislative council proposal. Both felt strongly that nothing could be done in the United States to help; Frankfurter dissuaded the visitor from trying to see Roosevelt.147

Wise had spoken of England’s “great betrayal” of Zionism already in 1930. By the mid-1930s, Ben-Gurion had also become convinced that the first country to champion the Jewish national movement was turning into its adversary, although many in the Zionist camp refused to acknowledge the change. In January 1936, he spoke of the need for public agitation in the United States against the restriction of immigration to Palestine, and of the need for Frankfurter’s intercession in London, where he had “important ties . . . and was known as an intimate of Roosevelt.”148 Only a public outcry would move the British government. In London and New York “large-scale activity . . . [was] required [to] . . . prevent [further restrictive] decrees.”149 In February Rabbi Wise entered the fray, protesting to Roosevelt the nomination as consul in Jerusalem of a person unlikely to be sympathetic to the yishuv. The president agreed to reexamine the appointment if the Zionists could provide proof of their allegations.150 As the leader of Mapai, Ben-Gurion spoke in March of the need for a massive Zionist “offensive” against Britain. Unlike Jabotinsky, who played the Polish card even after the outbreak of war, Ben-Gurion recognized years before that that country’s “wretched” Jews could no longer do anything to further Zionist aims. “On whom shall we lean,” he asked in March 1936, if not on America?151

In response to the Arab riots the next month, he suggested a demonstrative gathering in London of all “our [influential] friends,” especially Frankfurter, Lipsky, and Wise; and he asked Brandeis to ensure that Frankfurter, who was in England on sabbatical, would come.152 This time the crisis was so severe that Brandeis himself intervened with the British government and with Roosevelt—successfully. Although FDR had steadily retreated from his endorsement of a Jewish Palestine during the 1932 elections, he now “pressured London not to curtail the Palestine immigration quota.”153 Wise paid a call on Colonial Secretary William Ormsby-Gore as an official spokesman of American Zionism; Frankfurter planned to see Prime Minister Baldwin and a number of cabinet ministers, “not as a Zionist, [just] . . . to let them know the possible reaction in America should England stray from her obligations.”154 In October, Ben-Gurion reviewed recent events for the Zionist Smaller Actions Committee, the inner circle of the WZO. Among the incidents he recounted was the following: “On the day the cabinet met” in London to discuss the immigration issue,

an important letter was published from the greats of America, all of them Christian, leaders of trade unions, churches, and charitable agencies . . . a combination that seems weird to us but is usual in America. . . . The prime minister felt obliged to respond . . . and to promise that the government of England would be diligent in preserving the Mandate and in ameliorating conditions.155

A few weeks earlier Brandeis had sketched out for Robert Szold what he believed to be the rationale for American submissions (there were several, including those of Hadassah, Junior Hadassah, and the ZOA) to the royal commission headed by Earl Peel, which had been appointed to study the causes of the recent Arab riots. It resembled remarkably Ben-Gurion’s conception of America, and the Diaspora in general, as the hinterland of the yishuv. “America’s deep interest,” Brandeis asserted, did “not rest only upon the fact that” it “had the largest Jewish population of any country”; that it had “major investments in Palestine”; or that it had “expended those vast sums” during the formative period of the country and thereby acquired founders’ rights. Rather, “the intensity of America’s interest

and its depth of feeling about British action is due in part to the fact that:

            (1)  We gave support to the proposed Balfour Declaration in advance, at British solicitation;

            (2)  We gave support, largely at British solicitation, to the appointment of Britain as Trustee (as then called) of Palestine.156

Here was a rationale for the political partnership of America and her Jews with the yishuv. Ben-Gurion and Brandeis had become the parents of a nascent alliance.

More than any other Palestinian, Ben-Gurion anticipated the political role of the American Jewish community, although the vaunted “Jewish lobby” would not come into being for many years yet. Money, he wrote to Wise in January 1937, would be crucial, because “without it we shan’t be able to maintain the full strength of the yishuv.” But it was the “political power” of Jews in the United States, unequalled elsewhere, that would make the difference “in the life and death struggle ahead.”157 He knew there were limits to that power and that there were strong anti-Zionist currents in the country. But nowhere else did Jews have as much access to government, as many of their coreligionists in high places, or the electoral strength in key districts that they had in America.

