The Downfall of Abba Hillel Silver and the Foundation of Israel
By Ofer Shiff, Syracuse University Press
Reviewed by SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In late 1952, US-Jewish leader Abba Hillel Silver came up with a unique solution to what American Zionists should be doing in the wake of the foundation of a Jewish state. He “posited a dialogue between Diaspora Jewry and a sovereign Jewish center in Israel as a the ultimate expression of pan-Zionist Jewish solidarity.”
There would be two “Jewish centers” and they would be equal. There would be “two Zionist models.” This is a far cry from today’s view of Zionism, where Israel is the center, and it is the duty of pro-Israel advocates to support the state. Silver, in this biography’s view, was a radical from start to finish; and his was an essential voice to understanding contemporary American support for Israel.
The author of this interesting biography, Ofer Shiff, is a professor of Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In beginning his examination of Silver, he remarks that this was a man “many regarded as a potential successor to Chaim Weizmann at the helm of the Zionist movement and a leader who offered an alternative approach to David Ben-Gurion.”
This is an extraordinary claim, but despite an erudite and fascinating account, Shiff’s book falls far short of showing that Silver would have truly posed as an alternative to Ben-Gurionism. At best he was sometimes consulted as a lackey of Israel’s emissaries, when they needed him to lobby America on their behalf. When he did travel to Israel, former prime minister David Ben-Gurion even gave him the cold shoulder, despite being at the same airport at one point.
Nevertheless, it is a timely occasion for a biography of Silver. American Jewry is faced with many struggles over what to make of Israel’s place in its passions. It is a worthwhile time to remember just how important the struggles of the period 1930-60 were, when Silver was active.
Growing up in the Lithuanian town of Kudirkos Naumiestis (also known as Neustadt), Silver spent his early years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, like many Jews of that generation of the first half of the 20th century in the US. Later he moved to study at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He became a Reform rabbi and leader. In the 1930s he was the leading voice in an effort to boycott Nazi Germany and ran the United Palestine Appeal.
A passionate Zionist, he spoke of the need for the “restoration of the State of Israel with its tremendous psychological implications,” and a time to “move forward on our appointed task as a covenanted people with a new heart and new song.”
He was versed in American history and Christian theological norms. As such, his speeches blended a certain Americanism with words that would ring true to American Protestants. However, Silver had a unique insight. In January 1933 he traveled to Berlin and saw the Nazis up close. He met with former president Thomas Masaryk of Czechoslovakia. Despite forewarning about the Holocaust, his impact on saving the Jews of Europe was almost nil. When it became clear what had transpired, he advocated “using the Holocaust in their [the Jews’] quest [for statehood]. Silver was calling for the battle to be waged despite the complete absence of hope.”
Here he made a strange comparison to a Czech hero of the 15th century named Jan Zizka. Zizka had admonished his men to use his skin as a drum to lead the soldiers into battle. Silver’s implication was that the dead six million would lead the march to statehood. This innovation may have been important, although Shiff does not quantify how much it influenced Silver’s fellow Americans. The author is more clear on Silver’s lobbying efforts after 1948. In 1951 he helped secure Congressional support for a $150 million aid package. In fact, Shiff argues, converting Congress to Israel’s cause was a Silver innovation.
Later, in February 1957, Silver played a key role in advocating on behalf of Israel in the US and gaining time for Israel not to withdraw from Sinai, which it had captured in the 1956 war with Egypt (Israel withdrew in March 1957). In 1960, he was influential in trying to open contacts to help Soviet Jews emigrate to Israel; presaging the major public efforts in the 1970s and 1980s.
But the major failure of this book is that instead of being a pure biography, it begins a sort of intellectual discussion of Silver’s views. It assumes the reader knows who the protagonist is, which many will not. Gone are Silver’s early years and in place the narrative basically begins in the 1930s. Although it provides, through various chapters that offer insights, different portions of his views or accomplishments, the reader doesn’t walk away with a full chronological understanding of who this leader was, how he got where he ended up or how he was perceived by the public. This is unfortunate and it seems Abba Hillel Silver still awaits his biographer.