ALL SIX yishuv leaders surveyed here developed extensive relationships with America between 1914 and 1945, each in a different way and in a particular sphere of interest. Three of them, Szold, Meir, and Ben-Gurion, embraced America with rather eager optimism, the other three, Jabotinsky, Bialik, and Katznelson, with resigned pessimism, all six with some reluctance and, at times, even distaste. For the second group, the United States remained a peripheral, if growing, concern; for the first, it became central to their activities during this period. All six contributed to a heightened awareness of the New World in the yishuv, the more so because of their prominence.
America had different meanings for each of them and multiple meanings for some. To Jabotinsky, it was the wild, protean frontier, while to Szold it was the birthplace of a civilized—and urban—impulse to reform society. To Bialik, it was first a barbarous wasteland, and later the home of a nascent Hebrew culture movement which might replace the world of Jewish eastern Europe irrevocably damaged during the First World War and the Russian Revolution. To Katznelson, it was the land of business and bluff and the goldene medine. Ben-Gurion came to appreciate it as the torchbearer of democracy and defender of the helpless. America was one of the fonts of Szold’s values and habits, Golda’s first political constituency, and the launching pad for Ben-Gurion’s (and Weizmann’s) Biltmore Program for achieving statehood.
Looking backward, the Americanization of Israel seems inevitable; and perhaps by the late 1940s it was, in no small part because of the six leaders studied here. Before 1948, however, it was not at all certain, despite the burgeoning links discussed here. The physical presence of Americans in Palestine was negligible, Szold, Meir, Magnes, the Legionnaires, and others notwithstanding. Fewer olim (6396) came from the United States between 1919 and 1945 than from Greece (6931) or Turkey (6610), to say nothing of Yemen (14,454), Germany (39,131), or Poland (137,225).1 The yishuv appeared then to have diplomatic alternatives; and the United States was not always the obvious close ally. At least until the mid-1930s, Britain was the main prop of the Zionist enterprise. Jabotinsky pursued the British option until his death in 1940; and Weizmann continued to do so throughout World War II. Some on the left clung to the hope that Soviet Russia would become the patron of the yishuv; and the miniscule Stern Group on the right tried its luck with the Axis powers.2
Other political and cultural models were not only available, they appeared to exert far more influence than did America in the interwar years and, except for the Soviet Union, to arouse much less ambivalence. The ideologies of the yishuv were grounded in such non-Jewish sources as the nationalisms of central and eastern Europe, European socialism, eastern European populism, and “right-wing radicalism rooted in [the] historical romanticism” of eastern and central Europe. A “wide but differential influence” was exerted by liberalism in its central European and English-speaking forms. The Jewish sources of Zionism were almost entirely eastern European.3 Americans, as noted earlier on several occasions, tended to be regarded by the leaders of the yishuv as ideological lightweights for whom Zionism was a “sport.” Some of the more serious American thinkers, Mordecai Kaplan, for example, considered Zionism a religious, more than a political, phenomenon, an approach generally uncongenial to secular Zionists.
There was no ready source of large-scale funding other than the United States, a fact which forced the yishuv to take account of that country but also engendered resentment and jealousy, the latter often sublimated. It would have been possible to opt for slower growth, a less advanced economy, or still greater sacrifice. There were voices in the yishuv that advocated such a course of action, particularly the philosopher of the labor movement and guardian of its virtue, Aaron David Gordon, who died in 1922. From outside, Brandeis cautioned that heavy reliance on American funds was “not good for . . . [the] health or self-respect” of Zionism.4 But in those years, American money seemed relatively harmless. Believing in themselves as the vanguard of the nation, creating a state for all Jews everywhere, the men and women of the yishuv considered the support they received to be a contribution to the welfare of all Jews and remained largely uncorrupted by it. And in any case, the promise of American largesse remained greater than the reality; despite the dependency, there were never enough resources in these years to meet even the minimal needs of development and defense. “The easy money [that] rolls around like a plague”5 was not available until long after Israel achieved independence.
