In its Fall 2019 edition, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s journal, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, published an article taking aim at Zionism under the guise of a scholarly examination of a post-Holocaust memorial in Palestine (“’Making the desert blossom as the rose’: The American Christian Palestine Committee’s ‘Children’s Memorial Forest’ and Postwar Land Acquisition in Palestine’”). The author, Amy Weiss, is director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education at College of Saint Elizabeth, a private Roman Catholic liberal arts college in New Jersey.
Weiss’ article about the co-operative efforts of the American Christian Palestine Committee (ACPC) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to create a memorial forest for young Holocaust victims and support the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine denigrates this Zionist partnership, as it recycles biased claims of anti-Zionist activists and historical revisionists who seek to undermine Zionism by attacking its foundation and underpinnings.
The Organizations Involved
The Jewish National Fund (or Keren Kayemet l’Yisrael, in Hebrew – JNF-KKL) was established in 1901 by Theodor Herzl and fellow delegates at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel as the financial arm of the Zionist enterprise. The JNF’s overt mission was to actualize the Zionist goals of establishing a Jewish national state in its historic homeland. The organization’s activities were wide-ranging, changing with the circumstances. They included purchase of land, afforestation, research and development of the land’s ecology, water resources and agriculture, development of new communities, and tourism. The JNF was also involved in Zionist education to create the bond between Jews in the diaspora with their ancestral homeland.
The JNF began with the purchase of land in the ancient Jewish homeland, which was, at the time, Ottoman-controlled Palestine. By 1905, starting with the planting of olive groves in memory of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism who had died the previous year, the JNF-KKL embarked on the goal of afforestation of the land. The organization also provided the financing to purchase sand dunes north of Jaffa for the establishment in 1909 of the first modern Jewish city, Tel Aviv, and of the first kibbutzim (socialist collective agricultural communities popular among the early Zionists). During and after the Holocaust, the JNF stepped up its land purchases to establish new communities.
In short, JNF was a proud and vital part of the Zionist movement.
The ACPC had a similar, clearly defined mission — to support the creation of a Jewish homeland in the territory known as Palestine. The ACPC was formed from the amalgamation of two pro-Zionist organizations, the American Palestine Committee (APC) and the Christian Council on Palestine (CCP).
The American Palestine Committee, conceived by Emanuel Neumann of the Zionist Organization, was launched in 1932 in Washington DC to organize prominent Americans to politically support the creation of a Jewish homeland. By the 1940’s, the membership of the APC included two-thirds of the US Senate, many members of Congress, state legislatures and other influential political figures. The organization sponsored resolutions calling for Jewish immigration to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish State.
The CCP was founded in 1942 and included Protestant leaders from across the United States. Its executive committee passed eight resolutions in 1943 that connected efforts to rescue European Jews with the settling of Jews in Palestine. In the context of the Holocaust, the CCP viewed the rescue of Jews as an urgent issue and considered Palestine to be the home for the Jewish people.
In 1946, these two organizations merged to create the ACPC, whose mission remained true to that of the APC and the CCP.
Historical Revisionism to Denigrate Zionist Organizations and Goals
Despite the JNF’s clear and forthright mission, the article suggests that the Zionist goal of purchasing Jewish ancestral lands for settlement and planting trees was based on subterfuge. For example:
- The heading on the section on the JNF’s land acquisition is entitled “Land Acquisition and The Myths of ‘Making the Desert Bloom’. [emphasis added]
In addition, the author writes:
- “In borrowing the Zionist plank that called for the redemption of land that had purportedly languished under Palestine’s Arab inhabitants, [Carl Hermann] Voss [an American Congregationalist minister who traveled to Palestine to plant the first saplings in the memorial forest], viewed the Children’s Memorial Forest as a marker of the rebirth of modern Jewish life in Palestine….” [emphasis added]
- “The environmental degradation narrative adopted by leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, enabled JNF to justify its land acquisition through the promise of improved productivity and environmental protection…” [emphasis added]
- “…by the beginning of the twentieth-century, the productivity narrative had ceded to one of barrenness or overuse from tree harvesting and animal grazing…The JNF adopted the narrative of stewardship to justify its goal of planting trees on land purchased from the local Arab population.” [emphasis added]
- “But while publicly speaking of environmental improvement and jobs, in actuality it strove for Jewish colonization…the JNF’s primary objective [was] of securing a Jewish presence in Palestine as the basis of a Jewish state.” [emphasis added]
It is wrong to suggest the JNF either needed or employed “justification” in order to plant trees on the barren and rocky terrain that it bought from its earlier owners. And it is dishonest to imply that the JNF attempted to mischaracterize its Zionist goals as if Zionism was something shameful to be covered up. Far from being considered shameful, the JNF’s Zionist mission was undisguised, public, and proudly stated – to build and develop land it legitimately purchased for the establishment of Jewish neighborhoods, parkland and forests – in order to re-establish a Jewish national state in the Jewish ancestral homeland.
