The Blaustein–Ben-Gurion Agreement: A Milestone in Israel-Diaspora Relations Part 4

Posted on April 26, 2018 by

Written by Mark K. Bauman. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel. To order a print copy of the magazine, see details here.

Part IV: Reaching an Accord

Missed the beginning? Start here.

The Blaustein-Ben-Gurion agreement, as reaffirmed in Jerusalem in April 1961. JMM Vertical Files.

For their part, Blaustein and the AJComm sought continuity and recognition as perhaps the major voice of the American Jewish community. Although some issues remained in conflict, the Blaustein–Ben-Gurion coalition offered benefits to Blaustein and the AJComm and to Ben-Gurion and Israel. Ironically, Ben-Gurion found more in common with Blaustein and the AJComm than he did with Abba Hillel Silver and Emanuel Neumann, stalwart Zionists.

Blaustein’s détente with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion largely reflected the non-Zionist position of much of the old AJComm crowd.[1] Nonetheless it also accepted the new Jewish state, a move firmly departing from the anti-Zionist position held by many AJComm leaders and the American Council for Judaism. Thus, Blaustein cemented his position as one of the old guard even as he altered the relationship between American Jews – even many Zionists – and the state of Israel. He forged a Brandeisian solution that allowed American Jews to be pro-Israel while remaining very much American.

The 1950 Blaustein and Ben-Gurion exchange defined a seemingly optimum relationship between Israel and American Jewish organizations. With the agreement, Blaustein affirmed the leadership role of the AJComm and Ben-Gurion weakened the old line American Zionists while securing he financial backing and political contacts of the AJComm group. Through the years Blaustein and his successors at the AJComm continued their interaction with Ben-Gurion and then with successive prime ministers, ensuring the World Zionist Organization would not be the acknowledged representative of American Jewry.[2]

From the 1940s until his death in 1970, Blaustein served as liaison between a critical segment of American Jewry and Israel, and between Israel, the United States, and foreign powers. He lobbied continuously and successfully for American acceptance of Israel as a Cold War ally. Seeking fair and reasonable Israeli policies for Palestinians, he also negotiated on Israel’s behalf with European and Middle Eastern leaders.[3] Other American Jews and Jewish organizations disagreed with the Blaustein–Ben-Gurion accord as well as other of Blaustein’s positions.[4] Yet his activities in the AJComm ultimately contributed to rapprochement and cooperation between it and other American Jewish organizations. As in so many endeavors Blaustein, simultaneously a visionary and pragmatist, ultimately brought together seemingly intractable adversaries in the contentious arena of American Jewish communal politics.[5]

Both the Israeli government and organized American Jewry frequently ignored the Ben-Gurion–Blaustein exchange. A decade later, for example, Ben-Gurion commented on the divergent definitions of “the essence and meaning of Judaism and Jewishness” between Jews in Israel and the diaspora, disparaging the position of many American Jews. This led to discussions in which the prime minister reaffirmed the agreement in a joint statement issued by the two men on April 23, 1961. For their part, American Jews and American Jewish organizations have applied pressure on the Israeli government to pursue specific policies.[6]

Regardless of the breaches, Blaustein and Ben-Gurion defined a relationship that Jews in both countries continued to look to for guidance. The framework was reiterated and affirmed by Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, Ben-Gurion’s successors, in 1963 and 1970, respectively, and it remains relevant today.[7] The accord between the two men greatly assisted Israel through hard times while also offering Jews in America a comfort zone for their multiple identities and complex allegiances.

Continue to Sidebar: The Remarkable Life and Career of Jacob Blaustein, Part I

[1] In a letter to Blaustein (2 June 1948, AJA, MC 23/1/1), Morris D. Waldman outlines what became the main features of the Blaustein/Ben-Gurion agreement as the normative position of the AJComm.

[2] Cohen, Not Free to Desist.

[3] Bio Sketch; Ganin, An Uneasy Relationship

[4] For problems with the agreement, see Charles S. Liebman, Pressure Without Sanctions: The Influence of World Jewry on Israeli Policy (Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1977).

[5] Nonetheless Blaustein always strove to maintain AJComm independence. In 1943 he, along with Proskauer and Fred Lazarus, urged the AJComm to withdraw from the American Jewish Conference when it became apparent that an umbrella organization strongly influenced by Zionists would attempt to tie AJComm hands. Again in 1952 when the National Community Relations Council attempted to bring all of the Jewish defense agencies under its control, Blaustein led the withdrawal of the AJComm. See Cohen, Not Free to Desist, 249-259; Blaustein to Members of the Executive Committee, 12 September 1952, AJA, MC 23/1/1. The conflicts and differences between the American Jewish Conference and the AJComm lessened as the Holocaust changed the anti-Zionist positions of Proskauer and other AJComm leaders. See Urofsky, We Are One, 98.

[6] Agreement signed by David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein, 23 April 1961, Jerusalem, original at the American Jewish Committee Archives, New York (hereafter AJComm Archives), copy in “Jacob Blaustein” Vertical File, JMM.

[7] Cohen, Not Free to Desist, 315; Liebman, Pressure Without Sanctions, 130. In We Are One (194-195), Urofsky argues, “In some ways, the Blaustein–Ben-Gurion agreement marked the final playing out of the Committee’s old fears of Jewish nationalism, its worries over dual allegiance.” He adds, “In the future, all of these issues would be raised, time and again, but by then American Jewry would be able to respond in a more secure manner.” Sanua contends that Blaustein remained adamantly opposed to any statements indicating that Israel was the Jewish homeland and that brought into question the legitimacy of living in the diaspora. Sanua, Let Us Prove Strong, 58-60, 106-107. See 56-66 got Sanua’s account of the 1950 and 1961 statements and their background.

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