Commentary Magazine

The Assimilationist Dilemma: Ambassador Morgenthau's Story

The incident that suggested Henry Morgenthau, Sr., as a focus of the modern Jewish dilemma is one of history’s classic ironies: that by his alert dispatch of assistance to the Jewish colony of Palestine in August 1914—when serving as U.S. ambassador to Turkey—he saved it from starvation and probable extinction, thus preserving it for the ultimate statehood which he came to believe was a “stupendous fallacy” and “blackest error.” Measured in material terms, the aid was minuscule, and the incident remains virtually unknown except to a few investigators; but it was of decisive and immense historical importance.

The circumstances were these: the Jewish settlement in Palestine, numbering about 100,000, consisted on the one hand of pious and impoverished believers who had trickled in over the centuries to die in Jerusalem, together with some families who had never left the homeland, and, on the other hand, of the later wave of conscious Zionists who had immigrated since the 1880’s and were endeavoring to establish themselves on land sold to them as worthless by Turkish and Arab landlords. Almost all were dependent either on remittances from abroad, or, in the case of the new colonists, on the export of agricultural products. to the West and some subsidy from the Diaspora. They would be cut off from these contacts if Turkey joined the Central Powers—which, Morgenthau foresaw, contrary to Allied expectations, was bound to occur. From his close, and at that time friendly, relations with the Turkish leaders—who were so taken with this unorthodox ambassador that they offered him a Turkish cabinet post—he knew the hope of Turkish neutrality was a delusion.

On August 27 he cabled to the American Jewish Committee in New York, the earliest group of its kind organized in this country for the defense of Jewish interests and of “Jewish civil and religious rights, in any part of the world.” The AJC was the organ of what has been called the Jewish “establishment” of those days, that is to say, mainly the German Jews. Dedicated to assimilation in their country of residence, they were ipso facto opponents of the Zionist movement for a Jewish state, though not of Palestine as a center of settlement for the persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe.

Morgenthau’s cable stated that “immediate assistance” to Palestine Jewry was required and suggested the sum of $50,000. Jacob Schiff of the AJC and Louis Marshall, its president, convened a meeting and raised the suggested sum within two days. Half was contributed by the AJC, $12,500 by Schiff personally, and $12,500 by the American Federation of Zionists. The funds were wired to Constantinople, converted to gold, and carried in a suitcase to Jerusalem by Morgenthau’s son-in-law, Maurice Wertheim, my father, who was then visiting him.

When it came to distribution, the gold precipitated an attack of internecine quarreling among the various local organizations, until my father, who was then twenty-eight, picked up the suitcase, locked himself in an adjoining room, and told his clients he would not come out until they had reached an agreement. Under that ultimatum, they did.

The significance of the aid was perceived at the time by a man dedicated to the homeland in Palestine, Judah Magnes, first chancellor and first president of the Hebrew University, the only important American Zionist leader to transfer his home to the land of his beliefs. Speaking at a meeting of the Joint Distribution Committee at the home of Felix Warburg in March 1916, he said of Morgenthau’s crucial intervention that “no word can be too strong, no expression too exaggerated” to describe the historical task thus performed.

The initial relief, of course, far from solved the problem, which, as soon as the Turks entered the war in November 1914, became grave. About half the Jewish population in Palestine, including many of the older group and most of the new colonists, were Russian by nationality and had preferred to remain stateless rather than become Ottoman subjects. They were now subject to treatment by the Turks as enemy aliens, with no recourse to protection by Russia, whose pogroms they had fled. Expulsion and even massacre became imminent threats, involving the American ambassador in unceasing efforts to mitigate the harsh and capricious measures of the Turks, while activating, with the help of many others, the aid of his own and the Allied governments.

Six thousand Jews expelled from Jaffa were carried by the USS Tennessee, a warship in the area, to Egypt, where the British permitted their entry. Later, the USS Vulcan carried food supplied by Jewish relief organizations to the near-starving community of Palestine. A steady flow of funds collected by Jews in the U.S.—sufficient to give monthly allotments of a few francs each to 50,000 Jews cut off from former sources—had to be delivered by one means or another, past erratic Turkish opposition on the one hand and Allied blockade of Syria and Palestine on the other. At first gold bullion was shipped directly from Egypt on U.S. warships, but when the Allies closed down this entry, Morgenthau resorted to sending the funds by mail from Constantinople to the American consul in Jerusalem, who distributed it to the needy. By these measures the nucleus of the future state of Israel survived.