It is equally false to state that the land’s “barrenness” was an invention from the beginning of the 20th century. Weiss asserts that “mid-19th century Western perceptions considered the land especially fertile, but by the beginning of the 20th century, the productivity narrative had ceded to one of barrenness,” suggesting that this was a deception employed by the Jewish community and the JNF.
The only one guilty of deception, however, is the author herself who distorts the facts. According to the descriptions in contemporaneous, published accounts of travelers in the mid to late 19th century, much of the land was undeniably barren, despite some fertile areas. For example:
“The sterility of this country, especially on the south and south-eastern sides of Jerusalem, has already been described. The most that can be said of the rest of the highland, as characteristic of that portion of the country, is, that in a general aspect the diversity of feature is great, and ranging between a rich mountain soil, fertile and gentle slopes and valleys, which may vie with any that exist elsewhere; to the rocky and stony heights, often precipitous, either destitute of verdure or clothed in a rank vegetation… [Despite areas of fertile land] Palestine is looked upon as I have pronounced it to be, a barren land, in the aggregate, and strictly speaking it is so in comparison with other more favoured lands of equal extent of territory, where the inspiring dews of Heaven fall more copiously; which are denied alas to Palestine, or restricted to such small quantities as are quite inadequate to the wants of the soil.” (Hanmer L. Dupuis, The Holy Places: A Narrative of Two Years’ Residence in Jerusalem and Palestine, 1856)
“…The further we went the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became. There could not have been more fragments of stone strewn broadcast over this part of the world, if every ten square feet of the land had been occupied by a separate and distinct stonecutter’s establishment for an age. There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country…It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land. Small shreds and patches of it must be very beautiful in the full flush of spring, however, and all the more beautiful by contrast with the far-reaching desolation that surrounds them on every side. I would like much to see the fringes of the Jordan in spring-time, and Shechem, Esdraelon, Ajalon and the borders of Galilee—but even then these spots would seem mere toy gardens set at wide intervals in the waste of a limitless desolation….” (Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869)
“Our ride had been through a country which was sufficiently waste and barren, but it was nothing to compare with that which was before us. We were now in the midst of the Wilderness of Judea, and the deep valleys were like gorges. Such a sparse vegetation appeared along the road, that it only heightened the general misery of the place.” (Edward Staats DeGrote, Through David’s Realm, 1889)
While the author engages directly in historical revisionism to denigrate the Zionist mission of the JNF, she employs less direct methods to attack Christian organizations that supported Zionism.
Marginalization and Denigration of Christian Support for Zionism
Weiss uses faulty reasoning and guilt by association to minimize and denigrate the cooperation between the JNF and the ACPC, their accomplishments on behalf of the Jewish people and their contribution to Jewish-Christian relations.
Both organizations focused on planting trees in the Galilee region of the land that would become the State of Israel in 1948. The ACPC established the Children’s Memorial Forest in cooperation with the JNF to memorialize Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust. This memorial for Holocaust victims preceded other Holocaust memorials and was a demonstration of the organization’s commitment to Holocaust commemoration and education. It was also an act of solidarity with the JNF’s actions to resettle Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe in what was to be the Jewish state.
The ACPC’s cooperation with the JNF in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was rooted in clearly held beliefs based on publicly acknowledged theological positions and obvious humanitarian concerns – the resolve to counter the antisemitism that caused the Holocaust and enabled Christian complicity in the attempted genocide of the Jewish people. These beliefs and concerns were shared by the members of the ACPC and are the common factors that motivate Christian concern and action in support of a Jewish homeland. The ACPC-JNF interfaith relationship was a notable development in terms of Jewish-Christian relations in the context of the pressing need to settle Holocaust survivors at the end of World War II. It was even more significant in a time when Jews had faced annihilation in Christian Europe and Christians, for the most part, had either done nothing to help, or in some cases had been complicit.
