The Down­fall of Abba Hil­lel Sil­ver and the Foun­da­tion of Israel

Ofer Shiff
  • Review
By – October 13, 2014

Abba Hil­lel Sil­ver was a frus­trat­ed inno­va­tor in Amer­i­can Zion­ist his­to­ry. A lead­ing Reform rab­bi, he played a cru­cial role in advo­cat­ing a boy­cott of Nazi Ger­many in the 1930s and was a pas­sion­ate sup­port­er of Israel, with inside con­nec­tions to Con­gress and the U.S. Pres­i­dent. How­ev­er, Ofer Shiff, a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish his­to­ry at Ben Guri­on Uni­ver­si­ty, expert­ly shows how in the end, his role exposed the inher­ent weak­ness of Dias­po­ra Zion­ism in rela­tion to the State of Israel.”

Sil­ver was born in Lithua­nia and fol­lowed the path of many Jews of his gen­er­a­tion in migrat­ing to the U.S. and liv­ing on the Low­er East Side of Man­hat­tan. In The Down­fall of Abba Hil­lel Sil­ver, the author shows how Sil­ver strug­gled to mesh his the­o­ries on Amer­i­can Judaism with his sup­port of Zion­ism. His main inno­va­tion was to pro­pose that Dias­po­ra Zion­ism was equal to what was tak­ing place in Israel after the foun­da­tion of the state. How­ev­er, lead­ers like David Ben Guri­on gave him a cold shoul­der. He also played an ear­ly role in secur­ing sup­port for Sovi­et Jew­ry in the 1960s, long before it became a con­sen­sus issue, and in work­ing to encour­age Con­gress to sup­port mil­i­tary aid to the nascent Jew­ish state.

This is an inter­est­ing and eru­dite book, how­ev­er it is not a chrono­log­i­cal biog­ra­phy of Sil­ver; it is more a the­mat­ic exam­i­na­tion of his polit­i­cal and reli­gious views. Read­ers are giv­en no insight into his ear­ly years and back­ground in which these views may have been ground­ed. In addi­tion, it is not alto­geth­er clear how impor­tant he was com­pared to oth­er Jew­ish lead­ers of the peri­od. It seems the author is argu­ing for cred­it­ing him more his­tor­i­cal­ly; but the assump­tion that the read­er is famil­iar with the peri­od means that this book will appeal more to experts and researchers.

Notes, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index

Relat­ed content:

Seth J. Frantz­man received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem where he cur­rent­ly holds a Post-Doc­tor­al Fel­low­ship. He is a colum­nist for the Jerusalem Post and Fel­low at the Jerusalem Insti­tute of Mar­ket Studies.

Discussion Questions