The following year was marked by the partition debate. Even before the Peel Commission delivered its report, it was assumed that it would recommend the division of Palestine. In the face of widespread opposition to accepting a mini-state, he assured the Mapai Center that the notion was not “fantastic,” that with the backing of Roosevelt and Premier Léon Blum of France, who was a member of the Socialist Pro-Palestine Committee and of the Jewish Agency Council, the plan could work. “Without the help of America,” however, it would not.158 In July 1937, with objections to partition mounting, Ben-Gurion defiantly declared all Zionists to be united on one thing: desire for a state of one sort or another.159 It was not the first time he simply declared his own views to be the consensus. After the Zionist Congress that summer, when it became clear that Hadassah, Wise, and even Brandeis opposed him on partition, he made a flying trip to the United States to twist arms and to repair the strained relationship with Brandeis. He changed only a few minds. But the judge’s friendship remained intact, even if his view of current affairs was too “legalistic” and not realistically “political” (emphasis Ben-Gurion’s) to the politician’s way of thinking.160


By 1938, war clouds were gathering. Ben-Gurion had little confidence in “official, gentile America.” He was disquieted by the Evian Conference, at which the American delegates had avoided mention of Palestine and seemed to be “distancing [themselves] from foreign ‘entanglements.’” He hoped that an aroused public opinion together with pressure on the president by Brandeis, Wise, and Ben Cohen, one of Roosevelt’s Jewish advisors, would turn the situation around.161 Fears that Britain might be preparing to hand over Palestine to the Arabs in the near future prompted his frantic appeal in early October to Rabbi Goldman, the ZOA president, as well as to Wise, Lipsky, and others for help with Roosevelt, and to the Poale Zion for a good word with their Labor friends. Goldman’s efforts resulted in newspaper editorials across the country, a flood of telegrams to Washington, and the formation of the National Emergency Committee for Palestine, which eventually included both Zionists and non-Zionists. Brandeis once more interceded personally; and Bernard Baruch, not usually a friend of Zionism, spoke with Churchill.162

Later that month encouraged by the activity, Ben-Gurion sent Goldman an outline of the likely approach towards Palestine of His Majesty’s Government in the coming months, based on information from a friendly member of the British cabinet. Policy depended on “Neville” (Chamberlain, the prime minister), he wrote, and

there is only one thing that can influence him—namely, the position of America. If England . . . [can] trade and improve her standing in America because of her relationship to the Jews and Zionism—this he can take into consideration. . . .

England is now negotiating for a commercial agreement. If it . . . [could be made known] that keeping faith with the Jews and [the] expansion of immigration are able to assist the negotiations and the relations with America—that would be a very great thing.

Everything seemed to depend on America; and it was “necessary somehow to increase pressure” from there. Ben-Gurion cautioned Goldman, that “as far as possible,” it should “not become evident that the pressure is organized by the Zionists.” On the other hand, “our friends in . . . Government . . . should know how . . . much value is attached to their stand.”163

As a way of impressing the administration with the broad support for Zionism developing among American Jews and of parading before the world the emerging yishuv-America alliance, Ben-Gurion conceived of a plan for a major international conference in support of Zionism to be held in the United States. In December he headed there to promote the event, another attempt at pro-Zionist political theater which bore some similarity in aim to the 1930 Berlin labor congress. Timing was crucial. The British government had summoned Arabs and Jews to a roundtable conference at London’s St. James Palace in early 1939. The Zionists anticipated no favorable conclusion to those discussions and wanted the British to know that strong protest from America would follow. Such a threat counted for much just then, Ben-Gurion told the ZOA National Executive Committee: “In case of war . . . [the] fate of England hinges upon the action of America. . . . We think we will be strengthened as far as we can be . . . in this very great struggle, if the British Government will know that the Jewish people in America and, to a certain degree, American public opinion is watching them.”164 There was a Machiavellian aspect to the proposal. Persuaded now that partition would not be implemented and that the doors to Palestine were about to be sealed, the Agency chairman renounced diplomacy in favor of “combative Zionism,” which involved, among other things, open illegal immigration, which he expected the British to suppress. The gathering in New York or Washington was meant to highlight the injustice and galvanize the American public and government to press the British to alter their policy.165

During his two-and-a-half-week stay he made little headway with the conclave. Brandeis expressed “complete understanding”; Robert Szold was somewhat less enthusiastic. Hadassah was supportive; Cyrus Adler and other non-Zionists were adamantly opposed, suspecting this was just another version of the World Jewish Congress that Stephen Wise and Nahum Goldmann were planning. To Ben-Gurion’s chagrin, many Zionists feared attempting to wield Jewish power in public; others thought it would be all but impossible to foment opposition to Britain and Germany at the same time. If lobbying for the conference went poorly, so, too, did the search for “rich Jews who would help” with ships and money for illegal immigration, open or secret. He did, however, manage to establish a working relationship with Henry Montor; and he delivered a rousing address at the Washington conference of the United Palestine Appeal, his first major speech in English.166

