The Blaustein–Ben-Gurion Agreement: A Milestone in Israel-Diaspora Relations Part 1

Posted on April 5th, 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.

“I am confident that this statement…will strengthen our two communities and will lay the foundation for even closer cooperation.” – Jacob Blaustein, Blaustein–Ben-Gurion Agreement

Signatures on the Agreement

On August 23, 1950, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion attended a luncheon in his honor in Jerusalem, where he exchanged remarks with Baltimore businessman and community leader Jacob Blaustein. This was no mere conversation: the Israeli cabinet was present and Ben-Gurion’s comments had President Chaim Weizmann’s prior approval. Developed over many months and during a series of meetings, the historic exchange attempted to establish a framework for Israel-diaspora relations, employable for the foreseeable future.[1]

During the conversation, Ben-Gurion and Blaustein praised the accomplishments of each other’s Jewish community, although Blaustein pointedly commented about some statements of Israeli officials that implied that all Jews should return to Israel from exile in the diaspora since life for Jews outside the Jewish homeland was tenuous and incomplete. These statements, said Blaustein, undercut the security and moral of American Jews. Both men then agreed that American Jews would lobby, donate to, and raise money for the new nation without meddling in Israeli policies and politics. Israel, for its part, recognized the allegiance of American Jews to the United States. It, too, would not meddle in the internal affairs of diaspora Jewry. Individuals who chose to make aliyah were needed and would be warmly welcomed, but those remaining in America would not be disparaged as “exiles.” Neither American nor Israeli Jews would speak in behalf of the other.[2]

The Blaustein–Ben-Gurion agreement defining the post-statehood relationship between Israel and American Jewry was perhaps Blaustein’s best-known achievement in an extraordinary career as a citizen-diplomat. The joint statement signed by the two men seems straightforward, but its back story involved a complex mixture of politics and history related not only to the founding of Israel, but to American Jewish communal identity, longstanding debates over Zionism, and the relationship between diaspora Jews and the Yishuv, the Jewish settler community of pre-state Israel.

Jacob Blaustein was perhaps the most logical figure in American Jewry to navigate through the complicated past to reach such an accord. A wealthy oil tycoon and businessman, he had already won national and international recognition as a negotiator and diplomat on several fronts, from the establishment of the United Nations to reparations for Holocaust survivors to American and international energy policy. In addition to his reputation and skills as a diplomat, his leadership of the American Jewish Committee (AJComm) – a group with historically strong reservations about Zionism – paradoxically put him in the perfect position to sit down with Israel’s leader.

Jacob Blaustein shaking hands with Judge Joseph Proskauer upon the occasion of Mr. Blaustein’s election as president of the American Jewish Committee, January 23, 1949. JMM 1988.209.21e

The AJComm had been established in 1906 by wealthy and influential Jews largely of German descent. It did not broaden its membership until the presidency of Judge Joseph Proskeur (1943–1949). Although of East European origin, Jacob Blaustein’s stature and political connections opened his path into this elite group. He served as chair of the executive board during Proskeur’s presidency, president immediately after (1949–1954) and finally as an extremely active honorary president (1954–1970).[3] Blaustein’s positions within the AJComm symbolized the expansion of the organization to include the rising and now acceptable upper class of East European origin. It also illustrated Baltimore leadership beyond the New York/Philadelphia nexus of power and the impact of Baltimore Jewry on national, international, and particularly America/Israeli affairs.

As a transitional leader, Blaustein’s advocacy for the creation and recognition of the Jewish state emanated from the Zionism of his East European heritage and coincided with the gradual acceptance of Zionism by many AJComm leaders.[4] His activities in behalf of Israel were extensive. During the 1940s, he lobbied Presidents Roosevelt and Truman as a key representative of the AJComm for the partition of Palestine through the United Nations and then for American recognition of the new state as well as for Israel’s admission into the U.N.[5] Later, he promoted the 1950 Middle East arms control agreement between the United States, France, and Britain, and championed import-export loans and subsequent grants and arms sales from the U.S. to Israel, among other diplomatic efforts.[6]

Continue to Part 2: A Formal Declaration of Statehood

[1] “David Ben-Gurion and Jacob Blaustein Agree that American Jewry’s Prime Loyalty Is to the United States, August 23, 1950,” in The Jew in the American World: A Sourcebook, ed. Jacob R. Marcus (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 489-494. The agreement was reported in the New York Times, August 24, 1950. For a full account of this and subsequent agreements, negotiations, difficulties, and the critical role of Blaustein as lobbyist/diplomat, see Zvi Ganin, An Uneasy Relationship: American Jewish Leadership and Israel, 1948-1957 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Naomi W. Cohen, Not Free to Desist: The American Jewish Committee, 1906-1966 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1972).

