Reviewed by Sonja Mekel (Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Nahum Goldmann: Court Jew without a Court?
Nahum Goldman was one of the more controversial figures in modern Jewish history. Though involved in the founding of the state of Israel, he was always publicly critical of it and continued to censure the country even after losing the presidency of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in 1968. His suggestion of a meeting between Golda Meir and Gamal Abdel Nasser came to naught, and his proposal of a "neutral" Israel received little attention. The reasons for Goldmann's public criticism of Israel are laid out in this collection of thirteen essays, edited by Mark A. Raider, an expert in the history of Zionism, who also contributed one of the chapters. In 1997, Raider co-edited a book on Abba Hillel Silver, Goldmann's sometime nemesis and victim.
The present collection stems from a 2003 conference sponsored by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Claims Conference, and Tel Aviv and Brandeis Universities. Its four parts emphasize different aspects of Goldmann's public persona. The first part, "Statesman," includes a single, long chapter, "Nahum Goldmann: Jewish and Zionist Statesman--An Overview" by Jehuda Reinharz and Evyatar Friesel. It combines some of the findings of the essays to come, adds biographical information, and offers comments on Goldmann's autobiographical writings, his achievements, influences and adversaries, and idiosyncrasies. Born in Vishneva (in present-day Belarus) in 1895, Goldmann was soon brought by his parents to Germany, where he attended German schools and earned a law degree from the University of Heidelberg. He claimed to be a "natural Zionist" due to his east European origins, but later wrote: "I dream in German, I laugh in German, I cry in German, I love in German" (p. 46). Stripped of German citizenship in 1935, he obtained a Honduran passport, then reached the United States in 1940, becoming a citizen in 1945. His greatest achievements were his successful advocacy for the proposal to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, and, after the establishment of Israel, the 1952 reparations agreement negotiated between West Germany, Israel, and the Claims Conference. However, Goldmann never sought political office in Israel; the authors of this chapter speculate on the reasons for that decision. Some critics concluded that he preferred to criticize Israel from abroad.
Part 2, "Thinker," consists of Gideon Shimoni's essay, "Nahum Goldmann as Zionist Thinker," and Yosef Gorny's chapter, "Negation of the Galut and the Centrality of Israel: Nahum Goldmann and David Ben-Gurion." Shimoni sketches out Goldmann's education, early influences, and relationship to the older Zionist Jacob Klatzkin. It would have been helpful if this essay, which stresses the ambiguity of Goldmann's thinking, had been longer than eleven pages. Gorny diagnoses the phenomenon of "rival pairs of leaders" in Zionist history (p. 75). David Ben-Gurion, who rejected the spiritual value of the Diaspora, and Goldmann, who thought it essential for the survival of Israel, were such a pair. Their differences of opinion about the terms of Jewish peoplehood came to a head at the Zionist Conference at the Hebrew University in 1957.
In part 3, "Maverick," Michael Brenner recaptures Goldmann's years in Germany. In this interesting, but unfortunately short chapter, Brenner discusses Goldmann's early writing, his work for the Freie Zionistische Blätter, and his collaboration with Klatzkin in publishing the first ten volumes of the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1928-33). Brenner treats Goldmann rather charitably, apart from some criticism concerning his view of Arabs in his earliest published book, his 1913 travelogue of Palestine. In contrast, Zohar Segev's "Nahum Goldmann and the First Two Decades of the World Jewish Congress" is one of the most damning of the essays: according to Segev, the WJC, founded by Stephen S. Wise and Goldmann in 1936, was not really intended as a rival Zionist organization, though it was perceived as one by many contemporaries. As Segev shows, it served mostly to silence both Abba Hillel Silver and American-Jewish grassroots activity on behalf of European Jewry during World War II, and to protect Franklin D. Roosevelt from being abandoned by American Jews for his passivity regarding the rescue of Jews from the Germans. Segev's caveat that the positions of the WJC founders "were not self-serving" (p. 119) sounds less heartfelt than his comment in footnote 12: "Viewing Goldmann's activities in the summer of 1943 dispassionately is indeed difficult when alongside his efforts to rescue European Jews he remembered to request a renewal of his fishing license" (p. 121).
