An Extraordinary Zionist Conference. New York, 1942.
In today’s charged societies, it is difficult to imagine organizations and parties divided on political lines joining forces. And yet, just as European Jewry was disappearing, American Zionist leaders initiated a groundbreaking effort to band together to shift the direction of action in the name of Jewish Nationalism.
With World War II and the Holocaust in full force in Europe, the World Zionist Congress had not met since the 21st gathering in Geneva in 1939, just 2 weeks days before the invasion of Poland by Germany. In response to the growing concern for the future of European Jewry, and the rise of Antisemitism in North America as well, American Zionist leaders convened the American Emergency Committee of Zionist Affairs and decided to hold an Extraordinary Zionist Conference in New York City on May 6-11, 1942.
In light of the dire circumstances and failing interest in Zionism among much of the Jewish world, activists and organizations - including the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, Mizrahi, and Poale Zion – came together to expand the halted discussion regarding the next steps toward the fulfillment of the Jewish nationalist dream.
However, with the British restricting immigration to Palestine under the 1939 White Paper, Hitler’s regime continuing to gain power, and the divisive debate on nationalism as a legitimate expression, American Zionism was lacking support from Jews as well as other groups that had been supporting Jewish nationalism since before the Balfour Declaration.
Built on their shared interest in providing a safe haven for the persecuted, the leadership was determined to initiate, for the first time, cooperation with non-Zionist groups within the American Jewish community. as well as methods for obtaining a united representation of Jewry at a potential world peace conference.
The international representation as well as the presence of World Zionist figures such as Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, and Nahum Goldmann gave the conference credibility as a substitute World Zionist Congress.
Held at the famed Biltmore Hotel, there were nearly 600 delegates from throughout the United States as well as 17 other countries who successfully adopted a series of eight resolutions that came to be known as the Biltmore Program.
This monumental conference was a game-changer in terms of American support of the Zionist dream. Rejecting any legitimacy of the White Paper, which limited and effectively nullified Jewish rights to immigration and settlement in Palestine, the Conference platform “urged that the gates of Palestine be opened; that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands; and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.”
Affirming the historical significance of each step toward statehood for the “fulfilment of the original purpose of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate which recognized the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine,” the Biltmore Declaration specifically proclaimed support for the founding a Jewish Commonwealth stating, “Then and only then will the age-old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.”
This statement was the first in which non-Zionist organizations joined with the Zionists to advocate the establishment of an independent Jewish state. Whereas the program was not universally approved when first introduced, virtually all Jewish organizations in America quickly came to support the Biltmore Program and it served as the unifying force for all those advocating a return of Jewish sovereignty to our ancestral homeland in Israel.
As a member organization of the American Zionist Movement, we are proud to honor the legacy of the Biltmore Conference as a stepping stone as well as the amazing contributions of American Jews to the development and continued success of Israel. We deeply understand the need to bring together all Jews under the banner of Ahavat Yisrael and to imbue Jewish life and identity with Ahavat Tzion - it is indeed what Israel Forever is all about. And as we continue to battle among ourselves with regard to Israel’s politics or prospects for peace, it is poignant for us to use this anniversary of the Biltmore Conference to remind ourselves that it IS possible to set aside our difference for the sake of the greater good.