I recently had the opportunity to interview him about his new book. The answers have been slightly edited for clarity,
You write that your book “seeks to bring some seminal Jewish and American stories back into common knowledge, so they can do some work in the world.” What “work” do you think knowledge of these figures can accomplish?
Both Jewish and American historians have recognized that the function of history extends beyond scholarly study. Columbia University professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, the preeminent Jewish historian of the 20th century, emphasized the “value of Jewish history itself, not for the scholar, but for the Jewish people.” Hillsdale College professor Wilfred McClay has similarly stressed the importance of American history to the American people: “We have to learn, or relearn, our story. In so doing we will discover that we are also learning about ourselves, and about all the things of which ordinary people are capable — even us.”
The stories in my book, once they are learned or relearned, can inspire contemporary Jews and Americans to recognize more deeply the priceless heritage they have, the importance of preserving it, and the impact that individuals can have on history.
What is the “mystery” that surrounds Theodor Herzl?
It is commonly believed that the impetus for Herzl’s endorsement of Zionism was his experience covering the trial and punishment of Alfred Dreyfus for treason in France in 1894-95. But that belief is unsupported by the articles about the trial that Herzl wrote at the time, as well as his references to it in his private diaries. Herzl’s inspiration came from a different source, and Herzl himself did not completely understand how it came to him. In my book, I try to give readers the facts relating to Herzl’s experience and thus give them the chance to provide their own answer to that question.
You indicate in your Introduction that the life of Chaim Weizmann reveals not only the roots of Israel, but also the history of the Arabs in the 20th century as well. How so?
In 1918, a few months after Britain’s issuance of the Balfour Declaration endorsing a Jewish national home in Palestine, Weizmann made an arduous trip to the plains of Transjordan to meet with Emir Faisal, the commander in chief of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, in Faisal’s tent. There they forged a mutual understanding of the national futures for their respective peoples, at a time when there was neither an Arab nor a Jewish state anywhere in the world. They thought their respective national struggles were complementary, not antagonistic. What happened to Weizmann and Faisal in the following decades illustrates the lost opportunity the Arabs of Palestine had, from the very beginning, to realize a
national future for themselves like the one the Jews did.
In contrast to the claims of antisemites today that Zionism creates dual loyalty in American Jews, Brandeis contended that “to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” What did he mean by that?
Brandeis concluded that the essence of Americanism was freedom and democracy, and that Americans thus had a duty to facilitate the achievement of those goals for all peoples. Zionism was the movement to establish a free and democratic state in the land where the Jewish state had once stood for centuries, two millennia before. In supporting Zionism, American Jews were thus supporting a quintessential American goal.
One of the important successes of Zionist leaders resulted from their meetings with world leaders. What influence did Jabotinsky have by his appearance before the Peel Commission and his meeting with Churchill?
Jabotinsky’s speech before the Peel Commission in 1937 was, in his opinion, the best he ever made, and it had an obvious impact on those who heard it (or read about it in the many press reports that followed). Churchill used some of the facts that Jabotinsky conveyed in that speech to write op-eds supporting the right of the Jews to the national home which had been promised to them by the British in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the League of Nations in its Mandate for Palestine in 1922. Jabotinsky’s 1937 speech is one of the most remarkable in modern Jewish history, and ought to be more widely known and studied.
The events of the Evian Conference were a lesson to Golda Meir. What lessons did she learn from attending that conference?
Watching the failure of the 32 nations that attended the Evian Conference, called ostensibly to help the Jews in their desperate situations in Germany and Austria, to do anything at all to help the Jews, Golda Meir learned that the manifest justice of one’s situation was not enough to persuade other nations to do something to help, and that ultimately the Jews would have to depend on themselves.
The Jewish establishment was a nemesis of Hecht during his spearheading efforts both to save Jews in Europe fleeing from the Holocaust and to aid the re-establishment of the Jewish State. What caused that friction?
Ben Hecht was unafraid to call attention to the dire situation of the Jews, while the Jewish leadership at the time thought doing so would be “special pleading,” or would embarrass FDR, or might otherwise cause trouble for the Jews. They were a study in timidity at a time of the greatest modern existential threat to the Jewish people.
Are there any other figures that you considered writing about in general or including in your book, but did not? If so, why not? Are there biographies that you might consider writing in the future? Who and why?
I thought about writing about Jacob de Haas, who was Herzl’s earliest supporter in Britain and who moved to America at Herzl’s suggestion to support Zionism there. It was de Haas, more than any other individual, who educated Louis Brandeis about Zionism and made him a key supporter of it. De Haas is little known today, but he was a key person in the story of both Herzl and Brandeis, and he deserves to be recalled. He is also still another example of the fact that a single individual can have a significant impact on history.
I am also interested in the unsung contributions that the spouses of some of the figures in my book made – Paula Ben-Gurion, Vera Weizmann, Joanna Jabotinsky and Morris Meyerson (Golda Meir’s husband). In supporting their spouses and their families, often alone, while their historic spouses spent so much of their time in the public arena, they made important contributions that also deserve to be recalled.