Jewish Journal


January 4, 1998

Los Angeles Jewry and the Birth ofIsrael

Israel & L.A.--Sharing the Struggle


Los Angeles Jewry and the Birth ofIsrael By Stephen J. Sass

"My heart is in the East, and I am in the end ofthe West."

Yehuda Halevi was describing his feelings oflonging for the Holy Land as a Jew living in Spain during the MiddleAges, but his words express just as well the intense identificationLos Angeles Jewry has had with Israel.

These ties reach back to almost a century beforethe establishment of the state, to the very beginnings of Jewish lifein Los Angeles. In 1854, 30 self-described "Israelites of this city"founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society to serve their religious,social and philanthropic needs. Not only was the society the city'sfirst Jewish organization, but it was also the first charitable groupof any kind in Los Angeles. That same year, the members collectedfunds to assist needy Jews in Eretz Yisrael, a world away from thedusty pueblo but clearly not far from the hearts and minds of thepioneer Jewish Angelenos.

News of pre-Zionist stirrings found its way intothe local press, however slowly: "Remarkable change is in progressamong the Jews in every country," reported the Los Angeles Star in1853, "owing to a manuscript being largely circulated by aninfluential rabbi [Mordecai Manuel Noah, who had died two yearsearlier], proving from the scriptures that the time has come when theJews must set about making preparations for returning to the land oftheir fathers."

In 1870, the Star noted the arrival in Los Angelesof Rabbi Hayyim Zvi Sneersohn, a meshulach, charity emissary fromPalestine. Rabbi Sneersohn delivered two lectures on Palestine andthe Orient to benefit the poor of Jerusalem, with admission of $1.50for both. Earlier that year, the Star reported, Sneersohn had visitedPresident Ulysses S. Grant.

The modern political movement to establish aJewish homeland in Palestine finally arrived here in 1901. It wasknown locally as the Ahabath Zion ("Lovers of Zion") Society and wasaffiliated with a national group, the Federation of AmericanZionists. The first president was Victor Harris, editor of the B'naiB'rith Messenger, then the city's sole Jewish weekly and aninfluential voice.

Ahabath Zion met every Sunday evening atForester's Hall downtown, with attendance fluctuating from five to50, hardly causing a ripple in a Jewish community then numbering1,500. Dues were 25 cents per month, and activities included "games,newspapers, amusements, literary meetings -- sharp debates, lectures,music." A second group, the Young Zionists, began in 1902 andremained active for 25 years. The sons and daughters of the city'spioneer families formed the Nathan Strauss Palestine AdvancementSociety in 1914. All of the groups raised funds for the JewishColonial Trust and Jewish National Fund to purchase and reclaim landand to encourage agricultural efforts in "Palestina," then underTurkish rule. In addition, "shekels" were sold for delegates to theZionist congresses in Europe.

In a remarkable display of communal democracy,Ahabath Zion advertised that "everyone is invited to speak against aswell as for Zionism." In 1914, Rabbi Sigmund Hecht of CongregationB'nai B'rith (now Wilshire Boulevard Temple) declared himselfsympathetic but "absolutely neutral" on Zionism. Rabbi Isidore Myers,on the other hand, founding rabbi of Sinai Congregation (now SinaiTemple), was a passionate Zionist, even going so far as to name hisson Zion and his daughter Carmel (Carmel grew up to be a star of thesilent screen). Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, who succeeded Rabbi Hecht,extended his predecessor's philosophy. Magnin supported theupbuilding of Israel as a homeland for displaced Jews, but, as anAmerican Jew, he was concerned about the charges of dual loyalty andsplit allegiance. Indeed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple did not displaythe flag of Israel in its sanctuary until the Gulf War. Thiscontrasted, for example, with Temple Israel of Hollywood's Rabbi MaxNussbaum, who was an internationally known Zionist leader.

Significantly, however, the battles that ragedbetween Zionist and anti-Zionist factions in virtually every otherAmerican Jewish community at that time did not develop in LosAngeles. One reason may be the Polish, rather than German, backgroundof the early Los Angeles Jewish settlers, since Eastern European Jewswere thought to be less assimilated and more understanding of Jewishnationalism. Another factor may be the early and unceasing editorialsupport of the Messenger's Harris, and later of others such as SamuelB. Gach of the California Jewish Voice.

