Hope of a return to Zion emerged as a central theme of Jewish religiousness soon after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. But despite ardent hopes and fervent prayers, the reality of large-scale Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel remained a remote and unrealized dream.
At the close of the 19th century, Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Austro-Hungarian journalist, proposed a radical solution to the problem of Jewish homelessness and oppression in the form of independent Jewish statehood. The following year he convened the 1st Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and laid the groundwork for the modern State of Israel.
Dance Book from Knights of Zion Annual Convention Grand Ball, 1916
Chicago’s early Zionists were immigrants from Eastern Europe who lived on the city’s Near West Side. They formed America’s first Zionist society here in Chicago in 1895. It was called “Zionist Organization no. 1.”
The group sent a representative to participate in the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland in 1897. After the Congress, the group reorganized into a fraternal organization called the Order Knights of Zion. In 1918, the Knights of Zion joined the Zionist Organization of America and became the Zionist Organization of Chicago.
Portrait of William E. Blackstone
One of Zionism’s first champions was an Evangelical protestant layman and successful real estate entrepreneur from Oak Park named William Eugene Blackstone.
After an 1888 visit to Palestine, Blackstone became convinced that the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland was a necessary forerunner to the second coming of the Christian Messiah. In 1891 Blackstone drew up a petition calling for the creation of a national homeland in Palestine as a haven for the two million oppressed Jews of Russia. More than 400 prominent individuals signed Blackstone’s appeal. The petition was submitted to Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Woodrow Wilson.
Group Portrait of the Jewish Social Democrat Workers Verein Poalei Zion, 1915
During WWI, hundreds of thousands of European Jews were uprooted and impoverished, supporting Zionist claims that a Jewish refuge was urgently needed. At the close of the war, the British Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave official sanction to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Buoyed by these developments, American Zionism experienced significant growth. Labor Zionism was especially popular in Chicago. It advocated the building of a secular socialist state in Palestine, and included in its orbit the Poalei Zion, Chicago’s Pioneer Women, Habonim youth group, and a large network of secular Jewish supplementary schools including the Workmen’s Circle and Shalom Aleichem schools.
JNF Mother’s Day Certificate, 1931
The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established at the Fifth Zionist Congress for the purpose of land purchase in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. JNF succeeded in attracting worldwide grassroots support via the sale of stamps and collections from the now-iconic blue boxes. In 1908, the first JNF trees were planted in memory of Theodor Herzl. With the expansion of JNF’s tree-planting and afforestation program in 1920, the purchase of JNF trees became a popular gift to mark milestones.
Photo of Bezalel School founder Borris Schatz (bearded, at center) at the Jewish People’s Institute, Chicago, 1931
In addition to joining Zionist organizations and donating to the JNF, Chicagoans supported the Zionist cause by purchasing souvenirs and crafts from the Land of Israel. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Bezalel School in Jerusalem produced many of these popular handicrafts.
Boris Schatz, founder of the Bezalel School, is seen here exhibiting Bezalel crafts at the Jewish People’s Institute (JPI) on Chicago’s West Side. Such exhibits sought to raise money for the school and simultaneously raise international interest in a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Alex Topchevsky’s Exodus From Germany from Portfolio of A Gift to Biro-Bijan, 1937
In the first half of the 20th century, several alternate plans for a Jewish homeland were proposed. For example, in 1934 a Jewish Autonomous Oblast was established in Birobijan, a remote and sparsely populated region in the Soviet Far East. An American Birobijan Committee raised funds to relocate families to the region. Chicagoans played a key role in the organization and a group of Chicago Jewish artists who identified with labor ideologies created a portfolio of prints to raise money for the cause.
Mandel Brothers joins the boycott against German imports, 1934
With the appointment of Adolf Hitler to chancellor of Germany in 1933, an official program of anti-Semitic persecution was launched, including a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses. American Zionist leaders Stephen S. Wise and Abba Hillel Silver played a key role in organizing a counter-boycott against German imports. Mandel Brothers, a major Chicago retailer with Jewish roots took part in the boycott.
Photo of 5000 Zionists gathered at the Aragon Ballroom to celebrate the success of their Histadrut campaign, Rabbi Goldman is guest speaker, 1941
As Hitler’s anti-Semitic program progressed and the horrors and atrocities of his Final Solution became known, the Zionist leadership stepped up its efforts to gather political and popular support for a Jewish state. Only a Jewish state, they argued, could provide a lasting solution to the perennial problems of Jewish homelessness and persecution. By the end of the war, Zionism in America had moved from the periphery to the center.
Elisha Kite dances in the aisles at the Chicago Stadium, May 16, 1948
The State of Israel was established on Friday, May 14, 1948, the day before the British Mandate was due to expire. The news was greeted with ecstatic celebration in Chicago and in Jewish communities around the world. That Sunday, more than 25,000 people gathered at the Chicago Stadium to salute the new state. A photograph of and an “old patriarch” (later identified as Elisha Kite) overcome by emotion and dancing in the aisles ran in many of the local papers the following day.
Photo of JUF’s Walk with Israel, 1973
In Chicago today, support for Israel remains strong. Chicago has official diplomatic, trade, and cultural relations with the Israeli government through a Chicago consulate, an American-Israel Chamber of Commerce office, and a sister city agreement with Petach Tikvah. Israel’s birthday is celebrated annually with live music, family activities, and public walks organized by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.