Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs

Entry in the Encyclopaedia of Zionism and Israel (ed. Patai), excerpts regarding the activities of the Committee during World War II

Coordinating body of American Zionist organizations, founded in 1939 and subsequently renamed American Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs (January, 1942), American Zionist Emergency Council (fall, 1942), and American Zionist Council (1949).

In the closing days of the 21th Zionist Congress in Geneva on the brink of World War II (August, 1939), Chaim Weizmann and his colleagues in the World Zionist Organization (WZO) authorized the setting up of a special Emergency Committee in the United States. This committee, which was to consist of a group of prominent leaders of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and of representatives of other main American Zionist organizations - Hadassah, Labor Zionists and Mizrahi - was to have two purposes: (1) to have in the then neutral United States a body that could assume the authority and functions of World Zionist leadership to the extent that the activities of the World Zionist Executive in London and Jerusalem might be restricted by wartime conditions; and (2) to bring home to the American public Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and to American political leaders the needs of the Jews as a people and the role of Palestine in the future of world Jewry. The latter function was considered a vital necessity in view of the role the United States could be expected to have in the eventual peace settlement.

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From the outset the Emergency Committee had the benefit of information, advice, and assistance of World Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Kurt Blumenfeld, Eliyahu Golomb, Chief Rabbi Isaac H. Herzog, and Georg Landauer, who were in the United States at various times during the war. The presence of these men at meetings enabled the committee to keep abreast of developments in London, Jerusalem, and elsewhere.

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With the official entry of the United States into the war and the lessening of the threat of loss of contact with World Zionist headquarters due to Nazi military action, the Emergency Committee endeavored to regroup its forces for an expanded program on the American scene. As the extent of the Nazi programs for the extermination of European Jewry became known, this phase of Zionist activity assumed crucial importance.

Expanded program, 1942-43

In January, 1942, the committee adopted bylaws and, to emphasize the American aspect of its work, changed its name to American Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs. Wise was chairman, and Robert Szold became treasurer and chairman of the Budget Committee. The members of the Office Committee included also Israel Goldstein and Louis E. Levinthal (ZOA), Tamar de Sola Pool and Rose Halprin (Hadassa), David Wertheim (Po'ale Zion), Leon Gellman (Mizrahi), Gedalia Bublick (alternate for Mizrahi), and Solomon Goldman, Hayim Grinberg, Rose Gell Jacobs, Louis Lipsky, and Abba Hillel Silver, members at large.

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Biltmore Conference

In view of the continued British intransigence on the Palestine issue and grim reports from Nazi-held Europe, there was a hardening of the mood of the Yishuv [Zionist community in Palestine] and of large sections of the Zionist movement. There was also a growing necessity to promulgate a definitive plan for the postwar solution of the Palestine problem and to press persistently for the acceptance of the plan by the Jewish world and by the embattled democracies. The plan, it was felt, would have to cease speaking in the nebulous terms of a 'National Home' and instead set forth the Jewish claim to an independent Jewish State as part of the peace settlement. Normally such a change in declared Zionist policy would have required the approval of the World Zionist Congress, but under wartime conditions it was impossible to convene such a meeting.

Accordingly, the Emergency Committee decided to hold an extraordinary conference in New York to coincide with a visit of Chaim Weizmann. Meyer W. Weisgal was in charge of the preliminary arrangements. The conference was held at the Biltmore Hotel on May 9-11, 1942, with the participation of Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, and American Zionist leaders. It brought together nearly 600 Zionists from all parts of the United States and adopted a series of resolutions that came to be known as the Biltmore Program and, after approval by the Inner Action Committee in Palestine, became the program of the World Zionist Organization.

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American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC)

As the war progressed, it was increasingly felt that not enough was being done to win the United States for the Zionist cause. At the same time, reports indicating the full extent of the destruction of European Jewry made an unprecedented program of political action seem more imperative than ever. Important elements within the Emergency Committee itself became increasingly unhappy with its own performance. It appeared to be less a closely meshed committee than an ambassadorial conference of sovereign organizations, and it lacked the strong personal leadership enjoyed during World War I by the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs under the vigorous chairmanship of Louis D. Brandeis.

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In the fall of 1943 the committee was reorganized as the American Zionist Emergency Council, with Silver as co-chairman of the council and chairman of its Executive Committee. An eloquent orator and a dynamic personality, he had been chairman of the United Palestine Appeal and now brought his skills and experience to bear on reshaping the political arm of the American Zionist movement. A budget of $500,000 was adopted, and an expert professional staff was engaged, including Henry Montor as executive director (later succeeded by Harry Shapiro). Some 14 subcommittees were constituted, including Finance and Personnel, Community Contacts, American Palestine Committee, Publications, Intellectual Mobilization, Contact with Jewish Religious Forces, Christian Clergy, Special Functions, Research, Press and Radio, Economic Resources, Contact with Labor Groups, Contact with Allied Postwar Groups, and Postwar Political Planning.

The functioning of these committees and their staffs under Silver's leadership caused a great forward surge in the activities of the council throughout the country. Hundreds of local emergency committees were formed and carried out an intensive campaign of education. Every possible means was employed to secure the support of public opinion. Press, pulpit, and radio were utilized. Public demonstrations were held from time to time, and thousands of lectures and speeches were delivered before Jewish and, especially, non-Jewish groups. At various times the White House and the Department of State as well as the offices of many congressmen were inundated by letters and telegrams calling for action by the government.

In Washington a branch office of the Emergency Council was set up late in 1943, under the direction of Leon I. Feuer. He was succeeded in 1945 by Benjamin Akzin, a specialist in international law. The function of this office was to maintain contact with the Department of State, the British Embassy, and envoys of foreign countries. Its staff members also visited congressmen, distributed Zionist literature, and cooperated with delegations sent to Washington by local groups.

Early in 1944 an additional step was devised to place the dual problem of the survivors of Nazi persecution and the future of Palestine on the national agenda of the American people. Resolutions in support of Jewish aspirations in Palestine were introduced into both houses of Congress: the Wagner-Taft resolution in the Senate and the Wright-Compton resolution in the House of Representatives. Timed to coincide with the approaching deadline set by the British White Paper of 1939 for the termination of Jewish immigration into Palestine, they were intended to break the official silence in Washington on the Palestine problem Through its Washington bureau and local emergency councils, the AZEC canvassed congressional opinion, distributed pertinent material, and effected contacts with the appropriate congressional committees.

Silver conferred with members of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate and met no objections. At the hearings of the House of Representatives in February, 1944, the Zionist position was presented by Silver, Wise, Neumann, Israel Goldstein, Hermann Shulman, Louis Lipsky, Z'ev Gold, David Wertheim, Judith G. Epstein, and James G. Heller.

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On May 23-24, 1944, a national conference of local emergency committees, representing 130 communities from 38 states, was held in Washington to launch a nationwide movement in favour of the resolutions. The AZEC organized a great rally in Madison Square Garden, New York, the first of many mass demonstrations that were to take place at critical moments of the struggle for a Jewish State.

Note by Elias Davidsson

The above entry does not mention any large-scale or systematic activities on behalf of European Jewry being exterminated: Neither rescue, relief nor support for armed resistance. While extermination was carried out, the efforts of American Zionist organizations were directed to raise support for a Jewish State in Palestine.