Notwithstanding his difficulties in organizing the American “front,” it remained his strongest suit for the coming St. James Conference. The choreography for the conference called for Rabbi Wise to be the “third speaker on our side,” Ben-Gurion wrote to his wife from London. He would “stress America’s partnership in the policy of the National Home, and . . . American Jewry’s expectations that Britain will stand by its commitments.”167 At the close of the meetings, however, probably at the instance of the less militant and more pro-British Weizmann, Wise undermined his own “side.” He declared publicly the impossibility of American Jews’ agitating against Britain after years of vociferous opposition to Germany.168 In the weeks following the conference, Ben-Gurion urged continued lobbying in Washington. “The closer the world is to war,” he told the Mapai Political Committee in early April, “the more dependent on America England becomes. And if Roosevelt really wanted to come to our aid, if he would chastise England, he could change a lot.”169

The president, however, did little; and the British did not flinch. In May 1939, came the white paper intended to pave the way to Palestine’s becoming an Arab state. As expected, it severely curtailed Jewish immigration just as Europe’s Jews faced annihilation. Frenzied attempts had been made to dissuade Chamberlain from this definitive departure from the Mandate by the leaders of the yishuv, by the doggedly pro-English Weizmann, by the League of Nations Mandates Commission, which refused to accept explicit repudiation of the Balfour Declaration, and by Americans of all stripes. Brandeis himself discussed the change at least four times with the British, but all to no avail. In the end, America carried less weight with Chamberlain than Ben-Gurion had been led to believe. The Arabs, with their oil, numbers, and strategic geographical location, were needed in the approaching struggle. Everyone knew the Jews had no alternative but to favor Britain over Nazi Germany. The Agency chairman’s repeated warnings not to take the Jews “in Palestine and in America . . . for granted,” rang hollow.170 Sometimes Ben-Gurion appeared to lose heart himself. When he left the United States in January 1939, it seemed to him “all but clear that we had no hope of expecting help from America . . . in our struggle.”171

The overwhelming odds notwithstanding, the yishuv was not about to give up. At the first Mapai Party Center meeting after the invasion of Poland, Ben-Gurion asserted the collective determination not only to survive but yet to succeed in fulfilling the Zionist dream. “Even in normal times, Palestine [still] could not stand on its own feet. . . . Now swift, substantial aid from outside is essential; and at this point in time there is no outside other than America.” In contrast to Jabotinsky—and Weizmann—the Agency chairman recognized that this war would not be anything like the last. Then America had only to provide food “for a small yishuv.” Now “large-scale” relief was required for a community of almost half a million people with “a diversified economy.” The nature of “the political assistance demanded from America” this time was also very different. Then Zionists “had one simple . . . political claim: recognition of our right to Palestine. Now that right” had been delegitimated. In Ben-Gurion’s estimation, such a “complex” situation called for skills and knowledge possessed by no contemporary American Zionist leader, not even Brandeis with his “formidable intellect” and superior knowledge of Palestine. He proposed the immediate establishment in the United States of a Zionist office to be directed by Palestinians “of stature and weight who will impose their opinions and will on American Zionism and on American Jewry” at large.172 One of those persons “of stature and weight” was Ben-Gurion himself, who spent many months in the United States in the early years of the war activating the hinterland of the yishuv.

Ben-Gurion as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, holding a press conference on the SS Berengaria on his return to America from the Zionist Congress in Geneva, 3 September 1937. (Courtesy of UPI-Bettmann.)

