Community Blog When Massachusetts became Zionist
At this moment when the Hamas terror attacks and Israel’s subsequent response has unleashed diverse and complicated reactions in America, it is worth reflecting on a little-remembered period in American history when Massachusetts was at the forefront of the world Zionist movement.
In 1922, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge led the legislative fight in Congress to pass the Lodge-Fish resolution, known at the time as the “American Balfour Declaration.” The resolution marked the first time that the American government went on the record as pro-Zionist, committing itself to the right of the Jewish people to establish a home in Palestine. Not only did the resolution create a framework for subsequent policy, it also provided a crucial precedent in 1948 for President Truman’s administration in voting to recognize the new state of Israel.
Senator Lodge’s long history of antisemitism – for decades he called Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe members of a “low race” who needed to be kept out of the country – made him an unlikely champion of the Jewish community. But Lodge’s late career conversion to Zionism was a result in large part from the pressure he was receiving from Massachusetts voters.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Massachusetts was a hotbed of Zionist activity. It was the home of the largest Zionist organization in the country, the Boston Zionist Association; it was the home of the most significant Zionist leader, Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice; and most significantly, it was home to the first state legislature in the country which went on record in support of the Zionist cause. In 1919, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a resolution which called on the American representatives to the Paris Peace Conference, a meeting to establish the terms of the peace at the end of World War I, to “use their best endeavors” to establish “political, administrative, and economic conditions in Palestine as will assure the development of Palestine into a Jewish commonwealth.”
In 1920, the State House delivered an even clearer message, “…The Massachusetts House of Representatives … hails the Jewish National restoration to the ancestral soil as a triumph of justice for which all mankind should be grateful; that it urges the Government of the United States of America to use its best endeavors to facilitate the speedy development of Palestine into a Jewish National Homeland, for only in its own soil can the Jewish people live its own life and make, as it has made in the past its characteristic and specific contributions to the spiritual treasures of humanity.” In 1922, the entire State House again passed a similar resolution. The Massachusetts state resolution, given to Senator Lodge, would became the model for the U.S. government’s, initiating the pro-Zionist foreign policy which still remains to this day.
It may be surprising to learn that the state of Massachusetts was so strong in its Zionist convictions. Senator Lodge was no friend to the Jewish community and neither were many of Boston’s brahmin political leadership. And though we don’t have records to describe the legislative debate over the resolution, we do have accounts to indicate that Zionism was not only a Jewish cause, but one which enjoyed wide support from non-Jewish Massachusetts citizens. A local newspaper publishing in 1922, for example, describes a mass gathering of every church and organizational leader in the town of Salem to urge Senator Lodge to pass his resolution supporting Zionism.
These citizens believed in Zionism because they believed in the right of the Jewish people to have a home. Particularly for a Massachusetts community that closely followed the push for Irish nationalism, the Jewish nationalist cause was close to its heart as another example of self-determination. The devastating pogroms and violence that World War I wreaked on the Jews of Eastern Europe revealed the desperate need for Jews to have a safe haven, and Massachusetts was at the forefront of recognizing and responding to that need.
Advocating for Zionism has grown more complicated in the intervening century, but as someone who defends the right of the Jewish people to have that home, even with its complications, I take solace in our local history and the long standing commitment of Massachusetts to that cause.
Rabbi Dan Judson is provost of Hebrew College. He formerly served as dean of the Rabbinical School from 2018-2023. Previously, he oversaw the professional development program, and served as the placement director for the Rabbinical School. He received his doctorate in Jewish history from Brandeis University where his research focused on the history of American synagogue finances. His book, Pennies for Heaven: A History of American Synagogues and Money, was published in 2018. Rabbi Judson served on the national faculty of the Union for Reform Judaism, consulting to synagogues across the country on financial matters. His research on synagogues which have eliminated dues was featured in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, NPR, The New York Jewish Week, and Reform Judaism Magazine. He also served as the rabbi of Temple Beth David in Canton, MA for 10 years and co-authored several books on Jewish rituals for Jewish Lights Publishing, including The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life: A Handbook for Personal Spiritual Renewal and The Jewish Pregnancy Book: A Resource for the Soul, Body and Mind During Pregnancy, Birth and the First Three Months.
Adult Learners: This winter & spring, Rabbi Judson is teaching “From Buffalo to Jerusalem: An In-Depth Look at the History of American Zionism.” Visit the adult learning online catalog to register and view more courses.