"Irresponsible, undisciplined opposition": Ben Halpern on the Bergson group and Jewish terrorism in pre-state Palestine (1).

Author:Raider, Mark A.
  1. Introduction

    In December 1946, the Labor Zionist journal Jewish Frontier published an exchange between Daniel Bell (b. 1919) and Ben Halpern (1912-1990), two rising intellectual stars of twentieth-century American Jewry. The exchange highlighted the most pressing philosophical and existential dilemmas faced by the Jewish world in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. Bell, a young instructor at the University of Chicago, opened his essay with a statement by the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, "Woe to man who has no home." He proceeded to raise and answer a series of probing questions: "What meaningful role can the young Jewish intellectual play in [today's] world?" "How can one maintain a critical temper?" "Where are we to go?" "What of the relation of this position to Zionism?" Taking his cues from Nietzsche, Bell asserted the futility of an ethnic-religious worldview and argued instead for the harnessing of Jewish passions to a universalist and this-worldly Weltanschauung. "The plight--and glory--of the alienated Jewish intellectual," he concluded, "is that his role is to point to the need of brotherhood.... He can only live in permanent tension and as a permanent critic." (2)

    Halpern, Jewish Frontier's managing editor and a Harvard Ph.D. in sociology, challenged Bell's assertions. Disputing Bell's premise of the role of the "alienated Jewish intellectual," Halpern argued in favor of a search for community, fellowship, and belonging in the modern world. In his rejoinder, he insisted on a historically conditioned rationale for Jewish nationalism, and the significance of Jewish intellectuals in shaping the future of Jewish life:

    Let me suggest that you are driving into a blind alley when you flirt with the idea that it is necessary to live in a physically defined state of alienation, like the Jews in the ghetto, in order to be a prophet.... It might be a fruitful exercise if you were to ponder all over again the question of love and social organization, of community and the pitfalls of romanticism and cynicism. We have gone through a very purgatory of social education in our century, and one of the chief devils stoking the fires has been the demon of intellectual theocracy--the Ideocrat.... Should we not still explore the possibility that there are ways of action and types of commitment by which the independence of the spirit need not be sold out? As a first modest contribution towards the quest, let me propose the thesis that loyalty to a dogma is a tyranny which suffers only slaves in its realm; but loyalty to one's fellowmen--and, first of all, to the concrete, particular aggregation of fellowmen who have the precise responses which meet the acts and fill the deeper expectations by which each of us defines his true personality--can be a compact of love and freedom, preserving the independence of the individual and the spirit." (3) The Bell-Halpern exchange reflects the sea change in modern history effected by the Nazi regime's catastrophic destruction of European Jewry. It also underscores the gravity of the Jewish public debate in the years following World War II and the Holocaust, especially the vexing issue of the place of Jews in the postwar world. Bell's universalism, akin to Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher's conception of "the non-Jewish Jew," starkly contrasted with Halpern's unapologetic particularism. Like Horace M. Kallen, Louis D. Brandeis, Mordecai M. Kaplan, and other intellectuals who subscribed to an idealistic American brand of Jewish nationalism in the pre-state era, Halpern emphasized an appreciation of the peculiar conditions that shaped and defined Jewish life in the United States. He was to articulate this theme most fully a few years later in his trenchant essay "America Is Different." (4) In the latter, he examined the relationship of Jews to America--a postemancipationist, open, liberal society--and pointed to the special challenges faced by Jews in the New World. The new postwar reality in which America and the Yishuv (later Israel) assumed dominant roles in the Jewish public arena forced a reconsideration of and "a new focus in the direction of Jewish thought," particularly with regard to the dilemmas posed to the American Jewish society-in-the-making by the forces of acculturation, assimilation, and antisemitism. (5)