Although this war might be different, Ben-Gurion did not believe all the Zionist weapons of World War I to be antiquated. Like Jabotinsky, he wanted a Jewish fighting force to help defeat Hitler, to defend the national home, and to renew the claim for spoils, namely Palestine, after the war. Already in 1937, he had toyed with the notion of securing admission to West Point and Annapolis for future olim, “not an easy thing for Jews,” but “not out of the question with sufficient ‘pull’ (from senators and congressmen).” Training “officers for Palestine at the expense of the American government” had appeal to the cash-strapped Agency chairman; and he charged Benny Applebaum and another colleague with looking into the matter.173 It was not, however, a scheme that would appeal to Americans zealous for the good name of Zionism. Whatever their training, Ben-Gurion had “no doubt,” he reassured his son, Amos, in the same year, that in the case of war between Jews and Arabs “all of the younger generation in Poland, Rumania, America and other countries will flock to us.”174

After the failed St. James Conference, he returned to the army idea, informing Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald that if Palestine Arabs could rely on reinforcements from Iraq, the Jews could summon their brethren from Poland and the United States.175 Here was his notion of American Jewry as a counterweight to the Arab states in a military context. Ben-Gurion conceived of the Jewish Army in two ways: (1) chiefly a local and foreign legion for the defense of Palestine; (2) possibly a unit to fight in Europe like the exile armies of the captive nations, although this notion was more Weizmann’s. One of the main reasons for his trip to North America in the fall of 1940 was to lay the groundwork for such a force. Unlike Jabotinsky, he rather quickly perceived the “great legal difficulties” regarding recruitment in America and the lack of “enthusiasm on the part of the Jewish public and leaders.” But he, too, refused to abandon the idea altogether, although he did modulate his pitch.176

Eager though he was for the army, he refused to cooperate with Peter Bergson and “that gang” in the Revisionist Committee for a Jewish Army and the American Friends of a Jewish Palestine, who had declared independence even from Jabotinsky. In early 1942 he did meet Bergson; he conceded that “these fellows know how to do things,” by which he meant duping unwitting gentiles into lending their names, but he remained convinced that “the cause . . . would only suffer from their championship.”177

Once the United States had entered the war in December 1941, there was no longer any possibility of Americans serving in an army other than that of their own country. Ben-Gurion still hoped, however, that the United States government could convince the British to allow “the maximum mobilisation of the Jews in Palestine for the defense of the country.”178 Towards the end of the war, when Britain finally agreed to a Jewish brigade raised in Palestine, it was allowed to serve only in Europe. Not until Israel’s War of Independence did the kind of foreign legion envisioned by Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky come into being: Maḥal, the unit of foreign volunteers in which many Americans fought, although they were forbidden to do so according to United States law.


Between 1940 and 1942 Ben-Gurion spent over a year on two long visits in the United States. These eventful years included the 1940 elections, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the American entry into the war. He had resigned his post as Agency chairman because his Mapai colleagues and the Agency Executive had refused to back his anti-British militancy, but no effort was made to replace him, because no one could fill his shoes, and it was hoped that he would soon recant. In the United States he behaved as though still in office. The objectives of these extended visits were several: getting support and recruiting for the Jewish Army; securing backing for a Jewish state or “commonwealth”; firming up the will of American Jews, debilitated, he feared, by life in the Diaspora; unifying American Jewry behind the yishuv; and cementing his own alliances within Zionism both to further his policies and to challenge Weizmann’s leadership.

During World War I it was Jabotinsky who had seen most clearly the potential of the United States and American Jewry as prods for moving the British in the direction of a pro-Zionist policy. During World War II, it was Ben-Gurion who best understood that the United States had become “the main arena” for Zionists’ “efforts outside Palestine” and that, “aside from the Yishuv itself,” the most “effective” weapon in the battle for Zionism was “the American Jewish community.”179 In mid-March, 1940, Menaḥem Ussishkin of the Jewish National Fund opened a meeting in Jerusalem of the Zionist Inner Actions Committee with a despairing lament that the Jews no longer had any allies on whom they could depend. Ben-Gurion responded with an equally heavy heart about the present, but with a different prognosis for the future and a program of action. He pointed out that there was strong disagreement with Britain’s Palestine policies in Britain itself and certainly in the United States. The pro-English sentiments of American Jews had until now been fueled largely by appreciation for the Balfour Declaration. If England was changing course, it would lose American-Jewish support. And since other ethnic groups in the United States, most notably the Irish and the Germans, had a long and vocal tradition of opposing Britain, there could be no conflict between loyalty to America and hostility to Britain. It was an analysis based on familiarity with the American scene.180

