The rise of Abba Hillel Silver (1893-1963) as a leader of American Jewry spanning the period between the beginning of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel represented a fundamental transformation of the Zionist movement in general and of American Zionism in particular.
A nationally known orator and a prolific scholar and writer, he made his greatest mark as a Zionist leader and statesman who served as head of many Jewish and Zionist organizations and played an important role in the birth of Israel. Maintaining that Judaism is entirely consistent with the American ethos of promoting human progress, Silver’s ministry was marked by bold support for civil rights, organized labor, and other liberal causes, but his highest priority was always to advance Herzlian political Zionism.
Born Abraham Silver in Lithuania the son of Rabbi Moses Silver and the grandson of another Orthodox Rabbi, Silver was raised as an Orthodox Jew but, after emigrating with his family to New York at age nine, he later rejected his religious upbringing. After attending after-school Jewish seminaries on the Lower East Side, he attended both the University of Cincinnati, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1915, and the notoriously anti-Zionist Hebrew Union College (HUC), from which he received rabbinical ordination that same year.
After serving as rabbi of a small congregation in Wheeling, West Virginia, he became rabbi at age 24 of Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, one of America’s most prestigious Reform congregations, where he went on to serve for 46 years. Manifesting his commitment to the maintenance of basic Jewish tradition, he installed a Sefer Torah in the sanctuary’s previously empty ark and transferred the temple’s weekly Sabbath service from Sunday to Saturday, dramatic departures from Reform practice.
Silver was guided by the principle that Judaism and Zionism are inseparable. His preaching and writing were characterized by a fierce loyalty to the concept of Jewish peoplehood, and he frequently spoke out in support of more intensive Jewish and Hebrew education. At a time when most American Zionists were reticent about pressuring the American government and its citizens, lest they be seen as selfishly promoting parochial interests in a time of war, Silver boldly asserted that mobilizing American public opinion was central to achieving a state, and he played a leading role in effectively lobbying the United States in support of Israel.
Among the first to perceive that the American postwar influence would prove decisive to Jewish aspirations for a homeland, and the importance of securing the support of the American government and people for Israel, he successfully led the newly organized American Zionist Emergency Council in mobilizing public opinion on behalf of the Zionist cause (1938). He became a prominent and vocal “Zionist militant” leader who promoted a brand of “aggressive Zionism” and, through his efforts, American activism on behalf of a Jewish state became broadly acceptable, even desirable. He is uniquely responsible for American Zionists assuming an active role in establishing and shaping the Jewish state above and beyond the mere provision of economic support for a nascent Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
Silver’s Jewish service, which was truly incredible, included serving as a national chairman of the Board of Governors of the State of Israel Bonds; national chairman of the United Palestine Appeal (1938) and national co-chairman of the United Jewish Appeal; founding chairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council (1943-1945); president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1945-1947); member of the Board of Governors of Hebrew University; president of the alumni association of Hebrew Union College (1936-1937); honorary chairman of the Zionist Organization of America (1945-1946); and chairman of the American section of the Jewish Agency (1946-1949). Among the early leaders of the anti-Nazi boycott, he also founded the non-sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights, which organized a boycott of German goods in the 1930s.
However, perhaps his greatest moment as a Zionist leader was when, as chairman of the American section of the Jewish Agency, he was chosen to present the case for an independent Jewish state before the United Nations Assembly on May 8, 1947. (He returned to the UN in May 1948 to announce that Israel had declared itself an independent state.) As a result, he is considered a founding architect of modern Israel, to the point that many authorities speculate that he was second in line to Chaim Weizmann to become the first president of Israel. Though unhappy with the UN Partition Plan, he ultimately accepted that given the realities of the situation, the partition of Eretz Yisrael was the best process for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
A right-wing Zionist, Silver was one of the few major Jewish figures identified with the Republican party. Later forced from Zionist leadership by internal rivalries, he nonetheless always responded to appeals for his services in fundraising or for the use of his enormous prestige on behalf of Israel.
Among Silver’s many awards were the Medal of Merit from the Jewish War Veterans (1951); the National Human Relations Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews; and the Louis Brandeis Award of the American Zionist Council. The village Kefar Silver in Israel was named for him.
Our mystery begins in 1941 when Silver published The World Crisis and the Jewish Survival, a Group of Essays (R.R. Smith 1941). S.F. Dikman, a Jerusalem resident browsing through a Jerusalem antique bookstore, found the book inscribed by Silver to Einstein, which I have in my collection.
Dikman wrote to the physicist to offer the book to him:
I happened to buy . . . at a local antiquariate the book by Abba Hillel Silver “The World Crisis and Jewish Survival.” Upon opening it, I saw that the book was dedicated to you by the author on 6.4.41.
Although I would consider it a privilege to keep this book, I wanted to inform you about it, and I am ready to forward it to you upon your request.
In his November 17, 1947 response, Einstein wrote:
Thank you for your letter of November 11th. You may, of course, keep Rabbi Silver’s book, but I beg you to keep quiet about the fact of the dedication so that it may not be embarrassing to me.
Exhibited here is the inscription on an original (first printing) copy of the book on which Silver has written “To Prof. Albert Einstein with affection and esteem. Abba Hillel Silver 6-4-41.” Also shown here is a copy of the letter from Einstein in which he asks Dikman to keep the dedication a secret.
All this begs the question, to which I have found no clear answer: why would Einstein be embarrassed by a dedication to him from Rabbi Silver? One theory, albeit unlikely, may be that Einstein, an exceedingly modest man – for example, he once wrote to President Hoover that “I am alone but a grain of dust in the development of the human spirit” – wished to avoid any fanfare or public approbation relating to the disclosure of a dedication to him by such a prominent and important man in Jewish/Zionist circles as Rabbi Silver.
