A 2019 survey of American Jewish views on anti-Semitism, BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and Israel by the American Jewish Committee shows that the vast majority of American Jews, both secular and religious, are concerned about rising anti-Semitism. While only two percent of respondents reported being attacked physically, almost a third indicated that they avoid identifying themselves as Jewish and one third indicated that Jewish institutions they were affiliated with had experienced threats. More than eighty per cent view BDS and the questioning of Israel’s right to exist as anti-Semitic.
Ironically, the American Jewish Committee did not originally support a Zionist agenda. The oldest existing American Jewish advocacy group, the American Jewish Committee was established in 1906 to protect the welfare of Russian Jews who were the targets of deadly and widespread pogroms. Its stated purpose was to “prevent infringement of the civil and religious rights of Jews and to alleviate the consequences of persecution” The Jewish Americans who met to establish the organization included figures such as the lawyer Louis Marshall, Jacob Schiff, a banker, and the educator Cyrus Adler, and stemmed largely from the ranks of Reform and Conservative Judaism,. The attitude of the Reform movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s was summed up by Rabbi I. M. Wise, a leading Reform rabbi who founded Hebrew Union College, the main seminary for training rabbis, and cantors in Reform Judaism, as follows: “Zion was a precious possession of the past…but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.”(Donald Neff, in Fallen Pillars-US Policy towards Palestine and Israel since 1945).
Moses Rishin (American Jewish Historical Society, 1960) and others such as Walter Laqueur (A History of Zionism, 1972) note that in 1918 the American Jewish Committee gave cautious approval to the Balfour Declaration, qualifying its support by noting that Palestine would be a sanctuary for only a part of the Jewish people while most will continue to live elsewhere and enjoy full civil and religious liberty.
In fact, the last point in the resolution is the same as that in the final draft of the Balfour Declaration: “…nothing shall be done which shall prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in other countries.”
The American Jewish Committee was not opposed to the settlement of some Jews in Palestine. In fact, it was the first Jewish organization to dispatch urgently needed funds to the Jewish community in Palestine after the outbreak of World War I and it has advocated for Jewish causes and provided relief funds for Jews around the world ever since it was first established. The sticking point for the organization, at least until the post-World War II period, was that it could not countenance an independent Jewish entity in Palestine.
Matters came to a head at the Biltmore Conference (the hotel venue), held in New York City in 1942 during World War II and against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Organized by the World Zionist movement, the conference called for the establishment of an independent Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine. It included Zionist figures from abroad, such as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, as well as the primary Zionist voice for American Jews, Rabbi Hillel Silver, a Reform rabbi. The American Jewish Committee, which advocated for focusing mainly on the rescue of Europe’s Jews, opposed the Biltmore Program, as did others, such as the socialist Zionist organization Hashomer Hatzair, which believed in the establishment of a bi-national Arab and Jewish state.
At the time of the Biltmore Conference the enormity of the Holocaust was not clear and it was hoped that millions of European Jews would survive the war. With the war’s end the scope of the tragedy was clear and the need for an independent Jewish state was undeniable. How many lives could have been saved had a state existed? Where were the surviving 250,000 Jews in DP camps to go?
Today, the American Jewish Committee describes its mission as “Advocating for Israel and the Jewish people,” as the survey mentioned earlier indicates, but it wasn’t always so.