His first trip, from early October 1940, to mid-January 1941, was devoted to reinforcing “the foundations . . . laid” earlier and to preparing “the ground for the next” visit.181 Ben-Gurion worked at securing a loan for the Agency, and tried again without success to separate Zionist and general Jewish fund raising.182 More important for the future, he took careful measure of Zionist leaders as well as the rank and file. The new ZOA president, Edward Kauffman, seemed to be “a very fair-minded Jew” whose only qualification for “head[ing] any movement” whatsoever, was that he “dressed well.” Abba Hillel Silver, who chaired the United Palestine Appeal, by contrast, “wielded tremendous influence, and battled for his opinions with courage, obstinacy and enthusiasm.” By 1945 Ben-Gurion would view the rabbi as a rival for movement leadership. He came to think of him as a typical American political “boss” and suspected him of “Revisionist-fascist” leanings.183 Hadassah was too dovish for his taste; and the extent of its success was altogether “a surprise.” But he spoke at their convention, explained his views, got a sympathetic hearing, and left with feelings of “the most faithful, honest friendship.”184

In late November, after the sinking of the refugee ship, Patria, with the loss of over two hundred lives, Ben-Gurion shifted into high gear. He addressed the Geverkshaften Campaign convention, which adopted a strong anti-British resolution protesting the recent expulsions from Palestine of illegal immigrants. It was the opening salvo in his American campaign for “combative Zionism”; it found its target and heartened the gunner. Before the Poale Zion Central Committee, Ben-Gurion unveiled his “Program for War and Peace;” it resonated with them, and they became its promoters in the conservative Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs, along with Rabbi Silver and the Mizraḥi leader, Rabbi Gold.185 In January, he spoke to the ZOA Administrative Council in Philadelphia, masterfully equating his own militancy with genuine Americanism. The president had just delivered his “Arsenal of Democracy” speech, a landmark of the immediate prewar period that set out the role for the not-yet-belligerent United States in the months to come. Ben-Gurion knew “of no better Zionist message than the message of the President.” Now, he said,

it is for American Jewry to become the champion of the Jewish people as much as the whole of America is going to become the champion of democracy, freedom and justice for the whole world. . . . And just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and not Charles Lindbergh, . . . is expressing the true spirit of the United States, it is you . . . who are expressing the real spirit of American democracy and of Jewish democracy, which are one.186

When he departed for home some days later, he left behind him a more sympathetic and radicalized community than he had found three months before. “In spite of all the splits and quarrels and weaknesses,” he reported to the Mapai Center, “fundamentally there was good Zionism in America.”187


After making “no headway with the British Colonial Office” regarding the Jewish Army, or on selling his maximalism either to Mapai, the Agency Executive, or the WZO Inner Actions Committee, the increasingly well seasoned politician returned to the United States in November 1941. Not pique, but logic, motivated this trip, since his plan of action “was based primarily upon the propaganda possibilities and the power” of the United States.188 Shortly before leaving, he penned the “Outlines of Zionist Policy,” the clearest statement yet of his vision of the alliance and a very prescient document. “Whether America enters the war . . . or not,” he wrote with extraordinary foresight,

the center of gravity of our political work lies . . . in the U.S.A. At the end of the war America will play a major . . . role for the simple reason that she will be less exhausted than the other . . . fighting powers; the welfare of Europe will depend . . . on her economic assistance; and the safeguarding of peace . . . will more than ever depend on the active participation of America in the new arrangements after the war. But whatever the part of America may be in world affairs, in our own affairs she may certainly be decisive. In America it will be easier to win over public opinion for a radical and maximum solution of the Jewish problem in Palestine than it is in England. . . . America is much more disinterested in Palestine than England. . . . She has, moreover, a very large Jewish community . . . which is Palestine-minded and not without influence.

With American backing, he concluded, “all the present difficulties . . . will fade into insignificance. . . . American support for a Jewish State in Palestine is . . . the key to our success.”189

For ten stormy months in the United States Ben-Gurion pursued the goal of a Jewish state and promoted his own leadership. He relied on tried tactics and new initiatives; he did not hesitate to step on toes; he made enemies and won friends, among the latter, a new romantic interest, Miriam Cohen (later, Taub), a secretary at the Emergency Committee who became his private secretary for a time. (Interestingly, Ben-Gurion’s extra-curricular involvements mirror the evolution of his pursuit of international connections for the yishuv. The first was Rega Klapholz, a Viennese Jew; the second was Doris May, a British gentile who was Weizmann’s secretary in London; the third was Cohen, an American. The relationships were entered into during prolonged absences from Palestine on the continent, in England, and then in the United States.)

