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

Posted on April 26th, 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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The Blaustein–Ben-Gurion Agreement: A Milestone in Israel-Diaspora Relations Part 3

Posted on April 19th, 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 III: Visions of Zion

Missed the beginning? Start here.

The Israelis’ image of Zionism differed from that of most American and British Zionists. To Ben-Gurion and many other Israelis, the mission of Zionism included not only the creation of a Jewish nation but also the ingathering of Jews from what he and they viewed as galut or exile.[1] Only with aliyah to Israel could one find fulfillment as a Jew. Moreover, from the galut perspective of history regardless of how secure or accepted Jews might feel elsewhere, alienation and persecution appeared inevitable. As a second but corollary issue, the Israeli government rejected compromising its sovereignty by taking direction from those voluntarily living in exile. Ben-Gurion called for the massive immigration of Jews to Israel.

Address by Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee, entitled “Israel Through American Eyes.” It reports the progress and problems of the “newest democracy in the Middle East,” May 4, 1949. JMM 2000.155.6

Few American or British Jews, whether Zionist or not, had any intention of emigrating. They were loyal to and happy in their own countries and rejected the notion of exile and its connotation of secondary status. But it was the desire of influential Zionist leaders such as Abba Hillel Silver and Emanuel Neumann for involvement in Israeli decisions, emanating from their pre-state direction of the Yishuv, that posed the greatest conundrum between them and the new Israeli government. Silver and Neumann wanted to shape the social, economic, and political culture of Israel on the American model and nurture a political party in opposition to Ben-Gurion’s Mapai to further those aims. They perceived the fate of American and Israeli Jews as bound together and sought an Israeli politic that would reflect well on American Jews.[2] On the other hand, non- and anti-Zionists had long fought charges of dual loyalty and they, as well as most Zionists, had no desire to influence Israeli policies so long as those did not negatively impact them.

Regardless of these differences, the Israeli government wanted and needed the financial support and access to American government officials available especially through members of the American Jewish Committee. Moreover, Jacob Blaustein, as leader of the AJComm, took a pragmatic stand that fit will with Ben-Gurion’s desire to limit diaspora Zionist influence on his government. The non- and anti-Zionists whom Blaustein represented – even as most moved toward Zionism as time progressed – did not wish to direct the policies and affairs of Israel. As Melvin I. Urofsky observes, reaching an agreement through AJComm would also undermine the major fears and positions of the anti-Zionist American Council of Judaism thus de-legitimizing and isolating that organization. Blaustein also epitomized exactly the type of assistance Ben-Gurion and Israel most required. He enjoyed access to five presidents beginning with Franklin Roosevelt. He received presidential appointments to advisory councils because of his expertise in the petroleum industry. His unmatched work ethic and diplomatic acumen, as well as his extensive activities to assist Holocaust survivors and to promote human rights, provided him entrée to world leaders and the highest echelons of the United Nations. Blaustein and his cohort at the AJComm could lobby effectively in Israel’s behalf and raise money for its development and defenses.[3]

Continue to Part IV: Reaching an Accord

[1] On the concept see Arnold M. Eisen, Galut: Modern Jewish Reflections on Homelessness and Homecoming (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

[2] For an excellent summary of the literature and insights into the conflict between Silver, Neumann, and Ben-Gurion see Zohar Segev, “American Zionists’ Place in Israel after Statehood: From Involved Partners to Outside Supports,” American Jewish History 93 (September 2007): 277-302. However, Segev fails to note the Ben-Gurion/Blaustein exchange and how it facilitated the prime minister’s break with American Zionist Leadership.

[3] Urofsky, We Are One, 194-195; Sanua, Let Us Prove Strong, 56-58.

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The Blaustein–Ben-Gurion Agreement: A Milestone in Israel-Diaspora Relations Part 2

Posted on April 12th, 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 II: A Formal Declaration of Statehood

Missed the beginning? Start here.

The formal declaration of statehood in May 1948 and Israel’s success in securing its borders in the war that ensued transformed and intensified, rather than ended, ongoing debates over Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jewry – and, in particular, American Jewry. Fundamental difficulties over the role of diaspora Jews in forming the new nation and ultimately their relationship to it and its relationship to them can be traced to the pre-state era. For decades American Jewry had been divided as well as energized by the dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. From the late nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries, Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists supported varied philosophies and rallied behind specific organizations, fighting for power and influence. Zionists, although divided over theories (as examples, the nature of the new country and the relationship between Jews and Arabs within it) and tactics, were largely united in their desire for a Jewish state. Through the American and World Zionist Organization they strove for that aim while helping run the Yishuv.[1]

For their part, Jewish non-Zionists and anti-Zionists had long aided Jews in Europe and Palestine for humanitarian reasons and as part of their opposition to international antisemitism. Nonetheless anti-Zionists opposed the creation of a Jewish state. They believed that Jews had found welcome in many of their present countries and that creation of such a state would foment dreaded charges of dual loyalty that fostered antisemitism. Non-Zionists believed that they held a middle ground. Although withholding support for political Zionism, they refrained from actively opposing it.[2]

Jacob Blaustein boarding a TWA plane bound for Israel, February 11, 1952.

Non-Zionists and anti-Zionists had dominated the AJComm since its inception. Leaders like attorney Louis Marshall comprised an American elite raised in Classical Reform congregations that defined Judaism as a universalistic religion of social justice. They opposed antisemitism at home and abroad as part of the fight for human rights and to secure their positions without jeopardizing them.[3] Paradoxically, their financial aid and advocacy for Jews at home and abroad reflected a sense of ethnic identity that extended the definition of Judaism beyond religion.

With the establishment of Israel in 1948, attitudes toward the new state that derived from these former stances became problematic, as all sides adjusted to a new reality. Now an elected government ran an independent nation. The creation of Israel fulfilled the Zionists’ fundamental mission. They re-directed their efforts toward assisting in the defense and prosperity of the fledgling country and also toward influencing its nature and policies. With the Holocaust and establishment of Israel, non- and anti-Zionists grappled with the existence of a Jewish state. Except for recalcitrant members of the American Council for Judaism, they accepted the new nation but, like the Zionists, needed to negotiate their relationship to it. Jacob Blaustein had to unite the different factions within the AJComm even as he sought to secure its place in the pantheon of American Jewish organizations. He simultaneously mediated with other Jewish organizations, with the American government and public opinion, and with Israeli and other world leaders.

Continue to Part III: Visions of Zion

[1] See for example, Urofsky, We Are One; Ganin, An Uneasy Relationship.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cohen, Not Free to Desist

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