None of the six leaders studied here intended to promote the Americanization of the yishuv, except, perhaps, Szold, who sought assiduously to introduce American methods and standards in the fields of health care, social work, and education. But she, no less than the others, would have recoiled at the idea of the future state as an American outpost. Jewish patriotism and negative attitudes towards Diaspora life—in some cases, towards the gentile world, in general—motivated the life’s work of them all. An American Jewish journalist noted in 1929, that Americans, especially American Zionists, were “not liked in Palestine,” because their Zionism was patronizing and philanthropic, because they did not meet their financial obligations, because they came to Palestine, if at all, with a return ticket in hand, and for many other reasons.6 On the whole, as Thomas Friedman has observed, Israel’s founders “consciously rejected” what they knew “of American culture . . . out of the feeling of pioneer moral superiority that prevailed” in the pre-state era.7
In 1951, Bernard Rosenblatt, a lifelong American Zionist, one of the leaders of the American Zion Commonwealth, and a former resident of the yishuv whose wife had been a founder of Hadassah with Szold, urged Ben-Gurion to pay closer attention to American constitutional and economic models. The prime minister replied that he knew there was “a great deal to learn from America” but that there was “a fundamental difference between learning and imitating. I am prepared,” he said, “to learn endlessly the American technical know-how. The rest I will examine according to its merits. If it suits us—I will accept it, if it doesn’t—I will not.”8 Such an approach, however, was more easily proclaimed than practiced.
According to Zionist theory, Israel was to be the center of the Jewish world, providing cultural models for the Diaspora periphery to imitate. Instead, as one highly respected Israeli literary and cultural critic noted in 1989, “the Jews of Israel have found a model for emulation in America, so much so that the attractive power of the American center sometimes outweighs that of the Israeli center.”9 Examples abound, from the large number of Israelis who have emigrated permanently to North America—more people, by far, than have moved in the opposite direction—to the weaponry of the army or the tendency of serious Israeli novelists to write with an eye towards American readers. One could point to everyday life, from the many hugely popular American television programs to the proliferation of American fast-food outlets. In 1994, a McDonald’s restaurant was launched in Rishon LeZion, that veteran settlement of the Zionist yishuv, where in 1882 Yosef Feinberg issued his warning regarding assimilation in America, never imagining that the New World might extend its borders to Rishon. The arrival of the quintessential symbol of the plastic American culture so feared and scorned by the subjects of this study was greeted by patrons as the culmination of Zionist hopes. One diner summed up the feeling of the moment at the opening: “In the days after the Shoah [Holocaust], who would have thought a day like this would come? A beautiful place like this, like in Los Angeles, or . . . New York! This is America, but better. . . . Now we have it all.”10
American technology necessarily came with cultural strings attached; serving a nutritious, healthful, American-style breakfast of oatmeal instead of herring, as Golda did at Merḥavya, was not quite as inconsequential as it seemed at the time. Sometimes American money was spent to replicate America, as happened with Hadassah in the earlier years; donors might even stipulate such a requirement. American experts, as a matter of course, acted as conduits of the mores and attitudes of their country, as well as its technology. American freedoms and pluralism could not be emulated without adopting some of the trappings of American political culture. The close personal relationships that developed between yishuv leaders—and not only those of the first rank discussed here—and American Jews led to the inevitable exchange of ideas and habits and to ongoing and wide-ranging relationships. And perhaps, too, the brashness and lack of polish of America were more congenial to the rough-hewn Israeli temperament than the urbanity and refinement of Europe.
In the post-World War II era, the popular culture of America captured the imagination of much of the world, even of places far less intimately bound to the United States than Israel. Movies, music, shopping malls, and television have made it almost impossible to escape anywhere in the world the sort of “inflated, hollow” bluff and bluster that Bialik feared would “desecrate his . . . honor,” when he visited the United States.11 (A 1990s apartment complex in Tel Aviv, many of whose residents are of American origin, was named “Golda on the Park.” It was not given a Hebrew name.) Large numbers of American tourists to Israel, who had to be made to feel at home because of their importance to the economy, created additional pressure to Americanize, as did the small, but increasing, number of American olim. After 1967 Israeli tourists to America brought home their perceptions of New World wonders.
During and before the Second World War, the alternative models and alliances of the interwar era disappeared or became discredited. Britain retreated altogether from its commitment to Zionism; the Soviet Union saw it as a regressive phenomenon at best; the Nazis hated the Jews of the yishuv no less than those closer to home; other European countries were too weakened by the war to offer much help even if they had wanted to do so. Itself a client of the Americans, Europe had little to offer in the postwar years except its traditions, which many Israelis viewed as having led to the Holocaust. Most countries outside Europe were either hostile to Zionism or disinclined to become involved. Polish Jewry was destroyed and Soviet Jewry imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain. That left American Jewry as the major community in the Diaspora, as well as the one with the most means and influence, and the United States as the only likely patron of the yishuv.