These months marked the culmination of Ben-Gurion’s orientation towards America and the fixing in stone of the yishuv-America alliance. His stay began dramatically with an address to the Pan-American Zionist Conference in Baltimore during which he so stirred the audience that they rose to sing “HaTikva,” the Zionist anthem, when he finished.190 He was alert now, as always, to the importance of tending the organizational garden. He attempted “to breathe more life” into the Poale Zion and related well to its Habonim youth. He tried again fruitlessly to effect a merger with the Jewish Labor Committee but concluded, in the end, that the party would never fulfill a significant function “in the political life of the Zionist movement.”191 He cultivated Hadassah, especially its “outstanding” president, Judith Epstein, “a dedicated Zionist, wise and resolute.” He spoke to the Emergency Committee whose members seemed to have “more penetrating political understanding than a year earlier.” At Rabbi Silver’s invitation he addressed a United Palestine Appeal meeting in Cleveland where he was introduced by the mayor. And he participated in a Madison Square Garden rally protesting Nazi atrocities.192

One of the major projects Ben-Gurion undertook during these months was an updated version of his old unity schemes. This time the aim was a Zionist-non-Zionist union. First he had to overcome his negative feelings about the non-Zionists in the Agency, once more proving he could shift ground for the sake of larger aims. For more than seven months he negotiated with Maurice Wertheim, president of the American Jewish Committee, in an attempt to find terms on which that small, but prominent and moneyed, group would be able to stand behind both the Jewish Army and a Jewish state. At the outset of these negotiations, he “was not sufficiently well-informed” about the Committee, but by early January 1942, he sensed its marginality.193 He soldiered on nonetheless, partly because he had grown to like Wertheim, partly because the well-connected AJC had the potential for causing trouble with the American government, partly in the hope of acquiring an ally against Weizmann.

Wertheim, the brother-in-law of Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. and the son-in-law of the former ambassador to Turkey, had accompanied American aid shipments to the yishuv during World War I. Ben-Gurion knew this bit of history but had only a fuzzy notion of his partner’s pedigree and thought him a self-made man.194 Involvement with the Palestine relief missions had left Wertheim with a fond feeling for the National Home, unlike many of the other AJC leaders, who moved away from Zionism during World War II because they opposed Jewish nationalism in principle, or because they feared the double loyalty canard.195 He and Ben-Gurion established a mutually warm and respectful relationship and arrived at what is known as the Cos Cob Formula (after Wertheim’s place of residence) for endorsing a “Jewish commonwealth.” Despite their patient labors, however, hard-liners in the Committee refused to accept the concordat. Wertheim proved unwilling to split the group; neither he nor Ben-Gurion could placate the anti-Zionists; and the project was abandoned to the disappointment of both. In 1943 the AJC agreed to join the American Jewish Conference, yet another attempt to achieve a unified American Jewry, but withdrew when the Conference appeared too openly Zionistic. Only after the war, with full awareness of the Holocaust, and with the gates to North America still not open wide, did the AJC and most other non-Zionists begin to cooperate in working towards an autonomous “Jewish commonwealth.”196

Ben-Gurion’s second major initiative, giving the Zionists a forceful voice in Washington, caused added friction with Weizmann and considerable conflict with the American Zionist establishment. From conversations with people in the know, he had learned that the State Department was pro-Arab (and antisemitic), and that FDR, although friendly, “did not consider the Zionist enterprise . . . serious.” He—and Mrs. Roosevelt—tended to think of it as “a beautiful” ideal that could never solve the Jewish problem.197 The “most important political task,” then, was “to convince the proper persons that Palestine ‘can do it.’” And who better than Ben-Gurion himself for that job?198 He decided to take up residence in the capital as a representative of the Jewish Agency.

In meetings with the American ambassador, John G. Winant, before leaving London, he had begun the process of trying to obtain an audience with Roosevelt.199 The purpose was twofold: to convert the president into an active ally and to demonstrate his own primacy in the Zionist movement by overshadowing Weizmann. Although most biographers interpret the anti-Weizmann maneuvering as having to do mostly with ambition and jealousy, one should note that Ben-Gurion strongly believed that his rival was a weak leader whose pro-British policies would bring about the destruction of the yishuv.

