‘Beethoven Was a Zionist’: A memoir from Israel on the eve of its creation

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Click photo to download. Caption: A portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven. When American Zionist activist Harold Manson heard the Palestine Orchestra 65 years ago, he wrote “There was electricity in the air. And Beethoven was a Zionist, singing out his message of hope—this time for the Jewish people." Credit: Joseph Karl Stieler/Wikimedia Commons.

“Today I saw The Land for the first time, and it was beautiful.”

With those simple but moving words, veteran American Zionist activist Harold Manson began his remarkable diary of the visit he made to the Holy Land 65 years ago this month, shortly before the establishment of the State of Israel. It was a journey filled with surprises for Manson—but much of what he found could have been taken from our own headlines today.

Manson served as public relations director for the American Zionist Emergency Council, the umbrella for the major U.S. Zionist organizations. He landed in what was still British Mandatory Palestine on Jan. 13, 1948, as the advance man for a forthcoming visit by Zionist leader Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.

The “undeclared war” of Palestinian Arab violence against the Jews was in evidence from the moment of Manson’s arrival. “I can thank the Arabs for that first thrilling glimpse of Tel-Aviv and its environs from the air,” he noted. “Because they have made motor travel on the roads unsafe, I was prevailed upon to fly into Tel-Aviv via ‘Aviron’—a two-seater cub, efficiently piloted by a stalwart member of the future Jewish Air Force.”

By his third day in the country, Manson had a close brush with the war. “On my way back to the hotel, I came ‘under fire’ for the first time,” he wrote on Jan. 14, 1948. “Suddenly bullets began to fly... and the few people on the street took cover.”

The gunfire was coming from the adjoining Arab area of Jaffa. “It seems that the sons of Allah are using the minaret of a mosque for sniping purposes,” he wrote. “They seldom hit anybody, but it's damned irritating to know that Haganah retaliation would be denounced as an attack on a holy place and could precipitate ‘holy warfare’ [jihad].” Indeed, in the years since, the Israeli army has often faced international condemnation for striking at Arab terrorists who were using civilians or religious sites as shields.

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver (left) and Harold Manson, circa 1948. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

A diary entry several days later gave additional glimpses of the battlefront: “There was a great deal of shooting last night, and two big explosions,” Manson recorded. “This morning we learned that the British had blown up two houses in the Jaffa-Tel Aviv area, one Arab and one Jewish, which had been used by snipers. How terribly fair and ‘neutral’ to punish both the attackers and the attacked.”

But there was also good news from the war: “While I was getting a breath of morning air on my terrace, there was a terrific explosion to the left and I saw fragments of a house go up in the air and a cloud of dust and smoke. Later I learned that our boys had destroyed another Arab snipers’ hangout.”

But Eretz Yisrael in the spring of 1948 was not just a land of strife. Far from it. Manson’s memoir brims with hopeful descriptions of the vibrant everyday life and culture of the Jewish community. Despite the occasional bursts of violence, he found Tel Aviv to be “a superbly normal city, going about its business with both efficiency and charm, and bursting with creative energy.” It was a “lovely, almost idyllic, seaside community,” with “gleaming white buildings, thoroughfares, boulevards and promenades teeming with pleasant, relaxed faces... crowded cafes and shops... strong children running about in the bright Mediterranean sun.”

The American Zionist activist was deeply impressed by the locals’ hospitality. “This is one of the friendliest spots on earth,” he wrote in his journal. “Invitations to dinner, tea and just plain visits come bewilderingly fast, and one is hard put to organize one’s daily schedule in such a way as to avoid converting one's stay here to a prolonged social occasion.”

Shortly after Rabbi Silver’s arrival, their hosts pressed Silver and Manson to attend a performance by the Palestine Orchestra. With “very heavy hearts” over reports of new Jewish casualties, they reluctantly assented. “As it turned out, all of us were glad that we went,” he noted afterwards. The orchestra played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, based on Schiller’s exuberantly hopeful “Ode to Joy,” and it “had a deep personal meaning for every person” in the audience. “There was electricity in the air. And Beethoven was a Zionist, singing out his message of hope—this time for the Jewish people. He sang of the glory of our cause and he assured us of its triumph. It was definitely not an ordinary musical evening.”

But even at that moment, Manson could not help but notice “that the male section of the chorus was smaller than usual”—because so many young men had been compelled to take up arms. It was a vivid reminder of what was ultimately at stake. Amidst the wonder and excitement of the emerging new country and culture, “one suddenly remembers that the charming couple discussing modern art in Palestine have an 18-year-old boy who is, in all likelihood, roaming the hills somewhere to guarantee his peoples security,” he wrote. “And boys like that die every day in Palestine.” 

Manson understood: the nation’s security would have to come first. The young Jewish soldiers would have to fend off Palestinian Arab attacks and defeat the five Arab armies that were preparing to invade. Only then would the State of Israel be free to blossom. And it would.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC.

Posted on January 6, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S..