Signposts: publications of the American Jewish Historical Society and World War I.

Author:Diner, Hasia R.
 
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Max J. Kohler and Simon Wolf, "Jewish Disabilities in the Balkan States: American Contributions Toward their Removal, With Particular Reference to the Congress of Berlin," 24 (January 1, 1916), pp. 1-153.

Max J. Kohler, "Jewish Rights at the Congresses of Vienna (1814-1815) and the Aix-LaChapelle (1818)" 26 (January 1, 1918), pp. 33-125.

World War I, the plight of the Jews caught in the conflict's cross-fire, and the intervention of America and its Jews to ameliorate their condition served as the backdrop for Max J. Kohler's two articles, which appeared in the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society during the middle years of the 1910s. The first of these empirically dense and deeply researched pieces came out in January 1916, as the United States staunchly proclaimed its neutrality, electing a president later that year who would make staying out of the war a key campaign promise. The second of Kohler's pieces, also like the first, long, meticulous, and accompanied by primary sources, appeared a half year after Woodrow Wilson and the United States Congress brought the nation into the war. Wilson justified that dramatic about-face to humanitarianism and to a broad, nearly messianic vision of the world to emerge from the bloody protracted conflict, to be based on the protection of minorities, enduring peace, and global reconciliation.

The articles also reflected a specific American and American Jewish context. Readers of the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, as well as the smaller number who had heard these papers delivered orally at the Society's annual meetings, would have known that as early as 1914, just months after the hostilities broke out, American Jews had geared into action to do what they could for those millions of Jews impacted by the war. Their involvement began almost immediately after the assassination in Sarajevo and the explosion of hostilities on a global scale. In August of that year Henry Morgenthau, the United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire witnessed the plight of the Jews of Palestine who, cut off from the rest of the world because of the war, faced starvation. Morgenthau dispatched a telegram to banker-philanthropist Jacob Schiff in New York on August 31, 1914, bringing to his attention their wretched conditions. This telegram catalyzed the formation of several American Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Relief Committee, the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War, and the People's Relief Committee, which banded together later that year to form the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known in short as the Joint. By 1915 the Joint, as well as other American Jewish organizations and the Jewish press, both English and Yiddish, publicized to the American Jewish public the vast suffering of Jews and the brutal dislocation of Jewish life in the Czarist Empire.

For much of the period of time when Kohler and his co-writer Simon Wolf researched and wrote these two articles, which together ran up to more than 250 pages including hefty appendices of primary documents, the United States, because of its non-belligerent status and its geographic isolation suffered none of the disruption caused by the war. Even after America's declaration of war and its soldiers went "over there," the Atlantic provided Americans with a safe space, removed from the ravages of the conflict. As such the Jews of the United States constituted the only sizable Jewish population in the world living in a land not marred by trenches, not in the path of armies on the move, not in danger of invasion. Even England endured, from 1915 on, aerial bombing. The small Jewish population centers in South Africa, Australia, and the various countries of South and Central America had little clout and more importantly, lived in nations with no particular influence in the outcome of world events.

This meant that the Jews of the United States experienced the war in profound safety, a matter which heightened their sense of...

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