Another contribution to the future of Israel, as important in a different way, was the support that made possible the revival of Hebrew as a living language. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the compiler—one might say, the creator—of the modern Hebrew dictionary, was brought to this country in 1914 under Zionist auspices to continue his work in safety during the war years. But the funds to support him and his family while he worked, as well as a house to live in and schooling for his daughters, were arranged for by my father (who had visited Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem) and were supplied largely by his father, Jacob Wertheim, and a committee consisting of Jacob Schiff, Felix Warburg, Julius Rosenwald, and Herbert Lehman, the magnates of the so-called gilded ghetto.



Why did they care about the revival of Hebrew? Or, in the earlier case, about the survival of the colony in Palestine? The answer to that—the unbreakable tie to the group—is the answer as well to the unique survival of the Jews for over nineteen-hundred years without statehood or territory. It is also part of the assimilationist’s dilemma.

Assimilation was a solution born of the Enlightenment—a dream of adaptation within a dominant Gentile society while supposedly maintaining something not quite definable called Judaism. Whether this was to be equivalent to, or more than, the Jewish religion depended on the individual interpreter, but in any case, it tended to shrivel in partnership with assimilation. In degree and nature, the whole concept of assimilation was a disturbing problem of belief tortured by doubt, and so troubling that it was not discussed in front of the children. It is likely, I suspect, to remain forever unsolved, never wholly achieved or wholly abandoned.

Meanwhile, the record suffers from a certain distortion—in that the dominant voice, as in every historical record, belongs to the victors, who in this case are the Zionists. Events proved them right with regard to the revival of Israel, and the assimilationists wrong. Consequently, the former appear in the record as the disciples of truth and the latter as obstructionists, blind and selfish bitter-enders, objects of scorn and sometimes of malice. The malice and falsity of Felix Frankfurter’s recollections of Morgenthau, published after the subject was safely dead, are a mean-spirited example.

Yet while the Zionists supplied the impulse, the ideal, and the driving force, not to mention the settlers, the fact remains that the German-Jewish leaders in America, whether from motives of guilt, or reinsurance, or a sense of responsibility, or a mixture of these, gave the support without which there would have been no living settlement to incorporate statehood. The work of Louis Marshall, for one, was essential. As chief spokesman of the “establishment,” he cooperated with Chaim Weizmann to create the Jewish Agency, through which non-Zionists could support the settlement in Palestine. Nathan Straus was another. His support of public-health and other projects in Palestine, estimated to have absorbed two-thirds of his fortune, is commemorated in the town named Netanya on Israel’s seacoast. Ultimately it was Morgenthau’s son, Henry Jr., who, on leaving Roosevelt’s cabinet, assumed the chairmanship of the United Jewish Appeal in 1947-50 and raised the funds critical for the survival of Israel in the endangered first years of statehood. He was galvanized, I have no doubt, by the failure of his ceaseless effort, as Secretary of the Treasury under Roosevelt, to make the President take some effective action to save Jews from Hitler’s Final Solution.

Needless to say, the German program of annihilation was the experience that turned assimilationists into supporters of statehood, anti-Zionists into reluctant pro-Zionists. Nor was it Hitler alone who accomplished the change but the reaction of the Western democracies—the lack of protest, the elaborate do-nothing international conferences, the pious evasions, the passive connivance in which Hitler read his cue, the avoidance of rescue, the American refusal to loosen immigration quotas when death camps were the alternative, the refusal even of temporary shelter, the turning back of refugee ships filled with those rescued by Jewish efforts. More than 900 on board the St. Louis were turned back to Europe within sight of the lights of Miami, more than 700 on board the leaking Struma were turned back from Palestine to sink with all on board in the Black Sea. Was their fate so very different from that of Auschwitz?

The accumulation of these things slowly brought to light what had long lurked in the shadows of ancient memory: a bitter recognition that the Gentile world—with all due respect to notable and memorable exceptions—would fundamentally have felt relieved by the Final Solution. That the Jewish “establishment” came to believe this about the Gentiles cannot be documented because it was the great unmentionable, too painful to acknowledge, but basically this is what shattered the faith of assimilationists and brought out the funds for support of Israel.