The Emergency Committee balked at his setting up shop in Washington, viewing it as an invasion of their turf. Weizmann thought the move a usurpation of his authority. Both were right, but Ben-Gurion did as he pleased, after consenting to the nominal supervision of the Committee and obtaining the agreement of the Agency Executive to fund him. He arranged for regular consultations with Justice Frankfurter, who was willing to provide introductions to sympathetic people in government. One such was David Niles, a Jewish presidential aide and a member of the White House inner circle, later a close advisor to President Truman who probably helped persuade Truman to recognize Israel.200 In Washington, Ben-Gurion was lonely and isolated, except for Miriam Cohen and Frankfurter; and at first he was subjected to a whispering campaign by those who felt encroached upon.201 But while there, and later in New York, he met with officials, including Secretary Morgenthau (“friendly, superficial, rash”), Under Secretary of War John J. McCloy, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, Coordinator of Information William J. Donovan (“Wild Bill,” later head of the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA), William C. Bullitt, a senior diplomat, and others. As well, he “met some people from newly created government agencies [who were] . . . without any special sympathies for Zionism, and even frankly pro-Arab, but all of them . . . honest and open-minded [and] . . . not hopeless when you give them all the facts.”202 He also sought to “enlist . . . the Zionist intelligentsia for the serious examination of political questions”; and Emanuel Neumann, then public relations director for the Emergency Committee, organized a session with a number of younger civil servants.203

Ben-Gurion felt drawn to “the progressive circles” around Vice-President Henry Wallace, but it was Weizmann who got to see Wallace a number of times. And it was Weizmann who received the coveted invitation to chat with Roosevelt. Ben-Gurion and Wallace finally met in Jerusalem in 1947, after which occasion the former vice-president praised the future prime minister and his associates for “creating a great state . . . [with] many of the advantages of both socialism and capitalism.”204 In the race to Washington, the Palestinian Laborite had been outrun by the scientist from London; but he had gotten to know some important and useful people; he had learned the workings of the American government; and he had laid the groundwork for capturing the political support the yishuv would need in its ultimate battle for independence. He had also gained increased respect for the power, efficiency, and independence of Americans.205

Ben-Gurion rightly regarded the Extraordinary or Pan-American Zionist Conference, usually known as the Biltmore Conference after the New York hotel where it took place, as “the most important” of his undertakings during these months.206 David Shpiro places the Conference in the context of the renewed messianic spirit evident in America even before Pearl Harbor, as the president and others began to search for solutions to world problems in the hope of averting future cataclysms. The first Jewish group to begin postwar planning was the American Jewish Congress; others followed suit, including the Emergency Committee. The direct buildup for Biltmore began in late 1940 with the preparations for the National Conference on Palestine of the United Palestine Appeal, scheduled for January 1941, under the chairmanship of the militant Rabbi Silver. Silver called for “maximal Herzlian Zionism”; and the Conference endorsed large-scale postwar immigration and Jewish independence. The rabbi succeeded in politicizing not only the UPA but also the Keren HaYesod and Keren Kayemet fund drives. By mid-June 1941, the Emergency Committee, Mizraḥi, and the League for Labor Palestine had all accepted the establishment of an autonomous Jewish commonwealth as the immediate postwar Zionist goal. In September the ZOA fell into line, and in November, Hadassah. The concept was Ben-Gurion’s; the term was preferred by Americans to “state,” and Ben-Gurion adopted it for tactical reasons.207

The “all-Zionist” meeting on May 9–11, 1942, marked the first occasion ever on which all American Zionist groups sat down together.208 For a few days, at least, Ben-Gurion’s long-sought goal of Zionist unity had been achieved. Present were more than five hundred delegates from across America and sixty-seven foreign visitors, including Ben-Gurion and Weizmann. Ben-Gurion reminded the gathering that after World War I the victorious powers had “resolved to undo the historic wrong to the Jewish people and recognize its right to restoration in its ancient homeland [even though] the position . . . was not yet as desperate and hopeless as it will be at the end of this war.” With Jews threatened by Nazi Germany, “a leisurely pace” of settlement could no longer be tolerated. Open immigration, a Jewish army, and immediate independence were essential.209 Weizmann used more temporizing language; and the Conference appeared at the time to belong largely to him as the titular head of the WZO. In fact, it was Ben-Gurion’s maximalist vision—dependent on American support, since Britain had already determined to make Palestine an Arab state—that won the day and became the platform for Zionist action known as the Biltmore Program. Among others, Emanuel Neumann recognized that Biltmore had been “a decided success, thanks largely to the influence of Ben-Gurion.”210

Following the Conference, Ben-Gurion was dismayed by Weizmann’s efforts to downplay the Biltmore Program as “just a resolution like the hundred and one resolutions usually passed at great meetings” in the United States, which did no more than reiterate past positions.211 In any case convinced that Weizmann’s irresolute leadership was a calamity for Zionism, Ben-Gurion now turned resentful and thirsty for vengeance. After an ugly and fruitless attempt to discredit Weizmann at a private meeting of American Zionist leaders, he returned to Palestine. There, to the relief of his colleagues he resumed the Agency chairmanship, and to their consternation contemplated a campaign to depose Weizmann.212

