65 Years Ago
Detroit Jewry responds vigorously to the founding of the State of Israel.
(Editor’s note: As Detroit’s Jewish community readies to celebrate Israel’s 65th anniversary at the Walk for Israel on May 5, this story looks back at how Detroit Jews honored Israel’s founding in 1948.)
In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two lands, one for Arabs and one for Jews. Detroit’s Jewish community followed the news avidly.
Jane Sherman of Franklin recalls her late father, philanthropist and businessman Max Fisher, at home in the Lee Plaza Hotel in Detroit, huddling over the radio to hear news of Palestine.
Benno Levi of Oak Park, then a student at Wayne State and recently demobilized from the Pacific Theater, recalls that “the whole community was glued to the radio.”
Rita Bigman, who now lives in Ra’anana, Israel, uses about the same words. That description appears in nearly every account of Detroit Jews of that period.
A peaceful partition seemed impossible. Arabs and Jews scrambled to get weapons for the coming conflict. The U.S. government responded cautiously, even discouragingly. In December 1947, Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall announced that the U.S. had embargoed arms for all combatants in Palestine; but the Jews in Palestine needed arms from the United States, and the Arabs had many other suppliers.
On May 15, 1948, David Ben-Gurion announced the formation of a new, independent state to be called Israel. The next day, armies from five Arab states invaded, vowing to destroy the new Jewish State. In the vivid words of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: “If the Jewish state becomes a fact, and this is realized by the Arab peoples, they will drive the Jews who live in their midst into the sea … Even if we are beaten now in Palestine, we will never submit. We will never accept the Jewish state” (New York Times, Aug. 2, 1948).
The Detroit Jewish community responded on May 17 with a rally at the massive Central High School athletic field. According to contemporary estimates, 22,000 attended. The rally represented a hard-won unity of nearly all Jewish organizations.
Lila Corwin Berman, history professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, has a forthcoming book on the Jews of Detroit. She notes that by 1948, Detroit Jews were largely united by fervent support for the new state. “In earlier decades, when German and Central European Jews controlled more of the Jewish wealth in the city, this had not been the case,” she says.
Philip Slomovitz, when he established the Jewish News in 1942, was already a fervent champion of Zionism; his pages and his editorials reflected that view.
But that was not true with all. Rabbi Leo Franklin of Temple Beth El, for example, recognized as one of the leading rabbis in America, had been a founding member of the American Council for Judaism, an obsessively anti-Zionist group. But, after 42 years, Franklin had retired. His longtime associate rabbi, Leon Fram, an outspoken Zionist, left to serve as rabbi at Temple Israel. Beth El’s new leader, Rabbi Benedict Glazer, was also a Zionist. By 1948, though, opposition to Zionism among Detroit’s Jews had crumbled.
In June 1948, Franklin resigned from the American Council for Judaism.
A.M. Hershman, the long-serving rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, one of the first Conservative synagogues in America, was also a leader in the religious Zionist organization, Mizrahi, and the congregation had long ago urged all its members to join the Zionists of America. It was, according to local historian Sidney Bolkosky, the first major congregation in the Midwest to endorse Zionism. When Hershman retired in 1946, the congregation chose Rabbi Morris Adler, another staunch champion of Zionist causes.
Forceful Zionist rabbis led the Detroit Orthodox community, including Rabbis Joshua Sperka and Irving Stollman, who became head of an international religious Zionist group, the World Mizrahi Organization. Led by Rabbi Max Wohlgelernter of Beth Tikva Emanuel, all of Detroit’s Orthodox congregations had sent telegrams to President Truman urging him to recognize the new Jewish State.
Perhaps news of the destruction of European Jewry had convinced many of the most skeptical Jews that we needed a Jewish State. Bolkosky writes in his book, Harmony and Dissonance: Voices of Jewish Identity in Detroit 1914-1967, that “some of those who opposed it became neutral, and some of them turned to its support. Those who had been indifferent became Israel’s champions.”
All synagogue rabbis — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — appeared on the dais at the Central High School rally, along with leaders of every significant secular Jewish organization. Bolkosky recalls that the program included speeches by these leaders, musical presentations by bands and cantors, the sounding of the shofar and performances by members of youth groups.
Adele Silver, who now lives in Southfield, was a young teen at the time; she danced as part of the presentation by the Zionist group, Habonim. Another teen, Shlomo Sperka of Oak Park, sat in the bleachers and took photographs. The leadership of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah arranged to send an entire busload of students, remembers Irwin Cohen of Oak Park, who was then 11 years old.
The rally on May 17 had the character of a celebration, but also served as a political statement. The U.S. government’s position toward this new state remained ambivalent at the highest levels. President Truman had issued his letter recognizing the new state against the vehement opposition of his own secretary of state and of many in the State Department. It looked unclear how much support the new state would get from a divided U.S. government.