However, this explanation is most improbable because the internationally venerated scientist received countless dedications from heads of state, leaders in the arts and sciences, and famous people – including many better known and more admired than Silver – and I am unaware of any other instance where Einstein requested that such approbations remain confidential.
My conjecture – and, to be clear, it is plainly that – is that notwithstanding the dedication by Silver, whom Einstein otherwise admired, Einstein feared that publicity regarding the dedication might be misperceived as Silver’s agreement with him on Birobidzhan, the Soviet plan for a homeland for Soviet Jews within Russia and, as such, harmful to the prospect of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.
In 1934, the Soviets established a Jewish autonomous region in Birobidzhan, Siberia, as a sort of Jewish nirvana designed to address the Soviet “problem” of its Jews being unable to adapt to Marxist ideology because of their attachment to their ethno-nationalist aspirations for Eretz Yisrael. Adopting the official Birobidzhan slogan “socialist in content and national in form,” Soviet leaders believed that if they provided for a Jewish homeland within Russia, Jews would abandon their Zionist dreams and eventually become fully integrated within Soviet-communist society.
A second and equally important purpose of the Birobidzhan Plan was the financial support which the Soviets believed would flow freely from the West because they expected that Jews and Jewish organizations would make major contributions to assist their Soviet brethren.
The Soviet slogan “To the Jewish Homeland!” did encourage some Jewish workers to move to Birobidzhan, seeing it as an ideological alternative to Zionism – but the idea ultimately failed after the initial wave of Jewish settlers traveled to a remote location only to encounter an inhospitable territory replete with monsoons and bug-infested swampland. Stalin admitted to FDR at Yalta that the few Jews who made “aliyah” to Birobidzhan had returned to their home cities after two to three years and that the Birobidzhan Plan had failed.
On the other hand, the financial aspect of the Birobidzhan Plan met with impressive success, as Western organizations raised some $32 million for the Soviet war effort. The American campaign for Birobidzhan, supported by Communist activists, drew broad support, and the idea of Jews settling there became a legitimate alternative to Eretz Yisrael. Jewish organizations raised funds, sent agricultural experts to Birobidzhan, and contributed seeds, construction machinery and medicine.
One of the most important and public supporters of the Birobidzhan effort was Einstein, who served as honorary president of the American Committee for Birobidzhan (AMBIJAN). Taking advantage of Einstein’s renown, AMBIJAN created the “Einstein Fund for the Settlement, Care, and Rehabilitation of Jewish Refugee War Orphans in Birobidzhan and the Orphans of Heroic Stalingrad,” which raised substantial funds, and the first national Einstein Fund Dinner held December 2, 1945, drew over 1,000 attendees and raised over $50,000.
Many Zionist leaders actively supported AMBIJAN, and the fact that it was a Communist front did not seem to disturb Einstein and its enthusiastic Jewish supporters in the least. At its National Conference held in New York on March 9-10, 1946, attended by 669 delegates and over 1,500 people, AMBIJAN unabashedly showed its true Communist propagandistic colors by characterizing Birobidzhan as “a thriving self-governing Jewish state-agency” (false) that is “richly endowed with national resources” (false) and that it had become “the Gem of the Far East” (false). On October 8, 1946, Einstein distributed an open letter to all American Jews asking them to “mobilize our energies and resources in the humanitarian endeavor” to rehabilitate the lives of thousands of war orphans resettled in Birobidzhan.
Members of the AMBIJAN National Committee included Marc Chagall, whose paintings include Wedding in Birobidzhan, based upon a poem by Itsik Fefer, arguably the leader of Yiddish proletarian literature and a leading Russian Jewish antifascist. Marc Chagall illustrated his book Heymland (“Homeland,” 1944), which was published by the Jewish Colonization Organization, a leading supporter of the Birobidzhan Project. (Fefer was murdered on August 12, 1952, during Stalin’s purge of Yiddish culture.)
Some Jewish leaders – including, ironically, leaders of the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael such as Menachem Ussishkin and Arthur Ruppin (who actually visited Birobidzhan) – did not summarily oppose Birobidzhan. While rejecting it as a long-term solution, they accepted it as a short-term means to aid thousands of Jewish families in great need. More irony: one of the longtime supporters of territorial solutions for East European Jews was Shmuel Weizmann, Chaim’s brother.
Nonetheless, many mainstream Zionists retained their focus on Eretz Yisrael as the historical Jewish homeland; vehemently opposed the plan; criticized its diversion of scarce resources from agricultural colonization projects in Eretz Yisrael; and saw it as the enemy of the Zionist goal of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael.
Similarly, Silver was at the forefront of arguing that there can be no replacement for Eretz Yisrael because it is not “an emergency place or refuge . . . It is home!” Toward the end of the Holocaust, he even went so far as to argue that the overemphasis of the leading Jewish organizations on rescuing Shoah refugees, although important, was misplaced and ultimately damaging to Zionism: “It is possible for the Diaspora to undermine the Jewish state, because the urgency of the rescue issue could lead the world to accept a temporary solution . . . We should place increased emphasis on fundamental Zionist ideology.”
Silver surely recognized that Stalin’s purpose in establishing a “Jewish Homeland” in Russia was to undermine the possibility of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, and it is inconceivable that he would have supported, or even tolerated, the very idea of a Birobidzhan. As such, my conjecture is that it may be that a courteous Einstein, a strong supporter of Birobidzhan, did not want to publicly embarrass Silver, who was strongly against it.