Before World War II, American Zionists were involved mainly in practical tasks of the development of Jewish Palestine and on gaining support from non-Jews. Political programs were left to the Zionist leadership in Europe. But as Germany tightened its grip on the old centers of Zionism, the world’s democracies were effectively paralyzed and European Jews were abandoned to the Holocaust. American Zionists became radicalized, trying to save Europe’s Jews by any possible means. The frustration gradually focused on a single point: where in the past American Zionists were willing to work for a Jewish place of refuge under the British Mandate for Palestine, opinion now demanded that a Jewish state be the end result of policy.
A change of this magnitude in Zionist policy required the approval of the World Zionist Congress, which last met in its 21st Congress in Geneva in 1939, a few days before the start of World War II. Under wartime conditions it was impossible to convene another meeting. Stepping into the breach, an American Emergency Committee of Zionist Affairs was formed and they decided to hold an Extraordinary Zionist Conference in New York City for the purpose of debating:
- the future of Palestine
- possibilities of cooperation with non-Zionist groups
- methods for obtaining a united representation of Jewry at the eventual peace conference
This was the first joint meeting of all American Zionist parties since World War I, with the four major organizations – the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, Mizrahi, and Poale Zion – participating. Zionism was at its lowest point, with the British restricting immigration to Palestine under the 1939 White Paper, with European Jews disappearing, and American Zionism lacking support from Jews or other groups.
The conference was held at the Biltmore Hotel on May 9-11, 1942. Among the nearly 600 delegates, there were Zionist leaders from the US and 17 other countries. The international representation and the presence of World Zionist figures such as Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Nahum Goldmann, gave the conference credibility as a substitute World Zionist Congress. Among the American organizers was Reform Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.
The conference adopted a series of eight resolutions that came to be known as the Biltmore Program. After approval by the Zionist General Council in Palestine, the Biltmore Program became the platform of the World Zionist Organization.
Two of the adopted items were most significant:
- 6. The Conference calls for the fulfilment of the original purpose of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate which ‘recognizing the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine’ was to afford them the opportunity, as stated by President Wilson, to found there a Jewish Commonwealth. The Conference affirms its unalterable rejection of the White Paper of May 1939 and denies its moral or legal validity. The White Paper seeks to limit, and in fact to nullify Jewish rights to immigration and settlement in Palestine, and, as stated by Mr. Winston Churchill in the House of Commons in May 1939, constitutes ‘a breach and repudiation of the Balfour Declaration.’ The policy of the White Paper is cruel and indefensible in its denial of sanctuary to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution; and at a time when Palestine has become a focal point in the war front of the United Nations, and Palestine Jewry must provide all available manpower for farm and factory and camp, it is in direct conflict with the interests of the allied war effort.
- 8. The Conference declares that the new world order that will follow victory cannot be established on foundations of peace, justice and equality, unless the problem of Jewish homelessness is finally solved. The Conference urges that the gates of Palestine be opened; that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands; and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world. Then and only then will the age-old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.
This statement was the first in which non-Zionist organizations joined with the Zionists to advocate the establishment of an independent Jewish state.
The program was not universally approved when first introduced. Those who advocated a bi-national Jewish-Arab state objected to the call for a “Jewish Commonwealth”. Some non-Zionists thought it made unreasonable requests from the British. However, virtually all Jewish organizations in America quickly came to support the Biltmore Program and it served as the unifying force for all those advocating a Jewish State. After the war, at the hearings of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, almost all Jewish representatives presenting to the Committee, based their arguements on the Biltmore Program.
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