During World War I, the Zionist organizations,synagogues, B'nai B'rith and the Jewish War Sufferers' Relief Societyjoined in fund raising on behalf of war-torn European Jewry anddestitute Palestinian Jews.

In 1917, local Zionists held a parade and meetingin gratitude for Great Britain's Balfour Declaration, which expressedsupport for a Jewish national home in Palestine. Three years later,in the wake of the war, more than 25,000 gathered at the old LosAngeles Coliseum in Exposition Park to celebrate Great Britain'sacceptance of the mandate for Palestine. This event was the firstmass rally by Jews in Southern California and reflected thetremendous growth of the local Jewish population, a harbinger ofthings to come.

Local Zionists held a parade in honorof the Mandate (JCLLA);

But the euphoria was relatively short lived. TheLos Angeles Citizen's Committee of the United Palestine Appealprotested the 1929 Arab massacres of Jews in Palestine. The UnitedJewish Welfare Fund (now the Jewish Federation's United Jewish Fund)was created that same year to maximize contributions for overseas andlocal needs.

The community held a mass meeting at thePhilharmonic Auditorium to object to Hitler's rise to power in 1933.Some called for a boycott of German goods and the 1936 BerlinOlympics. A candlelight march down Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar ChavezAvenue) in Boyle Heights demonstrated outrage over Kristallnacht , the night ofbroken glass in 1938, precursor to the Holocaust.

Just as European Jewry was crying out fordeliverance, Britain in 1939 issued its infamous White Paper, furtherrestricting Jewish immigration to Palestine. Local activists formedthe Zionist Emergency Council, made up of all existing groups,including the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, LaborZionist Alliance, Mizrachi Religious Zionists and Revisionists. Atthe same time, prominent Christian leaders created the Los AngelesCommittee on Palestine to elicit support outside the Jewishcommunity.

The Jewish community's 1948campaign for Israel included this display of Israeli pioneers in themid-city area (JHSSC).

After World War II and the Holocaust, the Jews ofLos Angeles, in unity with Jews around the world, seized the momentto create a Jewish state. They listened with great anxiety to theradio broadcast of the United Nations vote for partition in November1947. Although jubilant over the vote, they decried the escalatingviolence in Palestine. With the rallying cry "They Must Live inFreedom," 60,000 Los Angeles Jews contributed a total of $10 millionin 1948 alone for the tremendous humanitarian needs facing thebeleaguered country. Some played heroic roles, traveling undersubterfuge, risking their lives to smuggle Holocaust survivors andembargoed aircraft, arms and ammunition past the blockade, andvolunteering in the War of Independence.

Part of a crowd of 25,000that gathered at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on June 27, 1920to celebrate Great Britain's acceptance of the mandate for Palestine(Photo courtesy of Abigail Yasgur, Jewish Community Library of LosAngeles)

On Erev Shabbat, Friday, May 14, 1948, at 3:01p.m. PDT, Jews and others of goodwill across Los Angeles paused insolidarity with the new State of Israel, already under attack as thedeclaration of independence was being read by David Ben-Gurion 10hours earlier in Tel Aviv. The shofar was sounded and the new flagunfurled before an assembly of children at the Breed Street Shul inBoyle Heights. Posters were hastily distributed, announcing aHollywood Bowl rally for "Jewish Palestine" the following Wednesday,printed before the official name of the new state was known.

The Menorah Centercollected 120 tons of food and medicine to send to Israel in 1949(Photo courtesy of Jewish Historical Society of SouthernCalifornia)

In the meantime, a steamship that was headed forIsrael awaited clearance in Los Angeles Harbor. The ship was loadedwith 120 tons of food, medical supplies and clothing collected by theJews of Los Angeles, who were continuing a tradition that began herein 1854, but, in reality, one that transcends the pueblo, the ghettoand the shtetl .

"Jews Here Pray for Peace as Nation Is Born," readthe headline the next day in the Los Angeles Times.

Fifty years have passed. Our prayerscontinue.

The poster advertising a rally for thenew state was printed before its official name was known(JHSSC).

Stephen J. Sass is president of the JewishHistorical Society of Southern California.

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