In the following chapter, "Nahum Goldmann and Chaim Weizmann: An Ambivalent 'Relationship'," Jehuda Reinharz stresses the similarities in origins, career, and ideological independence between the two men. They were also similar in the way they lost their power: neither Goldmann nor Weizmann was interested in joining a party and subjecting himself to its discipline, so that both lost a vital basis of support for their leadership. Despite this similarity in attitude, they did not get along. Weizmann distrusted Goldmann for publishing an attack against him in 1923 and helping to oust him as WZO president in 1931. Furthermore, Weizmann had a low opinion of Goldmann's adventurous character. A further comparative biographical essay, Raider's "Idealism, Vision, and Pragmatism: Stephen S. Wise, Nahum Goldmann, and Abba Hillel Silver in the United States," suggests that the same characteristics that predispose individuals for leadership often explain their weaknesses. All three adapted to changes in the political orientation of American Jewry in the 1930s, a turn to New Deal liberalism, internationalism, and activism that corresponded to the shift towards labor Zionism in the Yishuv. They realized the necessity of exchanging Great Britain for the United States as the superpower to which to appeal. Their sense of pragmatism was tested by the controversy over the Haavarah Agreement and their confrontation with Revisionist Zionism. As so often in Jewish political history, constant infighting and lacking unity did not help their cause, which only bore fruit in the postwar period. Moreover, such controversy made it appear in retrospect as though failure was as much the fault of the Jews as that of the indifferent and sometimes hostile majority in whose midst they lived.
Concluding this section, Friesel's chapter retraces Goldmann's mission in Washington in August 1946. The mission is usually described as his first "home run," the achievement that promoted him from obscurity to a leading position in the Zionist world. Friesel, however, explores the ambiguous results of the mission. Representing the Jewish Agency, Goldmann slighted and antagonized the American Zionist leadership (especially Silver, who retaliated by silencing Goldmann at the 22nd Zionist Congress); despite improving the Zionists' relations with the American Jewish Committee and polite talks with Dean Acheson, Goldmann's appearance without Silver or other American Jewish leaders weakened the Zionist position before Harry Truman and resulted in a lukewarm American commitment to the creation of a Jewish state. With regard to thwarting the potentially disastrous Morrison-Grady proposal, Goldmann's visit was superfluous, since the proposal had already been discarded, thanks to the efforts of Silver's American Zionist Emergency Committee. Friesel's respect for Goldmann notwithstanding, he has written a chapter that portrays him as an egocentric who succeeded despite himself and offended potential allies. Friesel defends Goldmann by referring to the difference between a historical micro- and macro-perspective; judged by the latter, Goldmann's mission was a success after all because it represented "an essential step in postwar Zionist political work" (p.170).
The last part of the collection, "Leader," begins with the thorny issue of German-Jewish relations. Shlomo Shafir's chapter centers mostly on Goldman's role in the reparations agreement of 1952, but also treats his later activities in postwar Germany. It is widely held that Goldmann got along better than other Jewish leaders with the Germans, Konrad Adenauer in particular, because of his German education. He even considered himself something like an honorary German Jew. Shafir's article, however, suggests that Goldmann's success was probably due to his status as an American Jew, his ability to remind the Germans of their interests, and especially his willingness to compromise and ignore matters that others considered insults to the memory of the victims. (The latter must have served Goldmann well when dealing with Hans Globke, who would have changed his interlocutor's name to Nahum Israel Goldmann not even a decade earlier.) His efforts, however, met with no success whatsoever in the GDR. In later years, his criticism of Israel earned him recognition in Germany and facilitated his dialogue with the socialist German chancellors.
Ronald W. Zweig's contribution, "'Reparations Made Me': Nahum Goldmann, German Reparations, and the Jewish World," concentrates on the internal and external negotiations concerning reparations, beginning during the war with a conference of major Jewish organizations in Atlantic City; another internal milestone was the 1951 conference in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which created the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, with Goldmann serving as president. It followed Adenauer's announcement of willingness to reach a settlement with Israel and those he called "representatives of Jewry" (p. 235). Zweig credits Goldmann with breaking a deadlock between Israel and Germany by convincing the Germans to commit "to a realistic offer of reparations to Israel" (p. 243), though he achieved this less thanks to his diplomatic talents than by drastically lowering the amount of the global claim put forth by the Claims Conference. Zweig also adds that during the negotiations Goldmann "often acted independently and without consulting even his senior colleagues" (p. 240). While the amount of the settlement was disappointing to many observers, Goldmann's crucial role in the process secured his prominence in years to come.
After reading about this depressing issue, and before moving on to a hardly more cheerful one, Dina Porat's essay on the (ultimately) successful establishment of one of Israel's most attractive museums provides a welcome intermission. Porat argues that Beth Hatefuzot, the Diaspora Museum, was the second of Goldmann's three major cultural achievements, after the Encyclopaedia Judaica and before the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. After a slow start, in which the building stood empty for years, the museum became the common project of several creative and talented individuals, among them poet and former partisan Abba Kovner. Surprisingly, given their extremely dissimilar characters, Goldmann and Kovner got along well. The Diaspora Museum is a fitting legacy of the vital link between Israel and the Diaspora that was one of Goldmann's tenets, defying the for him unacceptable "negation of exile."
