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Remembering Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver

‏יום שני ‏27 ‏נובמבר ‏2017

Dear friends,

 

Today we mark 70 years to the UN resolution on the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael (the November 29 resolution). Even today, we view this date as an historical and important one, worthy of noting.

 

In the spirit of Jewish tradition, we view this day as a time to celebrate everything that has been accomplished, and dwell on what is yet to be done.

The UN resolution provided an answer to a long-held aspiration by the Jewish people to renew their Jewish sovereignty and independence and led to the establishment of the state six months later, with the support of many countries around the world. At the same time, this resolution also express the desire to solve the national bloody struggle between the Jewish and Arab residents of the land in ways of peace and understanding, while nurturing cooperation between all religious and national groups, and out of aspiration that the countries to be established preserve human and civil rights.

 

About three years ago, we published an article by our friend and colleague, Rabbi Leora Ezrahi-Vered, about the involvement of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the head of the Zionist Movement in the United States and the head of the Reform Rabbinic Council, in approving the resolution. The article surveyed Rabbi Silver’s Zionist work and his important vision as to the part that the State of Israel and the Jewish community in North America play in the current era of Jewish life. His words, it seems, are becoming more relevant as the years go by. About two weeks ago I quoted Rabbi Silver’s words to the UN Assembly at the HUC rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem (among those ordained, Rabbi Leora):

 

“… it is of course appropriate that it be clear – and I am sorry that messages delivered in recent days by certain representatives may confused what ought to be clear – that when we speak of a Jewish state we do not mean a racist or theocratic state; but a state which will be based upon full equality and full rights for all if its inhabitants, without any discrimination between religions or races, and without a take-over or enslavement …”

 

On this, the 70th anniversary of the UN resolution on the establishment of a Jewish state, we invite you to read Rabbi Leora’s article.

One of the most important roles laid before us is preserving the historic legacy of our Movement in Israel and the Diaspora, and as part of that, preserving the contribution of model figures in the efforts to renew Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael. As a Movement which works every day to protect its own rights and setting “facts on the ground” around the country, we at times have a hard time finding the inspiration, the time and the energy to remember those who came first. May it be that we find the strength to relate to this always.

 

Yours,

Rabbi Gilad Kariv

 

Rabbi Dr. Abba Hillel Silver and his Zionist leadership

In honor of the 29th of November anniversary and Rabbi Siver’s Yartzeit

Written by: Leora Ezrachi-Vered; Edited by: Rabbi Gilad Kariv

 

Abba Hillel Silver

In honor of the anniversary of the United Nations vote in favor of the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel on November 29, 1947, we invite you to learn and commemorate the important role of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, one of the leaders of American Reform Judaism, in advancing the historic decision leading to the establishment of the State of Israel. Rabbi Silver passed away on November 28, 1963, 16 years after this historic day.

Rabbi Silver was born in Lithuania in 1893 to a traditional Jewish family. His family immigrated to New York in 1902 and it is in this city that he spent most of his childhood; all the while being involved from a young age in Zionist organizations. In 1915 Silver was ordained as a Reform rabbi by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. After two years during which he served as the rabbi in West Virginia, Silver was appointed as the rabbi of Congregation “Tifereth Israel” in Cleveland, Ohio, where he served for many years. Alongside his professional occupations as a congregational rabbi, Silver was also involved in the establishment of important Zionist organizations such as the United Jewish Appeal and served as the president of the United Palestine Appeal. Between 1945 and 1947 Silver served as the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) alongside serving as the president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). Throughout his entire career, his Zionist and Reform identities went hand in hand and in fact were inseparable.

In the unforgettable year of 1947, Silver was appointed as chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) board of directors, thus making him the most senior representative of the Zionist movement in North America when working with the international institutions, including the United Nations. In this role, Silver led a national, unified position which superseded the many disagreements between the various Zionist circles and parties.

In this spring of 1947, the United Nations general assembly began a process of examining the status of Eretz Yisrael, after giving back the Mandate given to the United Kingdom from the League of Nations after World War I. As part of his position as the senior representative of the Jewish Agency, Rabbi Silver represented the Zionist movement in the first debate which took place at the assembly in May. As a result of this debate, the UNESCO committee was established, which took it upon itself to come up with a partition plan which was eventually adopted on November 29th of that year. Throughout the entire period, and in anticipation of the UN vote, Silver held a leading role in promoting Zionist objectives. The Soviet Union’s support of the partition plan is to a great degree thanks to Silver’s diplomatic activity and his connections with American and Soviet government officials. Just days before the Israeli declaration of independence, Silver once again appeared before the UN national committee and strongly demanded international assistance in executing the decision.

Rabbi Silver served as one of the most prominent leaders of American Reform Judaism during the complex years following World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. During these years, the conversation within the Reform Movement on Zionism and the rebirth of the national enterprise in Eretz Yisreal reached its height. As a Reform leader, Rabbi Silver made a point of acknowledging the difference of opinions on the matter: “…I never arrived at a meeting of the CCAR and demanded that they adopt a Zionist position. I never demanded my congregation to adopt a Zionist position…” With that said, leading up to the national move to establish the State of Israel, Silver worked tirelessly to present a clear position by the American Reform Movement and American Jewry as a whole in favor of a partition plan and the establishment of a state. It is in this spirit that upon his retirement from the CCAR, Silver was asked to present a supportive and unequivocal position on behalf of the organizations as part of the national debate.

