Idealistic, prickly Zionist had key role in birth of Israel

“The Downfall of Abba Hillel Silver and the Foundation of Israel,” by Ofer Shiff,  Syracuse University Press, 289 pages, $24.95. 

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Read any account leading up to President Harry S. Truman’s decision to recognize the new State of Israel minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared its independence on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar), and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver plays a major role.

Truman found Silver’s personality and persistence exasperating and painfully annoying. But Silver, the most prominent American Reform rabbi of his era, was quite capable and persuasive with the president and his advisers, including St. Louis native Clark Clifford, at this key moment in history.

In their book “A Safe Haven:  Harry S. [sic] Truman and the Founding of Israel,” Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh wrote of the rabbi: “Silver was not only confrontational and unyielding, but, unlike [Chaim] Weizmann and [Rabbi Stephen] Wise, he was not charming. Many people who had contact with him found him abrasive and did not particularly like him, a group that unfortunately included both FDR [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] and Truman. But Silver was a very effective political strategist and organizer. He was an inspired speaker whose ‘baritone-voiced oratory,’ a New York Times reporter wrote, ‘would do credit to a Shakespearean actor.’ ”

David McCullough, in his opus “Truman,” wrote this: “Particularly offensive to Truman was the attitude of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, who, with Stephen Wise, was co-chairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council.  A Republican and close ally of [Republican] Senator [Robert] Taft of Ohio, Rabbi Silver had helped write a pro-Zionist plank in the 1944 Republican platform. At one point during a meeting in Truman’s [White House] office, Silver had hammered on Truman’s desk and shouted at him. ‘Terror and Silver are the causes of some, if not all, of our troubles,’ Truman later said, and at one Cabinet meeting he reportedly grew so furious over the subject of the Jews that he snapped, ‘Jesus Christ couldn’t please them when he was on earth, so how could anyone expect that I would have any luck.’ ”

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From these and other accounts, the point is obvious:  Silver was a leading Jewish advocate for founding the State of Israel and winning essential U.S. recognition immediately after Ben-Gurion’s declaration of independence as the British mandate ended and Israel’s first war with five Arab countries began.

He was also seen, at a most delicate time in the history of American Jewry, as reinforcing a stereotype of the pushy manipulator that had long hurt Jews and caused many, especially in the Reform movement, to keep their heads down, not call attention to themselves and be conflicted about whether supporting the new State of Israel was the propitious thing to do, both for Jews in the United States and around the world.

If his critics were baldly frank about Silver’s mannerisms and passion about the need for a Jewish State after the Holocaust and centuries of persecution, particularly in Europe, Ofer Shiff, professor of Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University, is much kinder in his interpretation of Silver’s impact and life. By 1949, Silver had suddenly resigned from his post as a leading Zionist in the United States and returned to his pulpit in Cleveland.

What happened? Why was he so quickly sidelined by and within the Zionist movement? Shiff ponders this question at great length. He had access of Silver’s sermons and speeches, many passionate, thoughtful and illustrative of his thinking until his death in 1963. 

The short answer is that Silver was very useful and effective in building support for the Zionist cause in the United States during and immediately after World War II. And, despite his pounding on President Truman’s desk and ticking off the chief executive, he made his point with the right person at the right time.

Silver, it’s safe to posit, would most likely be horrified and depressed at what Israel has become, with its occupation of the West Bank and its nationalistic politicians. He believed that once Israel was established, Jews around the world would become more integrated into the global community, be more accepted and therefore more secure in themselves because they, too, had a state to call their own.

Most likely, Silver would be distraught at the country’s increasingly isolated status in the world and the impression among many of its critics that it has no rightful place on this earth. Plus, there’s the rise today of anti-Semitism in Europe, especially in France, despite the fact that few Jews live there and have little influence on affairs in European countries.

“…[M]y basic argument,” Shiff writes, “is that the 1940s struggle for the establishment of a Jewish State was indeed important, even critical in Silver’s eyes, but merely as a first stage in a larger objective – as a vehicle to remove an insular and insecure Jewish mentality rife with distrust that had developed over centuries of persecution in exile. In Silver’s view, the Holocaust threatened to reinforce this negative Jewish mentality – a dangerous process in which the Jewish State was necessary to serve as a counterforce.”

Shiff devotes many pages to meticulously documenting Silver’s views, the evolution of his thinking in this quite readable and informative scholarly work. 

Reading between the lines, one comes away with the impression that Silver was quite the idealist and, for all his vaunted skills with American politicians, understood little about human nature in the context of Israel vs. the Arab states that were focused on denying its existence and causing its destruction.

He failed to foresee how decades of conflict – Conor Cruise O’Brien called it “The Siege” in his book of that name – would shape Israeli and Jewish ideas in the post-independence world. He failed to see that Israel would face all the problems of any other state in the modern world, plus its unique challenges as an immigrant society with a large minority of non-Jews within its borders, wherever they eventually happen to be. 

When he traveled to Israel from 1948 to his death four years before the extremely significant Six-Day War in June 1967, Silver saw just what he wanted to see – and all of it positive, to his mind.

Shiff’s book on Silver is well worth reading if one is interested in that early Zionist moment when Israel was aborning, and the implicit contrast the author paints between Silver’s idealism and how things have turned out in real life gives readers much to think about.