In one of the most revealing chapters, "Leadership of Accommodation or Protest? Nahum Goldmann and the Struggle for Soviet Jewry," Suzanne D. Rutland approaches Goldmann's activities under the angle of John Higham's two concepts of leadership. It is certainly no accident that Rutland wrote of "Goldmann and the Struggle," rather than of "Goldmann's Struggle" for Soviet Jews. Goldmann was without a doubt an accommodationist, championing direct, but unprovocative negotiations with the Soviets so as not to disgruntle them or to make it look as though the cause of Jewish rights in the USSR was tied to the Cold War (which, of course, it was). As a consequence, Goldmann did not even participate in the first meeting of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry. In the 1960s, this timidity led to serious conflicts between the outspoken Australian Jewish leadership and the WJC. It speaks volumes that Soviet representatives quoted Goldmann, who often downplayed antisemitism in the USSR, to justify their antisemitic policies. By advocating a nonconfrontational, even apologetic policy toward the Soviets, Goldmann again alienated other Jews. His reluctance to risk angering the Soviets is strongly reminiscent of his activities during the National Socialist era, when he also focused on quiet, indeed barely audible diplomacy
Meir Chazan is the first of the contributors to the book to call Goldmann a shtadlan, a pre-state intercessor. Shtadlanut and no-conformism emerge as the two sides of Goldmann's personality in this last chapter, "Goldmann's Initiative to Meet with Nasser in 1970." Nevertheless, Chazan is another author who treats Goldmann with a generous measure of goodwill. According to Chazan, Goldmann never intended to meet with Nasser; rather than a geriatric pipedream, the proposal was Goldmann's conscious attempt to stir up controversy in Israel. For instance, Goldmann told several people in advance about his "top secret" invitation. Chazan does not take the opportunity to interpret this insight as another stage in a career shift to full-time provocateur; instead, he suggests that Goldmann seriously intended the ensuing disagreements to support the political health of Israel. Chazan shows that Goldmann managed to maintain friendly relations with Moshe Dayan and Abba Eban, though he antagonized Meir to such a degree that she stated, "Not a trace of Zionism remains in him" (p. 314). By discussing it in the government, Meir made sure nothing would come of the meeting, a move that Goldmann had anticipated. At times, Chazan seems to portray the Israeli government's stated willingness for peace talks to occur as hypocritical. Yet, he also concludes that the initiative had never been an opportunity for peace and, more importantly, that the Israeli public's hostility to Goldmann was indicative of the end of shtadlanut as an accepted form of Jewish political behavior.
Despite some unavoidable thematic and factual overlaps in the essays, the image of Goldmann that emerges in the book is at times uneven. Though the most prominent of his characteristics are conveyed in most chapters (self-confidence, pragmatism, and an independence of mind and action that some observers felt bordered on arrogance), some are almost celebratory, while others portray him as a political amateur with an attitude. One of the few details with which some readers might disagree and that distressed me is Reinharz's and Friesel's view of the so-called Wiedergutmachung (the half-bureaucratic, half-childish meaning of which is lost in the English term "reparations"), expressed in "Overview": "Goldmann remained well aware of a factor that most Jews and Israelis apparently preferred to forget: that the German side had taken steps to repair the shattered German-Jewish relationship on its own, that it was an act of will within the German public establishment, and that no one could have forced the Germans to do so" (p. 27). I understand this statement to imply--in my opinion incorrectly--that the Germans, after much hesitation, decided to sign the reparations agreement not in order to curry favor with the Americans, or to boost their own economy (Israel had to accept around 70 percent of the "payments" in the form of German-made products). It suggests that they agreed to pay DM 3.45 billion, a fraction of the stolen Jewish property and assets, out of the goodness of their hearts.
Even so, this long-overdue book on Goldmann fills a gap in Zionist historiography. Its engaging and sophisticated chapters make a welcome addition to the biography by Raphael Patai and a corrective to Goldmann's autobiographies. It adds an excellent contribution to the growing literature on the relationship of American Jewry and Jews in other parts of the Diaspora to the state of Israel, and explores the challenges of Jewish diplomacy, both before and after 1948.
. Mark A. Raider, Jonathan D. Sarna, and Ronald W. Zweig, eds., Abba Hillel Silver and American Zionism (London: Frank Cass, 1997).
. Raphael Patai, Nahum Goldmann: His Missions to the Gentiles (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987); Nahum Goldman, The Autobiography of Nahum Goldmann: Sixty Years of Jewish Life (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969); Mein Leben als deutscher Jude, vol. I (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1982); Mein Leben: USA, Europa, Israel, vol. II (Munich: Langen-Müller, 1982); and Nahum Goldmann, with Leon Abramowicz, The Jewish Paradox (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Sonja Mekel. Review of Raider, Mark A., Nahum Goldmann: Statesman Without a State.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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