Silver was known as a fine orator, a talent he surely cultivated while serving as a congregational rabbi. In his speech to the United Nations in May 1947, he presented a clear position and reminded the UN of their commitment to ending the British Mandate in Palestine and the support of the various superpowers in the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people in the land of Israel. His values and views as a Reform rabbi and leader were evident in his speech, whereby he stated that the national and sovereign future of the Jewish people went hand in hand with its commitment to modern universal values:

“… We firmly believe that our participation in these deliberations will assist and contribute to a just solution to a grave international problem which this international institution wishes to solve. This kind of solution will serve as a blessing not only for the land of Israel and its inhabitants, the Jewish people and world peace; it will also enhance the moral authority and stature of the grand organization for justice and world peace, on which humanity’s grand hopes now rest…”

In his speech to the United Nations, Silver emphasized the Zionist vision regarding the future character of the Jewish state. Despite 70 years having passed since he made his speech, Silver’s words have not lost from there relevance and importance, especially considering what is happening in Israeli society in recent years, and even more so, in recent days:

“… it is of course appropriate that it be clear – and I am sorry that messages delivered in recent days by certain representatives may confused what ought to be clear – that when we speak of a Jewish state we do not mean a racist or theocratic state; but a state which will be based upon full equality and full rights for all if its inhabitants, without any discrimination between religions or races, and without a take-over or enslavement …”

In his speech, Rabbi Silver referred to the moral and practical necessity in the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael following the horrors of the Holocaust. At the same time, he emphasized the human lesson from those years:

“… We are an ancient people, and even though we frequently experienced disappointment in the long and hard road we’ve traveled, our hearts have never dissolved. We have never lost our belief in the superiority and victory of grand moral principles. In the recent tragic years, when the entire house of Israel turned into one big house of torment, we could not build what we have built if we had not placed our safety in true victory…”

Following the establishment of the State of Israel, Rabbi Silver contemplated whether or not to make Aliyah. His complicated relationship with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his feeling that the future of the Jewish people will also be determined by what happens in the largest Jewish international community following the Holocaust – the United States, led him to decide to remain in the diaspora, all while continuing his rabbinic, educational and political activity in the local arena and the international Zionist and Jewish arenas.

Alongside his Zionist leadership, Rabbi Silver continued throughout the rest of his rabbinic and leadership life to work towards the strengthening of the foundation and status of Jewish culture and tradition among American Jewry. As part of this work, he emphasized more than once the important role the Hebrew language and Jewish education have in the diaspora. Like the similarity between his statements and the reality in Israel today, so were his statements regarding his expectations from the Jewish community in North America:

American Jewry is obligated – to itself and to the entire nation – to completely accept upon itself the burden of scripture and the historic future of Judaism. This grand responsibility will have to gain strength from within itself. It cannot once again depend on the table of the old world… to our satisfaction, American Jewry holds great human material, filled with belief and pride and a sense of responsibility… with which we can strengthen the foundation of the central and necessary institution in Jewish community life – the synagogue, which also a school. It is our duty to strongly emphasize the importance of Hebrew language and literature education. Without the study of the Hebrew language, American Jewry will be destined to spiritual infertility…

If Jewish destiny is placed in the hands of Jews for which Judaism is only a result of persecution, chance or a random gesture of kindness, it will surely sink into ignorance and indifference… if the steering wheel is left in the hands of Jews whose Judaism is an inner necessity, a covenant in their soul, who wish to continue to path of Jewish glory – both people and culture – only then can we be sure that the necessary institutions to enrich our lives, most importantly the synagogue and school – and particularly the school – will be established.

Rabbi Silver continued his rabbinic and public work until his passing on November 28th, 1963, exactly 16 years after the historic day at the UN assembly. In 1953, Rabbi Silver delivered the speech at the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Washington, DC as the Jewish representative. In his final years, Rabbi Silver led the effort for greater American and international awareness of the Apartheid regime’s wrongdoings in South Africa, thus making him one of the first public figures dealing with this issue. In the last book he wrote: Moses and the Original Torah, published in 1961, he stated the following on the continuation of the prophetic vision:

And if there is a chance to save the world, which is still filled with hatred and barbarism, exploitation, oppression and racism… all the things that our prophets criticized and proved wrong… it is only in the hands of people loyal to the prophet’s scriptures… who raise their voices without fear against all those who make a profit on others’ expense, exploit the poor and spill innocent blood. The world’s chance for freedom depends on men and women who will raise their voices as loyal and true students of the prophets.

 

 

To watch and listen to Rabbi Silver’s speech at the UN assembly (May 8, 1947), click here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWWN2PaEzzM

For further readings:

- Abba Hillel Silver and American Zionism, ed. Mark A. Raider, Jonathan D. Sarna, Ronald W. Zweig, Frank Crass Publishers, London, 1977.
- Leon I. Feuer, Abba Hillel Silver, A Personel Memoir

http://americanjewisharchives.org/publications/journal/PDF/1968_20_01_00_Lsiegel.pdf

 

Translated by Yonatan Melamed