Facing the Future: Stephen S. Wise, Reform Judaism, and Zionism

“Religion is a vision or ideal of life. Politics is a method.” – Stephen S. Wise

At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – two decades before the Balfour Declaration of 1917 legitimized the campaign for Jewish statehood in the United States and the West – Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874-1949) was one of a handful of American Reform rabbis who championed the Zionist cause.

Wise’s affinity for Jewish nationalism stemmed in part from his Hungarian Jewish family’s traditionalist background. His paternal grandmother emigrated to Ottoman Palestine, and his earliest memories included collecting funds at age nine with “a little red tin box, labeled ‘Jerusalem.’”

Yet in the twilight of the nineteenth century Wise, who would later emerge as a dominant figure on the American Jewish scene, was in a distinct minority. In 1890 the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis articulated American Jewry’s prevailing communal sensibility: “There is no Jewish nation now, only a Jewish religious body…”

For Wise the concepts of peoplehood, k’lal yisrael (the community of Israel), and the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish life were paramount values. His quest for a fully integrated and modern Jewish identity drew on three liberal political traditions of the end of the 19th century: Zionism, Progressivism, and the social gospel movement (or what came to be called the “social justice” movement in American Judaism). Wise emphasized a particularist and activist brand of Judaism, which he summed up in the biblical phrase tzedek, tzedek tirdof (justice, justice shall you pursue; Deuteronomy 16:20). He called this precept the “supreme declaration” of Jewish faith.

The politicization of Wise’s proto-Zionist views came in 1896, when Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist and the founder of modern political Zionism, burst on the scene with his political treatise, The Jews’ State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question. As a result, Wise’s expansive view of liberal Judaism and k’lal yisrael now merged with a heightened sense of ethnic national identity.

Had Wise contented himself with playing a nominal role in Zionist affairs, his behavior might have seemed a bit quixotic but unremarkable. To be sure, rabbis from other quarters of American Jewish life were sympathetic to Jewish nationalism. What distinguished Wise was the way he openly challenged the dominant anti-Zionist trope of American Jewry’s communal and institutional leadership. Much to the chagrin of New York City’s Jewish establishment, he became an especially ardent and visible Zionist advocate. He not only trumpeted the Zionist cause but emphatically positioned himself as one of Herzl’s New World lieutenants.

Next, in 1897 Wise helped to launch the Federation of American Zionists (FAZ), the forerunner of the American Zionist movement. Stepping into the limelight, he became the FAZ’s secretary and, together with Columbia University professor of Semitics Richard J. Gottheil, he served as an American representative to the fledgling Zionist Organization’s Vienna-based executive committee.

In 1898 Wise traveled to Basle, Switzerland as a U.S. delegate to the Second Zionist Congress. At the congress, Wise distinguished himself as an eloquent spokesman for American Jewry. He was elected to the World Zionist Organization’s central bureau, appointed to be the movement’s official English-language “adviser,” and became a ranking member of the colonization committee. “Thrilled and grateful,” he later noted, “I caught then a first glimpse of the power and the pride and the nobleness of the Jewish people, which my American upbringing and even service to New York Jewry had not in any degree given me.” It was at this juncture that the Herzlian Zionism’s political strategy was fully grafted on to Wise’s worldview.

Following Wise’s return to the U.S., he undertook an active campaign to win new recruits for Zionism. “We have a hard, uphill fight for Zionism in this country,” he reported to Herzl. “The Jewish press is almost unanimous in its opposition, and I am ashamed to state that the fewest of the American Jewish ministers... are lending it any support whatever.” In the ensuing months, he crisscrossed the country giving public lectures on behalf of the Zionist movement, committed himself to editing a news update about “Zion and Zionism” for the influential English-language weekly, the American Hebrew, and served as a correspondent for the Zionist Organization’s German-language organ, Die Welt, as well as London’s Jewish World.

Such was the public arena into which Wise plunged with determined and tireless gusto at the dawn of the twentieth century. Looking back after more than century, it is hard to imagine American Jews once worried about Judaism’s place in America, feared accusations of disloyalty, and debated the feasibility of the Zionist enterprise. By contrast, writing to Herzl in 1899 Wise confidently declaimed, “I really and truly believe that I shall be able to win many [men and women] for the movement, and also to gain much material help for the cause…” The sea change in modern Jewish history since then only serves to underscore the impact of Wise’s leadership in the pre-state era and the extent to which he correctly anticipated the future profile of American Jewry.

Professor Mark A. Raider is Professor of Modern Jewish History in the Department of History at the University of Cincinnati and a Research Associate in the University’s Center for Studies in Jewish Education and Culture. He is also Visiting Professor of American Jewish History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.