The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) serves as a vocal supporter of the right of Israel to exist as a homeland and safe haven for Jews everywhere. This is, in fact, the original and continuing core definition of what Zionism is. The ZOA’s leaders, along with its rank-and-file members, regularly speak up in the public square to defend Israel and Israelis from malicious campaigns based on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. In doing so, they often draw on the rich history of Zionism as a historic movement centered on liberation and self-definition, one that has empowered Jews suffering persecution in many places and times.
A century ago, in June 1921, a ZOA annual conference would become a major turning point in the history of the movement, and one that developed amidst considerable ideological fireworks. It was during that conference in Cleveland that the organization transitioned its leadership from Louis Brandeis, the brilliant jurist and sitting associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, to a new coalition with new ideas.
The incoming leaders, under the direction of Louis Lipsky and Emanuel Neuman, saw the future of Zionism very differently than Brandeis did.
Brandeis, elected honorary chairman of the ZOA during the World War I era, had served as a driving force in the movement in the U.S. for years. His disciples consisted of some of the organization’s most prominent leaders up to the time of the 1921 meeting. They often referred to Brandeis as the “Chief,” in recognition of the outsize influence of his intellect and previous contributions to the Zionist cause. Although as the first-ever Jewish Supreme Court justice, Brandeis felt called upon to step back a bit from any too-vigorous public advocacy, he remained a highly influential figure in the Zionist movement, and in the ZOA in particular. That is, until his notable defeat by a faction led by Lipsky and Newman.
It began in the difference of views between Brandeis and Chaim Weizmann, a Russian-born scientist and leader of the most influential arm of the Zionist movement in Israel who would become the new nation’s first president in 1949. Weizmann, as the key leader in the World Zionist Organization in the 1920s, had seen his positions taken up by growing numbers of influential figures in both the Old World and the New.
A justice with political zeal
Brandeis, who came to see Zionism as a movement fully compatible with his identity as a patriotic American, emerged as one of the world’s most significant supporters of the idea of establishing a Jewish state. He even worked with the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Lord James Balfour, to wordsmith the text of the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 document declaring that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor” the creation of a Jewish homeland in the historically Jewish land then called “Palestine.”
No stranger to offering advice to U.S. presidents, Brandeis additionally served as a liaison between President Woodrow Wilson and “His Majesty’s Government” as the Balfour Declaration moved forward. Brandeis played a leading role in persuading both of these nations to accept the creation of a Jewish homeland in what would later be called “Israel.”
An elder statesman challenged
But Brandeis put a different emphasis on methods for bringing the Zionist project to fulfillment than Weizmann and his camp did. For Brandeis, the ideal Zionist state was one that would be secular, democratic, and managed in common, while also acknowledging the political and civic rights due to Arabs within its sphere of influence.
While recent biographers have pointed out that Brandeis may have fallen short in his grasp of the import of Arab nationalist movements in the region, they note the continuing relevance of his expressed ideal centered in a strong democratic pluralism. Brandeis also supported the practical build-out of the Jewish state, and what he saw as a more efficient oversight of funds directed to that purpose.
Like Weitzman, Lipsky was a generation younger than Brandeis. Newman was younger still, only in his 20s at the time of the pivotal ZOA conference.
Lipsky, the American-born son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, became a noted journalist and author. He worked alongside Rabbi Stephen Wise from the mid-1930s through the end of World War II to help save European Jews from the Nazis.
Newman came over from Latvia with his parents as an infant. He went on to become an attorney, and to hold positions as ZOA education director, ZOA president in the 1940s and ‘50s, and president of the American branch of the Jewish National Fund.
Both men were co-founders of the key organization known as Keren HaYesod, which would later be folded into the Jewish Agency for Palestine. It was Keren HaYesod as a general nation-building fund that would be at the center of the 1921 ZOA dispute.
The argument and its aftermath
At the fateful 1921 conference, Lipsky and Newman supported the Chaim Weizmann faction in the Zionist world. In opposition to Brandeis’ more kitchen-table approach to the development of the Jewish state, Weizmann insisted on ideology, working to foster a sense of political and cultural nationalism within Jews throughout the Diaspora. By that time, the Brandeis-Weizmann dispute had already simmered for some time, increasingly revealing the social, political, and cultural fracture points in the Zionist movement.
Additionally, Weizmann was present at the conference to campaign for the creation of an American wing of Keren HaYesod, which Brandeis opposed. Brandeis wanted to maintain a separation in management between the general donation fund dedicated to the Zionist project and the investment of Keren HaYesod funding.
In Cleveland, Weizmann supporters, including Lipsky and Newman, were able to overpower those who supported Brandeis’ views, and the Weizmann group secured the right to chair the conference. Having done so, they successfully passed a resolution that established Keren HaYesod in the U.S., a move that led the existing ZOA national executive committee to tender their resignations.
Lipsky also gained the presidency, serving from 1922 to 1930. But he found himself leading a ZOA increasingly under pressure from financial struggles and a large loss in membership. The lack of unity brought into such sharp focus at the 1921 conference led to increasing ineffectiveness until the eve of World War II. By the late 1930s, the suffering of Europe’s Jews had reached a critical moment, even as violence increased in Palestine. It would take such existential threats to bring American and world Jewry back into a sense of common purpose and mission.