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Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Excerpts from The Controversy of Zion
Addison-Wesley, 1996)

From Chapter Seven

'America is our Zion'

THE 65,000 settlers of the First and Second Ascents to Israel had some impressive achievements to their name, but the most striking thing was how exiguous their numbers were, and how enormously they were dwarfed by another much greater Jewish migration, itself a kind of aliyah or ascent: to the west, and across the Atlantic.

This migration between 1881 and 1914 was one of the greatest adventures in Jewish history. By 1890 the Jewish population of the United States was 450,000; by 1900, more than a million; by 1910, more than two million; by 1920, thanks to natural increase but also the great crescendo of immigration just before it was cut off, 3.6 million. In the space of fifty years, Jews had risen from 0.52 to 3.41 per cent of the American population. Almost more to the point, while in the mid-nineteenth century barely one Jew in a hundred lived in North America, by the third decade of the twentieth century one Jew in four did. These American Jews were overwhelmingly townsmen, and their arrival, as well as other immigrants', helped change the balance between town and country, so that only a quarter of the American work- force was in agriculture in 1920, as against half forty years earlier. In city after city, the Jews formed new districts of their own, in Boston, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, but above all in New York. There, in the Lower East Side, but gradually spreading from it, the immigrants created a great new Jewish city, outstripping Vilna, or Budapest or Vienna. They also created a new Jewish society.

That was just what some had feared. Rabbis regarded east Europe as the natural heimat, the homeland where God in His wisdom had placed the Jews, and they suspected America as a source of impiety and corruption. America was a treyfene medine, an impure or non-kosher land. And from their own points of view the rabbis were right. From the moment the immigrants arrived at Castle Garden or Ellis Island, they began to shed their old life, however slowly and imperceptibly. At first the new arrivals preserved many of their traditions, speaking Yiddish and observing the faith. But soon the pressures of life in the New World began to exert themselves. Even if the migrants had wanted to preserve shtetl life intact, four thousand miles from home it was impossible. Many soon found that they had to work on Saturday: the six-day week was then universal in industrial countries, and, since American industry was run by those who were Christians in name at least, they could choose their own Sabbath as the day of rest, and the new arrivals could no longer create the world within a world they had enjoyed (or at least known) in the backward, time-lost fastness of the Pale.

For the pious, and not only for them, there was natural nostalgia for the world they had lost; but for most of those millions drawbacks and misgivings were enormously outweighed by what the new-found land gave them. There was great poverty in the tenements and sweatshops of the Lower East Side, there was prejudice and resentment against which the Jews struggled for decades. At first the more energetic and capable of them made their way in small business, though only in business: the professions did not welcome them to begin with, nor did the universities. But, however hard the struggle, there was a new hope. Many years later a gentile friend asked one of those who had come to New York as a boy at the turn of the century, and who was by then an elderly and prosperous citizen, if they had not been disappointed by America when they arrived; hadn't they been told that the streets there would be paved with gold?

'But there was gold to us,' the old man said. There was no institutionalized persecution, there were no Cossacks, there were no pogroms; as a character in Anzia Yezierska's story 'How I Found America' said, 'There is no Tsar in America.' Having escaped from the Pale itself, the American Jews -- as they had become -- could escape from poverty and from the ghetto, which they could not in Russia. In the Pale, the Jews had been at the very bottom of the heap, literally as well as figuratively spat upon by the poorest Polish, Ukrainian or Lithuanian peasant. Now they found themselves part of a kaleidoscope of peoples and classes being shaken into new patterns. In a more familiar image, they were part of 'the Melting Pot': not by accident, it was a Jewish author, Israel Zangwill, who coined the phrase as the title of a play. The Melting Pot was written in 1908, sixteen years after Zangwill's previous play The Children of the Ghetto, and it was a huge success in the United States where it was set, running for years.

In these circumstances, the incipient Zionist movement was never likely to make much headway among immigrant American Jews. It did not. The small, august and prosperous society of German Jews who had been in New York before the great influx began in the 1880s were horrified by Zionism for the same reason that it horrified people like them from Vienna to Paris to London. As for the immigrants, Herzl's plan for making the Jews happy left them cold. Many dreamed their own dreams of liberation, but this was to be through socialism, which played a very important part in the life of Jewish America for many years.

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    Copyright © 1996 by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. All rights reserved.