In the event, such drastic action proved unnecessary, because Weizmann lost the day. Reporting to the Mapai Secretariat in October 1942, Ben-Gurion asserted that at the Biltmore, “the majority of the [American] Zionist movement had accepted . . . [the new program] wholeheartedly.” Within a year, it had been formally adopted by most major American Jewish organizations, the deputies of which gathered in the summer of 1943 in a demonstration of solidarity at the American Jewish Conference representing over two-and-a-half million Jews.213 “Zionist organizations in Palestine and other countries . . . now lagged behind the American[s] . . . in this ‘messianic’ enthusiasm,” a startling reversal for Palestinians accustomed to thinking of their New World confrères as weak-kneed.214

The Americans enjoyed their new role. “It is certainly encouraging to Zionists here,” wrote Carl Alpert, the managing editor of The New Palestine, to Ben-Gurion from Washington shortly after his return home, “to know of the high opinion which you hold of the movement in this country.” Was it not “a rather new procedure,” he inquired tongue-in-cheek, “for the Yishuv to take its political line and policy from America?” And, he persisted, was the yishuv at last coming to regard America as more than a source of funds?215 Alpert, of course, was preaching to the converted; his interlocutor had maintained for some time that the primary Zionist role of America was not financial but political.

At this point, Ben-Gurion stood the notion of America as an instrument of Zionism on its head. As he had tried to do during the 1927 orange grove workers’ strike, he used the American lever to move his fellow Palestinians. By the end of November 1942, the Inner Actions Committee of the WZO, as well as Mapai, Mizraḥi, and the “A” General Zionists had subscribed to Biltmore, although the program contributed to a rift in Mapai that would not be healed for more than a quarter century. In early 1944, Biltmore received the endorsement of the HEC, by a slim majority.216 The militant, American-oriented policy, rejected by his colleagues four years earlier, now became the policy of most groups in the yishuv. The destruction of European Jewry, the failure of the Allies even to attempt rescue, and the impotence of the yishuv under the heel of the British had done much to change people’s minds. Proclaiming the policy in the United States and first gaining the acquiescence of American Jewry proved to be an effective way to convince the yishuv that it could be implemented.


In August 1945, just after the cessation of hostilities, a Zionist meeting was held in London to formulate the movement’s agenda in the radically altered postwar world. Weizmann was still holding back on statehood, but events had passed him by. Immediate independence became the movement’s expressed goal, one that only the United States and American Jewry could ensure. The British were unalterably opposed; the yishuv, with a population of some 600,000 could not defeat Britain alone; there were no potential allies other than America. In December of that year the United States Congress went on record in favor of an autonomous Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. There would yet be almost three years of struggle and suffering in the yishuv and lobbying in the United States before President Truman made the wish of Congress the policy of the government. But the way had been paved.

The outlines of Ben-Gurion’s vision of a Jewish state backed by America began to emerge in the 1920s and early 1930s. The concept had grown out of his assessment of the political potential of the United States and of the character of the country and its people; it may also have been fed by rivalry with Weizmann, the Anglophile. Over the years, it was shaped by his experiences in the New World and by the course of European history. More than any other yishuv leader, Ben-Gurion understood the essence of America and its affinity to the yishuv. That insight enabled him, more than anyone else, to appeal to the American psyche.

In late 1946 Ben-Gurion was back in the United States arguing his case before the public, buying arms, and organizing Zionists. On Armistice Day, before the Hadassah convention in Boston, he affirmed his confidence in the United States. “The great American people, who twice . . . have fought world wars for freedom [and] for the rights of men and nations,” would, he asserted, redeem the “pledge given to the most oppressed and suffering of peoples on earth . . . to reestablish in Palestine a free, democratic Jewish Commonwealth.”217 In a policy speech to the Knesset some years later, he defined the substance of the Israel-America relationship as he conceived it. There were and had always been practical, tactical reasons for an alliance with the United States; but neither that association—nor any other in the realm of international affairs—rested on an “identity of interests. America does not identify with us,” nor we with her, he warned. Yet, the two countries had established “an ever-growing partnership.” That partnership would last, he believed, because it was not based on common interests, but on a shared commitment to democratic government, to “liberty, . . . freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of debate.”218 It was a noble vision.

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