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Jews in America: Chicago as Incubator of American Zionism

Historians of the Chicago Jewish community claim that the Windy City was the first in America to have a Zionist organization, the Chicago Zion Society, formed in the mid-1890s. While historians of New York and Boston Jewry might quibble, it is clear that Chicago did generate one of the earliest Zionist movements in the United States. Encouraged by a Protestant evangelical, powered by Eastern European immigrants, opposed by Chicago’s Reform rabbinate and, ultimately, embraced by Reform’s elder statesman, Chicago Zionism’s development encompassed many of the factions and elements that have propelled American Zionism from its very origins, and which remain active today.

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Chicago Zionism’s first champion was William Eugene Blackstone, an evangelical layman and successful real estate entrepreneur who was convinced that the restoration of the Jews to Palestine was a critical forerunner to the return of the Christian Messiah. In 1888, Blackstone traveled with his daughter to Palestine. It confirmed his belief that the Jews were “a people chosen by God to manifest His power and His love to … a world steeped in deepest idolatry.”

In 1891, Blackstone drew up a petition calling for the creation of a national homeland in Palestine for the two million oppressed Jews of Russia. “According to God’s distribution of nations,” Blackstone’s petition read, “[Palestine] is their home – an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force. … Let us now restore them to the land of which they were so cruelly despoiled by our Roman ancestors.” More than 400 prominent individuals signed Blackstone’s appeal, including the publisher of the Chicago Tribune and Melville W. Fuller, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The petition was submitted to President Benjamin Harrison on March 5, 1891. In May of 1916, Blackstone sponsored another petition, this one to President Woodrow Wilson, asking him to advocate for a Jewish homeland when World War I ended. This later petition was signed by Andrew D. White, president of Cornell University, retail magnate John Wanamaker and Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, chairman of the Kehillah of New York City.

Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish Jewish immigrants who came to Chicago to escape the pogroms of Europe joined Blackstone in his Zionist agitation. Settling in the tenements of the city’s West Side, more than 100,000 Yiddish-speaking immigrants came to Chicago in the 1880s and 1890s, worked hard in home factories and sweatshops, or peddled goods from pushcarts on Maxwell Street and other crowded thoroughfares. Some were secular, radical socialists and atheists, while others retained their Orthodox practices. Particularly for the secularists, Zionism seemed to offer hope for the revitalization of Jewish nationhood, not so much from a religious but from a cultural and social justice standpoint.

Chicago’s Eastern European Jewish Zionists produced leaders such as Bernard and Harris Horwich, brothers who emigrated to Chicago from Lithuania, and Leon Zolotkoff, editor of the Chicago Courier. These men founded the Chicago Hebrew Literary Society, where members could learn to read and speak Hebrew (as opposed to Yiddish) and debate the Jewish issues of the day. These men then formed the Knights of Zion, which raised funds for the purchase of land for Jewish settlers willing to go to Palestine. Zolotkoff would later become a delegate to several World Zionist Congresses.

The Knights of Zion, William Blackstone, and other Zionist idealists met resistance from most of Chicago’s leading Reform rabbis. Emil G. Hirsch of Sinai Congregation proclaimed that “We modern Jews do not wish to be restored to Palestine … the country wherein we live is our Palestine … We will not go back to form a nationality of our own.” Hirsch asked, “What will [Jewish settlers] do in Palestine? Few of them have the physical strength requisite” to farming. He declared the idea “a fool’s errand.”

Hirsch was concerned in part that support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine would open American Jewry to charges of dual loyalty, or worse. Rabbi David Philipson, writing in the American Israelite, further illuminated this view when he defined Judaism as a religion and not a nationality: “There is no longer a Jewish nation; there is a Jewish religious community … the Jews in America are to be distinguished by naught else but their religious life.” In every other way, Philipson implied, they were fully Americans, not Israelis in waiting.

One major Chicago Reform rabbi spoke in favor of Zionism, and his voice carried great authority. Bernard Felsenthal, German-speaking rabbi of _______________, was the only Reform rabbi to support the formation of the Hebrew Literary Society and to mingle easily with the Eastern European immigrants. In 1891, reading Hirsch’s attack on Zionism in the press, Felsenthal wrote to Hirsch:

A colonization in Palestine of the poor suffering Jews living in Russia [and elsewhere] is feasible, more so than bringing them over to America. … Not all Jews will return to Palestine; none will be compelled to go there … I vote for colonization … The Jewish colonies in Palestine – hail to them! … May they flourish! May they bring happiness to those who dwell in them!

History, of course, has sided with Felsenthal, the Horwiches, Blackstone, and the advocates of a Jewish national homeland. While the founding of Israel did not come soon enough to help the victims of Russian pogroms in the 1880s and 1890s, a later generation of Russian Jews has found safety and freedom in the homeland envisioned by Chicago’s leading Protestant evangelical, its West Side Jewish immigrants and the dean of its German-Jewish Reform establishment.

Source: American Jewish Historical Society.