Excitement over Israel’s birth suffused state Jewry in 1948

The year 1948 would have been a busy and even historic period at any time for the Jewish communities of Wisconsin.

It saw groundbreakings and plans for new synagogue buildings in Milwaukee, Madison and La Crosse; creation and mergers of agencies and organizations; and the appointment of the world renowned Rabbi David Shapiro as spiritual leader of Milwaukee Congregation Anshe Sfard.

There even was an attempt that autumn to start a Jewish day school in Milwaukee, the state’s first, which sparked an intense debate in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle’s opinion pages.

It was also the year of Wisconsin’s centennial as a state, which The Chronicle and Wisconsin Jewry marked at various times.

But hovering over all this was excitement over the birth of the state of Israel. To judge from The Chronicle’s pages, Jews throughout the state were eager to assist that state’s creation and sustenance in any way they could.

“A dream of two thousand years has now become a reality with the establishment of the independent Jewish nation of Israel,” The Chronicle proclaimed in a front-page editorial in its May 21 issue.

“It marks the fruition of a historical process which neither time nor foe could frustrate and the beginning of a new chapter in Jewish history.”

 
First-hand reports

Since the United Nations on Nov. 29, 1947, approved the partition resolution that divided British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, community eyes were on the region.

Beginning in January 1948, Milwaukee Jews heard first-hand reports from the area. The Milwaukee chapter of Americans for Haganah held a dinner on Jan. 18 at the Schroeder Hotel, at which the featured speaker was Bertley C. Crum, a U.S. member of the Anglo-American Commission on Palestine.

On Jan. 21, all the Milwaukee Zionist Organization of America and Hadassah chapters gathered at Steuben Junior High School to hear journalist Ruth Gruber, who had covered the voyage of the Jewish illegal immigrant ship Exodus 1947.

In January, Chronicle publisher Irving Rhodes was appointed chair of the Milwaukee Jewish Welfare Fund’s campaign for 1948. He also was named a member of a delegation of 40 U.S. Jewish community leaders to travel to Europe and Palestine for four weeks.

And the Welfare Fund — which in the 1970s changed its name to the Milwaukee Jewish Federation — got Moshe Shertok to be the featured speaker at its annual meeting on Feb. 1.

At the time, Shertok was head of the political department of the Jewish Agency. He later Hebraicized his name to Moshe Sharett and became Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister.

At that Feb. 1 meeting, the Welfare Fund “drained the treasury” to give Shertok a check for $200,000 and it later arranged to borrow $500,000 from First Wisconsin National Bank “to meet emergency need for overseas relief and Palestinian defense.”

Even more exciting were the two appearances that the former Milwaukeean who later Hebraicized her name to Golda Meir made that year. (Curiously, The Chronicle editors varied the spelling of her last name between Meyerson and Myerson.)

In February, during the pre-state phase of Israel’s War of Independence, she delivered a grim message, according to The Chronicle’s report.

“Victory or complete extermination — those are the only two prospects before Jews in the current war in Palestine,” The Chronicle paraphrased her saying at The Pfister Hotel.

She returned to speak at the Plankinton Hotel on June 5, a month after Israel was born, during the post-state period of the War of Independence — and at a time that Israel looked like it was going to win and survive.

“I feel better today than I did when I visited Milwaukee several months ago,” The Chronicle quoted her saying. “At that time, our army was as yet untried; now it has proven itself in battle.”

“There is a secret weapon in Palestine and in Israel which is called ‘Ein Brerah’ — no alternative,” Meir said. “It’s a very, very effective weapon…”

Personal connections

Meanwhile, the various Jewish community welfare funds raised money for Israel and local needs all over the state. In Milwaukee, the ambitious goal was $2.5 million; it was not reached, but a record $1.7 million was raised by October, of which $1.2 million went to the UJA.

And there were other, even if smaller, efforts to support Israel and the surviving European Jews, including some by organizations that no longer exist.

The Milwaukee Zionist Emergency Council represented all the Zionist groups in the city; and it met in January to write letters to U.S. government officials about supporting creation of the new state.

Also in Milwaukee, the ZOA, Labor Zionist Organization and the Milwaukee Conference of B’nai B’rith Lodges in October announced they would unite for an all-city “Aid to Israel” campaign.

In Madison, seven Jewish women’s organizations gathered more than 70,000 lbs. of relief supplies, 240 percent of their quota. The organization that received this gift, Supplies for Overseas Survivors (SOS), gave this effort a certificate of merit in March.

Also in Madison, the United Jewish Student Appeal at the University of Wisconsin raised $8,800, surpassing its goal by $300.

Even one future leader was heard from. The April 23 Chronicle carried a news brief on page one that a Milwaukee boy named Herbert Kohl (today Sen. Herb Kohl) had donated his bar mitzvah money — all $230 — to the Welfare Fund.

The Chronicle also carried some reports about more personal connections that Wisconsinites had developed with Israel.

Fivie Ginsberg was a young Milwaukee man who had gone to Israel to work on a collective farm. He wrote a letter to his parents that they gave to The Chronicle, which it printed on June 11. Though he didn’t say exactly where he was, he said that he was working in banana fields and “I’ve never been happier or healthier.”

On Oct. 22, The Chronicle published a photograph of the first visa that the nascent Jewish state gave to a Milwaukeean. It was for Shimon Friedman, who went to visit his mother, who lived in a small community near Tel Aviv.

And the Nov. 12 issue reported how a young Israeli woman, Alisa Wirz of Jerusalem, was pursuing graduate study in physical education at UW-Madison. She may have been the first Israeli college student in Wisconsin.

But during this amazing year, The Chronicle also carried items that have proven to be foretastes of issues and problems the state would face, some of them matters of concern to this day.

The Aug. 6 issue carried both news about Arab refugees from the state and an editorial calling attention to troubling reports about “Danger to Jews in Arab Lands.”

“Ever since the Arab League declared war against Israel … the Jews in those countries have been subjected to pogroms, horrors, blackmail, threats of extermination and confiscation of property in the good old Nazi style,” The Chronicle wrote.

Then Chronicle editor Ben Tousman wrote in his regular “I May Be Wrong” column in the Nov. 19 issue about how journalist Arthur Koestler wrote a troubling report of how the new state was being dominated by the Orthodox religious establishment.

The same issue carried a JTA report about how land that had been abandoned by Arabs in the new state — some 112,500 acres — was being given to Jews, a grievance some Palestinian Arabs still maintain.

And a Chronicle editorial on Dec. 17 quoted with approval the preamble of a draft Israeli constitution that had been released that month. Sixty years later, the Jewish state has not yet instituted a constitution.