But the positive aspects of this ground-breaking cooperation between Christians and Jews were not highlighted by the author. Instead, she cast aspersion on the actions and motives of Zionist organizations, implying guilt to the ACPC through its association with the JNF.
Although she accurately introduced the reasons the ACPC supported a Jewish homeland, she followed by sowing confusion about the members’ motives and their consensus of purpose. She began by stating:
“The ACPC’s endorsement of a Jewish homeland in Palestine grew out of members’ theological positions and humanitarian impulses… Many asked how Germany’s population, ninety-five percent Christian and fifty-five present Protestant, could have perpetuated murderous violence against the Jews… Aghast at reports of the recent Jewish genocide, the ACPC had petitioned the American government to endorse the immediate rescue and relocation of European Jews to Palestine…The ACPC therefore considered its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine a form of humanitarianism that would restore civil rights to millions of Jews worldwide at a time when even tenuous connections to Judaism or Jewry had resulted in the loss of rights or life of Jews throughout Europe and North Africa.” [emphasis added]
All that was true. However, in her subsequent narrative, Weiss minimized the efforts and effects of the ACPC, alleging that:
“…its members lacked a strong consensus, given their disparate Protestant denominational affiliations and diverse views on Zionism.”
To bolster this charge, she wrote:
“Members belonged to theologically liberal Protestant denominations characterized, in part, by their embrace of theological modernism through an acceptance of biblical criticism, recognition of the concept of atonement, and belief in evolution.”
This statement is not in and of itself wrong. Members of liberal Protestant denominations did, and still do, embrace the aspects of theological modernism mentioned above. However, Weiss’s assertion does not support the charge that there was a lack of consensus on Zionism among ACPC members. Indeed, the embrace of theological modernism on the part of Protestant denominations in general does not mean that individual members of those denominations who chose to be part of a Christian Zionist organization did not agree on their Zionist mission.
The facts are —the members of the ACPC did belong to various Protestant denominations that have diverse views on Zionism, and there are liberal Protestants who did, and do, debate the merits of Zionism. However, it is disingenuous to conflate diversity among denominations in general with the specific case of the ACPC’s members’ position on Zionism. There is absolutely no basis for Weiss’ allegation that members of the ACPC lacked consensus concerning Zionism.
At best, this is a glaring example of flawed logic and at worst, it is an insidious attempt by the author to minimize the ACPC’s efforts on behalf of a Jewish homeland.
The history of the ACPC makes it clear that the establishment of the Children’s Memorial Forest was part of the ACPC’s clearly defined Zionist mission – a mission that remained true to those of the CCP and the APC – the two organizations that combined to form the ACPC. The CCP had existed for the purpose of helping with the settlement of Jews in Palestine, which it believed was the home of the Jewish people. The APC organized influential political figures and sponsored resolutions that called for Jewish immigration to Palestine.Working in cooperation with other organizations, including the CCP, the APC succeeded in having the U.S. Congress adopt a resolution supporting the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. When the CCP and the APC merged to create the ACPC, the mission of the ACPC remained true to the original Zionist missions of both preceding organizations. Its members were intently focused on the establishment of the State of Israel. The ACPC was disbanded a few years after Israel was founded because its goal had been accomplished.
Contrary to Weiss’ attempt to minimize the ACPC’s Zionist mission and belittle its support for a Jewish homeland, the reality is that this organization was quite politically influential and effective in its efforts on behalf of the establishment of a Jewish homeland. It was also successful in enlisting prominent Protestant leaders from various denominations in the Zionist cause. Furthermore, the relationship between the ACPC and the JNF fundamentally changed Jewish-Christian relations for the better through their ground-breaking cooperation at a point in history when this was a particularly difficult feat to accomplish.
The article distorts a positive example of post-Holocaust, interfaith cooperation as well as the entire Zionist mission of the JNF to denigrate Zionism in general. The question is – why would a scholarly journal of a premier Holocaust museum allow its pages to be used as a vehicle for what amounts to nothing but anti-Zionist propaganda?