    There is, however, another subtext to the Bell-Halpern exchange that merits investigation, namely, the heated debate in postwar American Jewish life over the best political strategy for driving forward the twin campaigns of Jewish statehood and alleviating the distress of the European Jewish refugees. In this period, American Jews showed increasing interest in the fortunes of the fledgling Yishuv, as well as the plight of some 65,000 Holocaust survivors stranded in Displaced Persons camps in the British, American, French, and Russian zones in Europe. The camps included a sizable number of Jewish DPs who wished to immigrate to Palestine. In general, American Jewish public opinion swung overwhelmingly in support of the Zionist policies and program of the Palestine-based coalition grouped around David Ben-Gurion and the socialist Mapai party which, starting in the mid-1930s, assumed a central position in the World Zionist Organization, in the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and in the Yishuv's affairs. That American Jews were predisposed in this regard was already evident at the Biltmore Conference of 1942, held in New York City in lieu of the World Zionist Congress, and the subsequent American Jewish Conference of 1943. In both instances, the plenaries focused squarely on the question of state building as the key to ensuring the viability of the Yishuv and saving the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. (6)

    As the Zionist leadership became embroiled in an increasingly bitter struggle with the British over freedom of access to Mandatory Palestine, the internal Zionist debate over tactics intensified. The fierce tenor of relations among Zionist factions in the Diaspora reflected this situation. Dissenting voices from across the social and religious spectrum of American Jewry called for radical responses to the world crisis, the grave distress of the European Jewish refugees, and the intransigent attitude of the British Mandatory. Nowhere in the American Zionist arena was the conflict more apparent than in the bitter power struggle between the "moderates" and the "militants," led, respectively, by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874-1949) and Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (1893-1963). (7) The de bate was also joined by left- and right-wing fringe groups that promoted extremist and, in some instances, explicitly terrorist agendas. (8)

    Between 1945 and 1948, membership in the organized American Zionist movement skyrocketed, and the constituencies of secular, religious, and partisan Zionist groups grew in an unprecedented fashion. (9) Within this matrix, American Jews generally supported the political strategy of the Zionist leadership. Moreover, as a result of Labor's dominance in world Zionist affairs, the American wing of Labor Zionism--the Pioneer Women's Organization, the Poalei Zion-Zeirei Zion party, the Farband fraternal order, the Hechalutz pioneer movement, and the Habonim youth group--enjoyed disproportionate significance in American Zionist affairs. (10) Meanwhile, even hitherto marginal forces found the scope and opportunity to flourish and to escalate the pace of their activities.

    The annotated lecture published here offers a rare glimpse of the urgency and dynamism of this period. Given in 1947 by Ben Halpern to the leadership of Pioneer Women, the document throws light on the complex attitudes of American Jews to Zionism, Palestine, and the issues of postwar reconstruction and rehabilitation. It also reveals the considerable political savvy and determination of the Pioneer Women leadership. Halpern--part Zionist activist and part scholar-in-the-making--used the occasion to explain, analyze, and reflect on the nature and conditions of Jewish political affairs in the United States and Palestine on the eve of statehood. His talk is also instructive from another vantage point. It delineates the parameters of the mindset of the so-called "other New York Jewish intellectuals" (in distinction to the "New York intellectuals" grouped around Partisan Review) who placed a premium on questions of Jewish national identity and the integrity of Jewish culture in a rapidly changing postwar world.

    The talk underscores the extent to which Halpern, himself, was the protege of three outstanding intellectuals of the previous generation, each of whom played a pivotal role in shaping his sense of intellectual engagement. Under Harry Wolfson (1887-1974) of Harvard University, a preeminent American scholar of Jewish thought, Halpern completed his doctorate and acquired a penetrating and systematic understanding of Jewish history. Alongside Enzo Sereni (1905-1944), the charismatic Italian socialist Zionist leader and Histadrut emissary to American Hechalutz in the 1930s, he developed a non-doctrinaire approach to haluziut (Zionist pioneering) and the Palestine labor movement. In fact, he eventually followed Sereni to Kibbutz Givat Brenner, of which Sereni was a founding member, and where Halpern and his wife, Gertrude, lived from 1938 to 1940. Last, in Hayim Greenberg (1889-1953), the spiritual guide of Labor Zionism in the Diaspora, he found a mentor whose profound understanding of Jewish thought and civilization inspired much of Halpern's own secular identity and worldview.

    Halpern's first-hand understanding of American and Palestinian affairs leavened his abilities as a cogent writer and incisive analyst of the contemporary Jewish scene. By 1947, Halpern, who knew most of the major figures of the Palestine labor movement personally, had already emerged as a central figure in Labor Zionist affairs in the United States. He worked part-time as a member of the...

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