Excited, But Fearful
Rallies like Detroit’s served to impress political leaders with the fervent opinions of tens of thousands of voters who favored the Jewish State. There would be many more mass rallies in the coming years, including celebrations of Israel’s Independence Day at the State Fairgrounds, which gave the community the opportunity to make its voice heard in support of Israel.
Choosing a name for the state came as one of the last-minute decisions. When the Jewish News covered the United Nations vote on the partition plan, it headlined the article “Judea Revived.” Truman, in his letter recognizing the new state, did not yet know what to call it. He himself crossed out the typewritten words, “Jewish state” and wrote in “State of Israel.”
The Jewish community was excited, but also worried.
“It was a crowning moment in Jewish history, and we were all excited, but we were afraid,” Benno Levi recalls. “We were excited that Jews were in a position to fight back, but we understood that the Arab armies had many more soldiers and much better equipment. The Israelis used whatever they had, but it was Piper Cubs against military aircraft, and mortars instead of artillery shells.”
The Israelis desperately needed arms, but had limited options for obtaining them, especially with the U.S. embargo on arms for all combatants in Palestine.
So friends of the Jewish State arranged to bring armaments from wherever they could get them. People in the U.S. bought military surplus weaponry as “souvenirs,” and then found ways to ship the weapons to Israel. “Operation Jewish Trojan Horse” became a means to ensure these weapons found their way to Israel.
A WSU law student named Rudolph “Rudy” Newman had served in the American Air Force during World War II. His Jan. 25, 2002, obituary stated: “He had been approached by Rabbi Irwin Gordon of Hillel House at Wayne to fly supplies to pre-state Palestine. Newman found his sense of adventure and love of flying was greater than his commitment to law.
“He flew circuitous routes at odd hours to pick up arms from Czechoslovakia and deliver them to Jewish communities throughout Israel, avoiding the British blockade.
“Newman was one of 200 men in 1948 who served the Air Services of the Haganah Central Command under David Ben-Gurion; this later became Israel’s first air force. Newman also flew as a pilot on one of El Al’s first flights.”
He was the husband of philanthropist and businesswoman Ann Newman of Bloomfield Hills.
The late Ezekiel Leikin had been a passionate Zionist when he was a student at City College in New York in the 1930s; so he left college and moved to Israel. When World War II broke out, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, and served at an American base in Cairo. Like Newman, Leikin found ways to get arms to the Jewish fighters.
“Jewish gangsters also helped establish Israel after the war,” according to historian and author Robert Rockaway, a former Detroiter and professor emeritus of history at Tel Aviv University. He is author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.
A Haganah emissary named Reuven Dafne met with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel in 1945 to seek funds and guns to help liberate Palestine from British rule. “Siegel replied, ‘I’m with you.’” Siegel’s help came in the form of suitcases filled with $5 and $10 bills — $50,000 in all.
For all the underground efforts to arm the Jews, the situation in May 1948 looked so far from hopeful that Levi now asks himself why he did not feel depressed. At the time, he felt “it would be a miracle if we survived, but at least we could fight.” He suspects he did not really anticipate that the new state would survive.
Other people shared the pessimistic assessment. When he was discharged from the U.S. Army, Leikin wanted to stay to witness the birth of Israel, but his wife objected. She and her family had left Lithuania in the 1930s with nothing but their suitcases, rather than stay in the path of the Nazis, and she was fearful that she would have to leave Israel with nothing if the Arab invasion succeeded.
Reluctantly, Leikin returned to America with his wife and young son in 1947. He became a ZOA leader, moving to Detroit to direct the ZOA office here in 1956.
Everything about Israel excited Jews in Detroit. Shlomo Sperka, then a teenager, collected the stamps on letters from Israel addressed to his father, Rabbi Joshua Sperka. The letters mostly asked for funds for Yeshivot in Israel.
Benno Levi also collected Israeli stamps. He notes with amusement that he has a few stamps issued by “Hebrew Post.” The stamps had to get printed before the country declared independence, and even the people who printed the stamps did not know what to call the country.
Now, 65 years later, the Detroit Jewish community again prepares to celebrate Israel, not with a huge rally, but with a communitywide Walk for Israel to be held May 5 starting at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield.
Today, Detroit still includes a strong Zionist contingent that identifies passionately with Israel. And there are others with a more guarded assessment of the government in our ancestral homeland.
Still, looking back to the newborn state 65 years ago, coming just after the destruction of the largest Jewish communities in the world, the symbol of Israel as a Jewish homeland resonates strongly and proudly.
Join Walk For Israel
This year’s Walk for Israel opens for the general public at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, May 5, at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield. At 11 a.m., Steven Pomerantz, former assistant director of the FBI, will speak. A free kosher lunch from Jerusalem Pizza begins at noon, with the walk beginning at 1 p.m. The event also includes music, dancing and a raffle for a roundtrip ticket to Israel on El Al. New this year is a Run for Israel that starts at 8 a.m. For more details, go to www.WalkFor Israel.org.
By Louis Finkelman | Special to the Jewish News