The organizers of the Nov. 14 March for Israel in Washington, D.C., called it “the largest pro-Israel gathering in history.” Attendance estimates ranged from 160,000 to 290,000. No doubt, the number was huge, but it was not unprecedented.
Even before the Allied victory in Europe, American Jews began to rally for the cause of the Jewish state. Although it was not as easy to travel to Washington then as it is today, Jews organized numerous local rallies, some of which included 100,000 to 250,000 attendees.
The singular focus of these demonstrations was outrage at the British government, which had announced that it would continue to uphold its 1939 White Paper, which allowed only a trickle of Jews into Palestine after 1945, and only if “the Arabs of Palestine … acquiesce.”
On Oct. 10, 1945, soon after V-J Day, Jews held a massive rally in and around Boston’s Faneuil Hall, where the colonists had once rallied for independence from the British oppressor.
On Oct. 24, 1945, a crowd of between 150,000 and 250,000 people filled Madison Square Park in New York City to demand unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Israel Goldstein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), vowed, “We refuse to recognize as illegal any Jewish immigrant who enters Palestine without a certificate. Every Jew who enters the Jewish national home does so as of right.” A message from New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey called for the “reconstitution of Palestine as a Jewish state.” Over the next two months, Jews staged demonstrations and parades all over New York.
On April 20, 1946, Jews staged a massive protest at Madison Square Garden after the British government refused to implement the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry’s unanimous recommendation to admit 100,000 Jews to Palestine immediately.
These demonstrations denounced Britain for refusing to fulfill its Balfour Declaration pledge to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Marchers in New York carried signs charging, “Is Attlee another Chamberlain?” that identified then-British Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s appeasement of the Arabs with former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis. In the summer of 1946, protestors chanting “Stop British Betrayal” picketed every British consulate in the U.S. Speakers and demonstrators demanded that Congress refuse to grant loans to the British government. Placards read: “No American Aid for British Betrayers.”
Rabbis formed major contingents at these rallies. In Nov. 1945, 1,000 rabbis singing “Hatikvah” marched to the Capitol, where they presented congressmen with a petition calling for the “repudiation of the British White Paper [and] the creation of a Jewish National Homeland.” They marched on to the British embassy, where the petition was read to John Balfour, second cousin of Lord Arthur Balfour, whose declaration had first pledged British support for Zionism.
The Jewish War Veterans of the USA (JWV), which included veterans of the Jewish Legion, who had fought with the British to liberate Palestine in the First World War, played a prominent role in the protests. Even the rabbis marching to the British embassy carried the banner of the Legion to convey to the British government that it was betraying its own soldiers.
On June 13, 1946, the Labour government’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin addressed the party’s annual convention. “Regarding the agitation in the United States, and particularly New York, for 100,000 Jews to be put into Palestine, I hope it will not be misunderstood in America if I say, with the purest of motives, that that was because they did not want too many of them in New York,” he said.
Bevin stressed that his policy “was to strive for a Palestinian, and not a Jewish or Arab, state,” although given the severe restrictions on Jewish immigration, Jews would form a small minority in such a state. The audience responded with “long and thunderous applause.”
As historian Stephen H. Norwood has noted, Bevin’s speech represented a total reversal of the Labour Party’s longstanding support for the Balfour Declaration and opposition to the White Paper.
At a massive rally that night at Madison Square Garden, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, honorary chairman of the ZOA, denounced Bevin’s comment as “antisemitic vulgarity reminiscent of the Nazis at their worst.”
At another massive event in Madison Square Park three weeks later, ZOA vice president Emanuel Neumann condemned what he characterized as the “Bevin-Mufti Alliance.” Both Bevin and the Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini were antisemites who threatened the future of the Jewish people. On display was a huge Union Jack on which a large swastika was sewn. A labor leader called for “daily picketing” of British consulates. In Washington, protestors painted “British Nazis in Palestine” on the British embassy’s driveway.