To a tiny country surrounded by hostile neighbors, for most of its history without any reliable allies other than the United States and heavily dependent on American funds, an American alliance has been all the more natural. During the first years of Israeli statehood one of the cardinal principles of Ben-Gurion’s “global outlook” was “recognition of the special significance of winning the basic trust of America.”12 For a time after 1948, some Israeli leaders advocated neutrality in the Cold War; and a few on the left still favored the Russians. Not many, however, retained much sympathy for the communist bloc after the open manifestations of virulent antisemitism during the late Stalin years and the revelations of earlier horrors that came with his death. Following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the United States let it be known that it would welcome a contingent of Israeli troops in the battle against the communist invaders. Ben-Gurion favored their dispatch and believed the cabinet had made a serious error in overruling him.13 In the same year he lectured his Mapai Party colleagues on the historic differences between America and Russia, citing as a reference Alexis de Tocqueville’s work of the 1830s, Democracy in America, a classic interpretation of America by a sympathetic European aristocrat.14 Among the leaders of the yishuv and of Israel, Ben-Gurion was unique in his appreciation of the virtues of the political culture of the United States.
As the Cold War ground on, Israel became an American client. The Soviets backed the Arabs. After the Six-Day War Israel became “so dependent on the United States for military, economic and political support that . . . some Israelis wonder[ed] aloud whether . . . the Zionist revolution” would end with Israel’s becoming “the 51st state.”15
But Israel’s infatuation with America has not been unrequited. Since 1948 American Jews have made Israel the center of their communal life, perhaps the only dogma of their civil religion. Over the years they and the United States government have been willing to an extraordinary extent to proffer financial aid and diplomatic support, their very willingness serving to tighten the bond between the two countries and to accelerate Americanization in Israel. The level of assistance and cooperation suggests “that Israel . . . touches something very deep in the American consciousness.”16
It is, perhaps, not beside the point that Israel and the United States have in common a unique heritage as countries founded on ideas and ideals. And many of the ideas and ideals most cherished in both countries are shared, as Ben-Gurion perceived. In Israel in the Mind of America, Peter Grose puts it this way:
Americans who are willing to look, see something of themselves in Israel. Even as they go their own way . . . Americans and Israelis are bonded together like no two other sovereign peoples. As the Judaic heritage flowed through the minds of America’s early settlers and helped to shape the new American republic, so Israel restored and adopted the vision and the values of the American dream. Each, the United States and Israel, grafted the heritage of the other onto itself.17
Whatever their intentions, then, there can be no doubt that these six leaders and their compatriots oriented the yishuv, and eventually the state into which it developed, in the direction of America. As a group during the years discussed here, they advanced significantly the development of links in the fields of finance, labor, politics, literature, journalism, public health, education, social welfare, and business, in fact in most important fields of human endeavor except religion, which remained largely impervious to American influences. After 1948, those intricate, manifold connections served as the Israeli foundation of the America-Israel alliance, which developed and deepened under the tutelage of Ben-Gurion as prime minister and of Golda Meir as foreign minister and then prime minister, but no less under Israel’s other leaders.
It is easy to point to problems associated with this relationship, especially those that highlight the ways in which Americanization has subverted aspects of the Zionist dream. But there can be no question that Israel’s American connection has been of inestimable advantage to it, and, as others have pointed out, to the United States, as well. That American democratic institutions have served as models appears the more fortunate, when one compares Israel to other nations that have gained or regained their independence since 1945. Those sometimes derided values of efficiency and hard work, as well as American know-how, have served Israel well and allowed it to transcend its Third World setting. The significance of the political and economic assistance given by American Jews and of the diplomatic, military, and economic assistance given by the United States government is undeniable. Without such aid the yishuv might well have become a minority Jewish community in an Arab Palestine, as the white paper of 1939 intended, or else Israel might not have long survived its birth. It is, then, no exaggeration to say that the many American connections cultivated consciously and unconsciously, carefully and haphazardly, by the outstanding leaders of the yishuv in the interwar period had much to do with the “love of Zion” becoming the state of Israel.