(April 8, 2018 / Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.) Most of the great Zionists were, above all, men of action. But Abba Hillel Silver, a crucial figure in the history of Zionism, was also an outstanding scholar, the full-time rabbi of a large congregation.
Born in Neustadt, Lithuania, and descended from a line of Orthodox rabbis, Silver was brought to the United States in 1902, growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. There, at age 11, he co-founded a Hebrew-speaking Zionist organization, the Herzl-Zion club.
Deeply interested in Jewish theology and history, Silver enrolled at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, graduating in 1915 as its valedictorian. By 1917, when he was just 24, Silver had become head of Cleveland’s influential Congregation Tifereth Israel, where he remained throughout his life. Within 10 years, Tifereth Israel was the largest synagogue congregation in the United States.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Reform movement, of which Silver was a leading figure, had an uncertain attitude towards Zionism. Silver himself had flirted with a “cultural” Zionism that excluded political sovereignty. But during World War II, he came to see the urgent need for an independent Jewish state and began to rally his fellow American Jews to the Zionist cause.
As historian Allan Arkush recounts, Silver’s electric speech in August 1943 at a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York helped unite wavering American Jewish leaders behind the idea of a Jewish state. “Are we forever to live a homeless people on the world’s crumbs of sympathy?” he asked. “Should not all this be compensated for finally and at long last with the re-establishment of a free Jewish Commonwealth?”
After the war, Silver served as president of the American Zionist Organization and the Central Conference of Rabbis, continuing to push aggressively for a Jewish state. He put added pressure on President Harry S. Truman to follow a pro-Israel course by helping persuade the Republican Party to include a pledge of support for Israel in its 1948 platform.
In the decade after the establishment of Israel, Silver’s continuing advocacy for Israel set a precedent for principled and forthright American-Jewish engagement in support of the Jewish state.