(March 1, 2018 / Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.) The small town of St. Stephen in maritime Canada is an unlikely birthplace for a giant of 20th-century pro-Israel leadership. Yet for Isaiah “Si” Kenen, born there in 1905, Zionism was integral to his family heritage, and his life was defined by dedication to the Jewish state.
Kenen’s father had been an Orthodox Zionist who had known Theodor Herzl and other Zionist leaders in Europe. Having immigrated to Canada from Kiev in the Russian Empire, the Kenens made their way to Toronto, where Si attended college and later found work as a journalist for The Toronto Star. By 1933, Kenen had decamped to Cleveland and The Cleveland News. He had also become an attorney, which was useful as his activism prompted him to become one of the founders of the Newspaper Guild.
Yet Kenen’s work as a journalist was in service of his devotion to Zionism. In 1941, he became head of a Cleveland Zionist chapter. Over the course of the decade, Kenen threw himself into Zionist work, becoming an information director of the Jewish Agency and then a member of Israel’s first U.N. delegation in 1949.
In 1951, Kenen set up the American Zionist Committee—soon to become AIPAC—convinced that a strong Israel would make America stronger. Kenen understood that, although now independent, the State of Israel faced enemies and many domestic challenges; it would require an organized force of American citizens to strengthen Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. It was a brilliant assessment of the way Washington worked and a bold move, made at a time when some American Jews still preferred to keep quiet about their love of the Jewish state.
Kenen built his pro-Israel lobbying efforts with what can only be described as chutzpah. In 1951, the group sought the large sum of $150 million in U.S. assistance for Israel. Congress ultimately appropriated $65 million, which was far from an unpromising start. But Kenen knew that more had to be done, and so he continued to build AIPAC as an organization until stepping down in 1974. By that time, aid to Israel from Washington had totaled more than $1 billion.
Today, AIPAC is a vital, venerable and bipartisan institution that educates America about the benefits of the America-Israel alliance. That it has become the center of pro-Israel activism in America owes much to the vision of its founder Si Kenen, who turned his passion for Israel into an organization that could transmit a similar passion to others.