Beyond  /  Antecedent

Jewish Leaders a Century Ago Had Complicated Feelings About Israel

Fierce disagreements over Zionism have played out from the movement’s inception among Jews, including community leaders who worried it would spark antisemitism.

In June 1916, Jacob Schiff was on the verge of tears as he addressed a convention of fellow Jewish leaders. For more than three decades, the Frankfurt-born investment banker and philanthropist, who had amassed a fortune financing the nation’s railroads and rivaled J.P. Morgan as one of the most prominent tycoons of the Gilded Age, had been the de facto head of American Jewry.

He had poured millions of dollars into Jewish causes, pressured successive presidential administrations to rebuke the Russian empire for its brutal treatment of his coreligionists, and fended off harsh immigration restrictions designed to keep out Jews and others who nativists feared would dilute the nation’s Anglo-Saxon pedigree.

But lately he had come under attack by members of his own community, clashing bitterly with supporters of the ascendant Zionist movement, whose push for a Jewish homeland Schiff and many American Jews strongly opposed. “I have been hurt to the core,” Schiff declared, his voice trembling, “and hereafter Zionism, nationalism … and Jewish politics in whatever form they may come up will be a sealed book to me.”

Jews have wrangled over Israel since long before the modern state came into existence. The current Gaza war has opened new fissures, especially within America’s Jewish community, over Israel and its role in the broader Jewish world, and some critiques of the nation have drawn accusations of antisemitism.

But fierce disagreements over Zionism — the pursuit of a Jewish nation — have played out from the movement’s inception among Jews who cared deeply about the future of their people.

In those early skirmishes was something elemental about the Jewish experience — a diverse people tethered by a common religion and a sorrowful history of displacement, trying to find their place in an often-hostile world.

That world of more than a century ago today feels closer than ever. And the recent explosion of antisemitism, including footage of a mob in Dagestan overrunning a Russian airport in search of Jewish passengers, has troubling echoes of the persecution that prompted the push for a Jewish state.

In the late-19th century, mob violence and oppression in Russia and Eastern Europe sent wave upon wave of Jewish immigrants to the United States, one of the few nations that would accept them. The deteriorating conditions fueling this mass migration also led to the rise of Zionism, an initially quixotic movement founded in Europe by the Hungarian activist Theodor Herzl.