How Legendary Zionists <br>Raced Through America <br>In Bid To Outflank Hitler
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It was five years ago that I first met Rick Richman, who had become interested in the Zionist prophet Vladimir Jabotinsky. Mr. Richman was taken aback by the fact that though he had been educated at Harvard College and New York University Law School, he had never been taught the story of the firebrand who had tried and failed in his efforts to raise a Jewish army to fight the Nazis.
In “Racing Against History, The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler,” just out from Encounter, Mr. Richman provides that much-needed narrative of Jabotinsky’s campaign to save the Jews of Europe. And also relates how the two other major Zionist leaders of the time, the General Zionist Chaim Weizmann and the labor leader, David Ben Gurion, themselves came to America that year, also campaigning for a Jewish army.
This story couldn’t be more important for our time, when the fate of the Jews is again in the balance and when the leadership of the Jewish state comes from a party whose headquarters is named Jabotinsky House. Today has differences from 1940, of course, but similarities, too, which becomes clear in Mr. Richman’s opening portrait of the world on the eve of America’s plunge into war. Not to mention in his discussion how American Jews viewed Zionism.
Mr. Richman cites a 1938 Time Magazine article, “Jews v. Jews,” which divided American Jewry into those who perceived themselves as “Americans who are Jews” and those who thought of themselves as “Jews in America.” It defined the former as Jews who “individually” practiced their faith, the second as those who, sympathetic to Zionism, believed that they were part of a “scattered nation.” The animosity between the two groups was great.
This, along with anti-Semitism and pro-German sentiments among some Americans, made raising a Jewish army to fight Hitler even more difficult. So enter a Briton, Chaim Weizmann, who emerged from a Russian shtetl to earn a doctorate in chemistry. At age 65, after having served as president of the Zionist Organization, Weizmann was ready to retire, only to learn that the British were considering a new plan.
Fearing it would “negate the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine and make a Jewish national homeland impossible to achieve,” Weizmann went back to work with an even greater sense of urgency. That brought him to America, where he met with Franklin Roosevelt but failed to secure the president’s support in settling Jewish refugees in Palestine. Weizmann’s efforts to win the backing of American Jewry were but slightly more successful.
Mr. Richman lays the failure of Weizmann’s trip not only to American Jewish ambiguity but also to Weizmann’s own absence of assertiveness and lackluster speaking abilities, both in sharp contradistinction to Jabotinsky’s more aggressive efforts to convince the British and American governments to create a Jewish fighting force. Mr. Richman captures Jabotinsky’s speeches at the Manhattan Center and draws on his letters to American Jewish leaders.
These include the famed editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Abraham Cahan, to whom Jabotinsky sought to demonstrate how crucial the situation was for European Jewry. (Mr. Richman cites some work I had done on Jabotinsky, including my discovery of the Cahan-Jabotinsky Correspondence). Mr. Richman’s depiction of the force of Jabotinsky’s addresses on the eve of and at the beginning of the holocaust is a good as anything that has ever been written on the topic.
In recounting Jabotinsky’s electrifying speech in the Manhattan Center, Richman cites the Zionist leader’s statement that there was in Britain and France a moral netherworld that referred to the war as a Jewish one and “saw no harm in the Nazi murder of the Jews.” Mr. Richman covers Jabotinsky’s death of a heart attack on August 5, 1940, at Hunter, New York, and provides a powerful picture of the throngs that turned out to mourn him.
“Racing Against History” goes a long way toward restoring the importance of Jabotinsky’s legacy and helps to lift him into the pantheon that includes Israel’s most famous founder, David Ben Gurion, who also raced to America in 1940. Mr. Richman commissioned for the book a translation of the pages of Ben Gurion’s diary that covered his time in the United States, offering glimpses of how unsympathetic the future prime minister was to right-of-center Zionists
Particularly, in this story, Ben Gurion’s response to two members of Jabotinsky’s party, legal scholar Benjamin Akzin and journalist Eliahu Ben Horin. They rushed to reorganize Jabotinsky’s movement after his death. Ben Gurion thought little of them and their “movement.” (He referred to Akzin as an “idiot” and to Ben Horin as a “total Nazi.”) The story foreshadows the attitude that Ben Gurion displayed when, a decade later, he refused in the Knesset to refer to Jabotinsky’s successor, Menachem Begin, by name.
While Ben Gurion’s trip was no more successful than Weizmann’s and the combined efforts failed to lead to a Jewish army that could have appeared in arms against Hitler, Mr. Richman sees their efforts as “part of a larger Zionist chronicle” that in a way “won the race against history” and resulted in the creation of a Jewish state. “Racing Against History” is must-read history, an erudite and important account of desperate chapter in the Zionist attempt to strike back against the Nazis.
Mr. Gordon, who teaches at California State University at San Bernardino, is co-author with Ian Oxnevad of “Middle East Politics for the New Millennium,” which was brought out by Lexington in 2016.