Looking at the Reform movement’s historical support of Zionism

My colleague, Rabbi Neil Hirsch, invited me to teach an adult education class in his synagogue, Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, in Great Barrington, Mass., last month.

The class was called “Zionism and American Reform Judaism, 1885 to the present.” My interest in researching and teaching it was sparked by what I know to be a deep misconception on the part of both Israelis and American Jews, including members of Reform synagogues, on the critical effect that American Reform Jews had on Zionism, from the beginning of the movement in 1897 to the present, as well as the deep impact that the emergence of Zionism and the birth of the State of Israel had upon the American Reform movement.

The texts I used for this class were the four major Statements of Principles that the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted in 1885, 1937, 1976, and 1999. What I discovered both through my research and through the great discussions I had with my students was how world events and American public opinion deeply affected the positions that these different generations of rabbis would take on the question of the role of Zionism. Each statement of principles therefore represents a snapshot in time that is both descriptive of the American Jewish community of its era and a proscriptive statement about the future that these four different generations of American Reform Jewish leaders envisioned.

The false claim that Reform Judaism is an anti-Zionist movement has its roots in the 1885 Pittsburgh platform, which proclaimed:

“We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel as great messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

Eighty years earlier, French Jews had made a similar statement, defining Judaism as only a religion as part of their pursuit of citizenship in Napoleon’s France. The fact that American Reform Jews, who were fighting to keep open the doors to Jewish immigration, gave up the hope of returning to Zion, 12 years before the first visionaries gathered in Basel to convene the World Zionist Congress, should not be surprising. Those Reform Jews’ goal was to find a way for Jews to immigrate to America and to live as Jews in this New World. The Jewish population of America at the Civil War was 150,000. By 1885 that number had more than tripled, and 100,000 Jews were arriving from Eastern Europe every year. Anti-immigrant sentiment in America in the 1880s was loud and strong. Just as we now see Muslims and Mexicans being targeted, Jews, and to a lesser extent, Italian and Polish Catholics, were the targets of immigration discrimination. The Reform rabbis who wrote the Pittsburgh Platform had among their concerns both the question of how to acculturate hundreds of thousands of American Jews without losing them to assimilation and how to combat the rising anti-Semitism that was spreading across Europe and America in the late 19th century.

The most radical change in the CCAR 1937’s Columbus Platform concerned Zionism. Instead of rejecting a connection to the land, this new platform said: “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its up building as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”

From the first Zionist Congress in 1897, and especially after the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, a significant number of Reform rabbis and lay leaders had become advocates for Zionism, encouraging Jewish immigration and supporting the building of a self-sufficient Jewish society in Palestine. A clear majority of the leaders of American groups funding Jewish settlement in Palestine between 1897 and 1937 were members of Reform congregations. American Reform Jews’ clear support for Jewish settlement in Palestine, shown in Columbus, Ohio, in 1937 and through political action and charitable fundraising throughout the next decade, was also in no small measure a response to the closed doors of America, as millions of Jewish refugees were fleeing the Nazis.

As the immigration debate rages during our presidential election season, I am reminded of how our American Jewish community benefitted both before the immigration laws of 1924 shut the open door to America, and again in the 1990s, when successful American Jewish lobbying efforts allowed hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews to chose America as the destination at the end of their exodus. Rediscovering the reality of what America’s closed-door immigration policy meant to millions of our people between 1933 and 1945 reminds me of Hillel’s moral imperative, found in the Talmud’s tractate Shabbat:

“That which is hateful to you do not do unto others. That is the essence of Torah. Now go forth and learn!”

About the Author
Rabbi Borovitz was elected the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in June 2013 after serving the synagogue as rabbi for the previous 25 years. Prior to assuming his position in River Edge in the summer of 1988 Rabbi Borovitz served as Hillel Rabbi and Instructor in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Texas in Austin (1975-82), the Executive Director of the Labor Zionist Alliance on the United States, (1982-83) and as the Rabbi of Union Temple in Brooklyn, New York (1983-88). Rabbi Borovitz, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, received his B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 1970, his M.A. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious (HUC-JIR) in 1973 and was ordained at HUC-JIR in June 1975. In March of 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR. Rabbi Borovitz is an active leader in community affairs. He has been a member of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee for 25 years. He is the immediate past chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and has also served on the Jewish Federation Board. He currently serves on the National Board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and on the Foundation Board of Bergen Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Bergen County NJ. He is past President of the Bergen County Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis as well as the founding chairman of the Jewish Learning Project of Bergen County Rabbi Borovitz is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Standard and the Bergen Record and a frequent lecturer on Judaism; The Middle East and Interfaith cooperation.
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