[4] Proskauer, for example, gradually moved from advocacy for a U.N. trusteeship to support for the partition of Palestine, from non-Zionism to promotion of a Jewish state, because of British intransigence especially relating to Jewish refugee immigration to Palestine. See Louis Hacker and Mark D. Hirsch, Proskauer: His Life and Times (University: University of Alabama Press, 1978), 142-151. Melvin I. Urofsky indicates that Nathum Goldman brought the final change to Proskauer’s position on Jewish statehood for Israel. See Urofsky, We Are One: American Jewry and Israel (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978), 133. Hacker and Hirsch (154-155) essentially give Proskauer credit for the Ben-Gurion/Blaustein agreement. In fact the exchange of statements largely replicated positions of former AJComm executive director Morris D. Waldman and other AJComm statements, although internal factionalism also marked the AJComm during World War II. In 1943 the AJComm had issued the Cos Cob Formula, a declaration in favor of a temporary international trusteeship over Palestine until a political solution could ultimately be worked. See Morris D. Waldman to Blaustein, 6 February 1949, Jacob R. Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati (hereafter AJA), MC 23/1/1; Cohen, Not Free to Desist, 250-56, 295-309. Cohen describes the political maneuvering between the AJComm, Zionist, and other organizations, the gradual shift of AJComm’s positions, and divisions within AJComm. She also explains the development of the AJComm position in regard to the Ben-Gurion/Blaustein agreement and problems of adherence (309-319). See also Marianne R. Sanua, Let Us Prove Strong: The American Jewish Committee, 1945-2006 (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2006), 20-24, on the Cos Cob agreement, Proskaeur’s dissent from it, and gradual move to Zionism.

[5] Blaustein informed President Harry Truman how essential American recognition of Israel was since Israel had been denied admission to the U. N. Truman assured Blaustein that the United States would recognized Israel immediately following Israel’s January elections. Blaustein to Morris D. Waldman, 3 January 1949, AJA, MC 23/1/1.

[6] “Jacob Blaustein,” American Jewish Committee Biographical Sketch (hereafter cited as Bio Sketch), original at AJA, copy in  “Jacob Blaustein” Vertical File, Jewish Museum of Maryland (hereafter JMM). Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore houses 700 cubic feet of Blaustein’s papers, the largest assemblage of Blaustein materials. Sanua, Let Us Prove Strong, provides a brief biographical sketch of Blaustein, 30-31, and extensive coverage of his activities with the AJComm throughout.

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The American Delegate(s)* at the First Zionist Congress Part 6

Posted on September 20th, 2017 by

Written by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

Sidebar III: “The Time is Now!” – The Editor of Ha-Ivri Publishes a Diatribe

Missed the beginning? Start here.

The Ha'Ivri Masthead, August 1897. Courtesy of Yeshiva University, Mendel Gottesman Library.

The Ha’Ivri Masthead, August 1897. Courtesy of Yeshiva University, Mendel Gottesman Library.

In August 1897, Katriel Hirsch Sarasohn, the publisher of the Hebrew-language newspaper Ha-Ivri in New York City, used his lead article to attack the New York Hoveve Zion [Lovers of Zion] Society for failing to send a delegate to the first Zionist Congress, soon to convene in Basel, Switzerland. Sarasohn contrasted the commitment of the Baltimore Zion Association with the ineffectiveness of its New York counterpart and employed the embarkation of Rabbi Schepsel Schaffer as a club with which to beat New York’s Zionist leaders.

Sarasohn was a highly critical and contentious publisher. In 1892 he had printed an attack on Shavei Zion by S. W. Natelson, denouncing the leaders of New York’s Shavei Zion and Hoveve Zion organizations in such inflammatory terms that Adam Rosenberg, an officer of Shavei Zion, felt compelled to sue for libel. Rosenberg accused Sarasohn of “publishing the most scandalous libels against the officers of Hoveve Zion charging them with swindling, humbugging the poor and embessling the Society’s funds.” The case achieved sufficient notoriety to be reported in the New York Times, and Sarasohn appears to have been compelled to cease his attacks on Rosenberg.[1]

This document is notable not only for what it can tell us about the state of Zionist organization in New York and Baltimore on the eve of the Congress, but also for what it says about the role of personality and politics in the Zionist movement. Soon after the first Zionist Congress adjourned a new Federation of American Zionists was organized, giving the Zionist movement in America greater coherence nad strength. But debate, dissent, and conflict persisted nonetheless.

The article, Ha'Ivri, August 1897. Courtesy of Yeshiva University, Mendel Gottesman Library.

The article, Ha’Ivri, August 1897. Courtesy of Yeshiva University, Mendel Gottesman Library.

