“This article is adapted from “The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America,” published on Nov. 14 by Knopf.
In June 1916, Jacob Schiff was on the verge of tears as he addressed a convention of fellow Jewish leaders. For more than three decades, the Frankfurt-born investment banker and philanthropist, who had amassed a fortune financing the nation’s railroads and rivaled J.P. Morgan as one of the most prominent tycoons of the Gilded Age, had been the de facto head of American Jewry.
He had poured millions of dollars into Jewish causes, pressured successive presidential administrations to rebuke the Russian empire for its brutal treatment of his coreligionists, and fended off harsh immigration restrictions designed to keep out Jews and others who nativists feared would dilute the nation’s Anglo-Saxon pedigree.
But lately he had come under attack by members of his own community, clashing bitterly with supporters of the ascendant Zionist movement, whose push for a Jewish homeland Schiff and many American Jews strongly opposed. “I have been hurt to the core,” Schiff declared, his voice trembling, “and hereafter Zionism, nationalism … and Jewish politics in whatever form they may come up will be a sealed book to me.”
Jews have wrangled over Israel since long before the modern state came into existence. The current Gaza war has opened new fissures, especially within America’s Jewish community, over Israel and its role in the broader Jewish world, and some critiques of the nation have drawn accusations of antisemitism.
But fierce disagreements over Zionism — the pursuit of a Jewish nation — have played out from the movement’s inception among Jews who cared deeply about the future of their people.
In those early skirmishes was something elemental about the Jewish experience — a diverse people tethered by a common religion and a sorrowful history of displacement, trying to find their place in an often-hostile world.
That world of more than a century ago today feels closer than ever. And the recent explosion of antisemitism, including footage of a mob in Dagestan overrunning a Russian airport in search of Jewish passengers, has troubling echoes of the persecution that prompted the push for a Jewish state.
In the late-19th century, mob violence and oppression in Russia and Eastern Europe sent wave upon wave of Jewish immigrants to the United States, one of the few nations that would accept them. The deteriorating conditions fueling this mass migration also led to the rise of Zionism, an initially quixotic movement founded in Europe by the Hungarian activist Theodor Herzl.
American Jewish institutions at that time were largely dominated by Schiff and a wealthy, well-established and highly assimilated German-Jewish elite who had settled in the nation decades earlier.
Despite having little in common with the impoverished new arrivals, they understood that perceptions of one group of Jews could easily shape opinions of Jews as a whole. So they shouldered a weighty obligation to take care of their own, founding and funding a dizzying network of social welfare organizations that not only anticipated the immediate needs of the new immigrants — jobs, English lessons, schools, hospitals — but paved the way for their rapid “Americanization.”
To Schiff and his allies, America represented a promised land. Unlike Germany, where for generations Jews had been shunted into ghettos and treated as a permanent underclass, there they could live, work and worship freely. Because of this, they felt a deep sense of devotion to the United States. Summing up the sentiment of many in their community, the lawyer and diplomat Henry Morgenthau once declared, “We Jews of America have found America to be our Zion.”
As Zionism slowly took hold in the United States, often imported by immigrants, Schiff and American Jewish leaders began to view the movement as a threat.
Jewish nationalism alarmed Schiff because it risked lending credence to the age-old canard that had marginalized Jews for centuries: Their people possessed dual loyalties and thus could never be true or trustworthy citizens of any nation. “Political Zionism places a lien upon citizenship,” Schiff said, arguing that the establishment of a Jewish state “creates a separateness which is fatal.”
He contended that Zionists “by their very movement are furnishing the antisemites one of the strongest arguments for their nefarious attacks upon our race.” Far from an outlier, Schiff represented the position of many American Jews.
Schiff, known for his occasionally hot temper, never followed through on his vow to withdraw from Jewish politics. The stakes were too high, as World War I sparked yet another crisis for millions of Jews living in the conflict zone.
The war — and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, voicing British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine — marked a foundational shift in the debate over Zionism. Grappling with how to contend with millions of Jewish war refugees, Schiff gradually softened his position on the movement and eventually entered negotiations to officially join the Zionist Organization of America, the leading U.S. organization advocating for a Jewish homeland.
But while he came to support Jewish settlement in Palestine for cultural and religious purposes, he could not abide Jewish statehood. “I shall have to continue to remain on the threshold,” Schiff ultimately informed the Zionist Organization president.
When Schiff died in 1920, his mantle of leadership fell to his son-in-law, Felix Warburg, who in the 1920s and ’30s grew closely involved with Jewish affairs in Palestine, pouring millions of dollars into the development of the Jewish community there. But he, too, was no Zionist.
In July 1937, the year after an Arab uprising against Jewish settlers and British troops had begun, the British Peel Commission recommended partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab territories.
The following month, Warburg, who had lamented that Palestine might become a “shooting gallery,” traveled to Zurich to attend a meeting of the Jewish Council for Palestine, where he pushed a resolution to seek a peaceful coexistence with the Arabs without dividing the country. “No lasting peace in Palestine can be obtained until the parties directly affected ... have been given a full opportunity to endeavor to arrive at a peaceful understanding,” he said at the time. He and other non-Zionists feared that only more violence could result from carving out a Jewish state.
Warburg died two months after the Zurich conference and before the outbreak of World War II, when much of the world, including the United States, closed its doors to Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Six-million murdered Jews — there was no more compelling argument to support the Zionist case for a refuge where Jews controlled their own defense and immigration policy.
If Zionists foresaw that only through self-determination could Jews secure and safeguard their future, Schiff, Warburg and their supporters also predicted something inescapable. The establishment of a Jewish state in 1948 did perpetuate tropes about Jewish allegiances, and it stirred up anti-Jewish feeling, especially in the Arab world. Moreover, the region has been the zone of unending conflict.
Like the paradigm-altering world wars, the Hamas-Israel conflict has formed a new inflection point for Zionism. The barbarity of the terrorist attack has engendered widespread sympathy for Israel. But the war is also focusing attention, in a new and sustained way, on the humanitarian crisis facing Palestinian civilians and on the factors driving extremism.
As Schiff and many American Jews realized in the early-1900s, the world would not distinguish between the inhabitants of a Jewish state and the Jewish people in general. Israel’s existence is no longer theoretical. While the terms of the conversation have shifted, the debate over Zionism that began during Schiff’s era never ended. It remains as relevant — and divisive — as ever.
Daniel Schulman is the deputy D.C. bureau chief of Mother Jones. His new book is “The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America.”