Again at Madison Square Park, a huge march and rally were held on July 2, 1946, in response to British troops’ “wholesale arrest” of 3,000 Jewish Agency and Haganah leaders, who were falsely labeled terrorists. Rabbi Silver proclaimed, “The only terrorists in Palestine [are] the agents of the British government. Any Jew in Palestine who resorts to any weapon is a patriot and a free man.” Emanuel Neumann expressed the sentiments of the crowd when he declared, “You are not only the Haganah of Palestine. You are our Haganah. … We thank God for Haganah … marking the dawn of a new era in Jewish history, Era of Resistance.”
Albert Einstein’s message to the gathering expressed fury and scorn at Britain’s “ruthless suppression of the Jews of Palestine.” At the very moment the Mufti, who collaborated with Hitler, “has been allowed to make his reappearance in the Middle East and renew his … dangerous activities,” Einstein pointed out, the British had arrested 3,000 Jewish leaders in Palestine. He warned that the Jews’ “disarmament” would spell their “doom.”
The next day, the organization Americans for Haganah was formed. Subsequent rallies raised money for the Haganah as a “revolutionary people’s army.”
In November 1947, when the U.S. government imposed an arms embargo, barring the shipment of weapons to Palestine, Americans for Haganah organized neighborhood protests. In Brooklyn, under the banner “We Have the Men—We Need the Guns,” masses of working-class Jews pledged their support, each donating a day’s pay with their employers doubling the sum.
On Dec. 2, 1947, 20,000 people filled Manhattan Center and surrounding streets to celebrate the U.N. General Assembly’s vote on Nov. 29 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The United States and the USSR had voted with the majority. The exhilaration ended, however, when in March 1948, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall reversed their position and called for a trusteeship of “indefinite duration” in Palestine. Marshall attributed the reversal to the fear that the international force the U.N. recommended to carry out partition “would bring Russian troops” and to the fear of jeopardizing oil supplies. The United Nations scheduled an assembly to “reconsider partition” for April 16.
In response, on April 4, the JWV staged a protest for which more than 100,000 jammed Madison Square Park, and a parade in which “250,000 lined the sidewalks.” Veterans carried banners proclaiming “We Fought for Peace, Not Arab Appeasement” and “Oil or Honor?” They chanted, “A Jewish State in ‘48.” Speakers denounced Truman’s surrender to the oil lobby and demanded partition be upheld. California Rep. Chet Holifield declared, “Much of the opposition to a Zionist state stems from antisemitism.”
On April 14, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations held a rally at Yankee Stadium to demand that the United States and United Nations uphold the partition resolution. Organized labor had been prominent at the protests from the beginning, strongly denouncing the policies of the Labour Party on Palestine. Garment and hat factories, as well as Jewish shops, closed early so workers could attend. Braving a driving rain and windstorm, 30,000 drenched attendees heard a cable from David Ben-Gurion on America’s “astonishing reversal of policy.” The gathering “unanimously adopted” a resolution calling for an end to the arms embargo and “immediate implementation” of partition.
Happily, the U.S. plan found “no takers” at the April 16 U.N. assembly. The New York Times concluded, “None but the Americans seemed to think much of the proposal.”
Much like today, Jews—even Zionist Jews—were divided. Dissenting groups held parallel rallies. The day after the labor organizations demonstrated at Yankee Stadium, far-left Zionists picketed the White House and rallied in Washington. Yet their central message was largely the same. A telegram from Ben Gold of the National Committee of the Communist Party praised Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations, for “his struggle on behalf of the plagued and persecuted Jewish people.”
Some 35,000 far-leftists, including Communists, celebrated Israel’s founding at a “Salute to the Jewish State” at the Polo Grounds on May 15, 1948. The next night, 75,000 mainstream Zionists filled Madison Square Garden and surrounding streets for a “Salute to Israel.” Both rallies opened with the singing of “Hatikvah” and cheered the USSR’s consistent support for partition. Even at the far-left rally, a cantor recited the Kaddish for Jews killed in Palestine. An hour was devoted to collecting funds for the Haganah. The rally ended with a pageant timed to coincide with sunrise in Israel.
For a brief, critical period, Jews united against the threats to the founding of the Jewish state. Within a few years, however, the USSR was leading the way towards anti-Zionism on the left. It remains to be seen how long the unity seen at the latest March for Israel will endure.