The Article (in translation)

The learned Rabbi Dr. Schaffer of Baltimore has been chosen as a trusted delegate by the Zion Association of that city to represent them at the Zionist Congress in Basel. This organization, by choosing to send this distinguished and beloved rabbi to the Congress, revealed both its good taste and its true love of Zion and its adherents; and, aside from the honor it will gain by being the only organization in America that will have its name mentioned among the participants in the Zionist Congress, it will also enjoy the honor bestowed upon it for choosing such a distinguished delegate, as our Sages said: “A man’s agent is a reflection of himself.”

Of all the nationalist [i.e. Zionist] organizations in our country – at least in name – only the Baltimore Zion Association has sent a special delegate as its representative to the Zionist Congress in Basel. Instead of bombarding the world with loud proclamations and fliers, only this group quietly discharged its responsibility and duty, while New York’s Hovevei Zion created a tempest in a teapot and blew its horn about the Zionist Congress, but, when the time came to send even one delegate, they were overwhelmed with the pangs of childbirth like those of a woman in labor who wasn’t strong enough to give birth, unable to collect $100 to send the delegate on his way and acting as if they hoped to be rewarded for talking and not doing.

Isn’t it a laugh and an amazement to all who hear it, that the Hovevei Zion in New York – the city with the largest Jewish population in the world – let such a small amount as $100 prevent their sending a representative to show their love and commitment to the national goal. Indeed, it is a heartbreaking joke, but the surprise quickly dissipates with the realization that in reality this organization barely exists. The truth is that it is almost extinct, fading from the world with only its name still inscribed on its charter, while a few individuals who lack the spirit of the real Hovevei Zion have appropriated its name to crown and adorn themselves.

We say “genuine Hovevei Zion” because it is our strong belief there are many true lovers of Zion in our city, particularly those who founded this organization, those who supported it when it was doing well, and those who were devoted with all their being to the national goal: however, they don’t want to be affiliated with this current organization, which they left and which has turned away from its purpose. Why don’t the nationalists [Zionists] in New York City create a new society of select members that is managed in better order?

Is it because Hovevei Zion did not turn out well and they saw its disintegration, making them fearful about launching a new society that is true to the cause? Even G-d created and destroyed many worlds until he built this world, which He saw was good. Experience from past failures will show them how to be more cautious in the future. Arise and unite all you in New York who are true and honest lovers of Zion, because the time of redemption is now!

~The End~


[1] Klausner, “Adam Rosenberg,” 25 lff. Sarasohn also carried on a lengthy feud with Wolf Schur, the publisher and editor of Ha-Pisgah. See Kabakoff, “The Role of Wolf Schur,” 431.

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The American Delegate(s)* at the First Zionist Congress Part 5

Posted on September 18th, 2017 by

Written by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

Sidebar II: The Other Americans: Davis Treitsch (1870 – 1935)

Missed the beginning? Start here.

Davis Trietsch, later in life.

Davis Trietsch, later in life.

Davis Treitsch was a prominent Zionist leader and author. Born in Dresden, Germany, he was educated in Berlin. From 1893 to 1899 Treitsch resided in New York, where he was studying immigration problems. It was during his period of residence in New York that Treitsch attended the first Zionist Congress and was listed as one of four participants from the United States (though it is not clear if he ahd ever entertained the idea of permanent settlement in the U.S.).

Treitsch was a proponent of “practical Zionism,” as distinct from Herzl’s “political Zionism,” and he advocated for immediate settlement of Jews in Cyprus, which he conceived as part of “Greater Palestine.” In 1899-1900 he attempted to settle a small group of Russian Jews in Cyprus, but this effort failed. Shortly after, when Herzl negotiated for Jewish settlement in El-Arish with the British authorities, Treitsch categorized this as “an acceptance by Herzl of his program without him.”

For a time, after the practical Zionists took control of the Zionist Congress in 1911, Treitsch was supportive. But he rejected “slow settlement methods” and purely agricultural colonization, agitating instead for “Zionist maximalism,” industrial development, and garden cities. He wrote several German-language books promoting his ideas, including Palestine Handbook (1907 with nine later editions) and Jewish Emigration and Colonization (1917), in addition to editing several journals.

During World War I Treitsch served in the statistics office of the German Army and published several pamphlets arguing for German-Zionist collaboration. Arnold Toynbee responded to Treitsch’s gambit, arguing that the Allies would be better partners with the Zionist project.[1]

Continue to Sidebar III: “The Time is Now!”


[1] Rabinowicz, “Treitsch, Davis,” 146; Rabinowicz, “Davis Treitsch’s Colonization Scheme,” 119-206.

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