To go back to the assimilationist’s dilemma: we must be careful, as always in the practice of history, not to ascribe meanings and motives as we see them through the lens of intervening events. To a person of my grandfather’s generation and background, the problem was not originally seen as a dilemma. During the first half of his life, he was perfectly clear and absolutely convinced about what he wanted and what he believed he could achieve in America.

His Zion was here. What he wanted was what most immigrants wanted at a time when liberty glowed on the Western horizon: Americanization. This meant to him, not the rubbing-off of identity, but Americanization as a Jew, with the same opportunity to prove himself, and the same treatment by society, as anyone else.

If he is to represent the problem, he must be fixed in terms of time, place, and circumstance. On an immigrant boy of the 1860’s, America’s open door to upward mobility and the 19th century’s belief in progress were formative influences, equal to, if not greater than, his Jewish heritage. This is a point that non-Jews tend to overlook. They think of a Jew as some kind of immutable entity, instead of as a product of time and place like any other human being.

Morgenthau was born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1856, the same year as Louis D. Brandeis and Woodrow Wilson, and twenty years after Andrew Carnegie, the immigrant boy’s greatest success story. Brought up in early childhood in comfortable circumstances, he came to the U.S. with his family in 1865 at the age of nine, as a result of business reverses suffered by his father, Lazarus Morgenthau, a prosperous cigar manufacturer. Lazarus had risen from the German-Jewish equivalent of the American log cabin. As the son of an underpaid cantor with too many children, he had started life as an itinerant tailor, peddling self-made cravats at fairs and gradually enlarging the enterprise to a business employing others. By the time Henry, his ninth child, was born he had achieved success in the cigar business with three factories and a thousand employees. He could provide a household with servants and the first built-in bathroom in Mannheim, educate his children, indulge the family passion for theater, opera, and concerts, and carry out the traditional philanthropies.

The ruinous effect of the American tariff on cigars plus the persuasions of a brother in America decided Lazarus Morgenthau to emigrate at the age of fifty. In New York he failed to flourish a second time. While his wife had to take in boarders, and the sons had to go out to work, he devoted what remained of his remarkable energy and inventiveness to raising funds for Jewish charities, in the course of which he invented the theater benefit. Persuading producers and theater-owners to donate a performance, he personally went the rounds of prominent Jewish homes to sell tickets at high prices. He had, however, an erratic temperament which, in the family’s reduced circumstances, caused a separation from his high-minded and hard-working wife.

From these genes and environment, Henry emerged—Horatio Alger with a Jewish conscience. Speedily learning English, he graduated from public high school at fourteen, entered City College for a career in law but was forced to leave before the end of his first year to help support the family by working as an errand boy at $4 a week. After clerking in a law office for four years while teaching in an adult night school at $15 a week, he put himself through Columbia Law School and was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-one. With two friends he formed a law firm in 1879 when the average age of the partners was twenty-three.

Strongly affected by the fall in family circumstances, and intensely ambitious, he was determined to make a fortune solid enough to withstand economic caprice, to provide for his mother and assure his children the advantages he had missed. He accomplished his goal in the practice of realty law, by conceiving the corporate form of doing business in real estate and by shrewd and venturesome buying of lots at the future crosstown stops of the advancing subway system.



While he was making money, he was constantly troubled and made restless, as shown by his notebook of moral maxims, by the demands of a political idealism and a strong social conscience, which led him to active involvement in municipal reform movements to combat the tenement system, to improve working conditions after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, to association with Lillian Wald in social work, and most particularly to close association and friendship with a man of advanced ideas, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. It is characteristic of Morgenthau that he was drawn to a radical figure twenty years his junior and that, when Wise refused the conditions proposed by the trustees for the pulpit of Temple Emanu-El, Morgenthau financed him in the founding of the libertarian Free Synagogue and served as its first president. The fact that Wise was already the active and outspoken secretary of the American Federation of Zionists obviously presented no dilemma.

In this respect I am struck by the fact that the two men whom I remember from my childhood as representing Jewish affairs to my assimilationist family were, paradoxically, two ardent Zionists, Stephen Wise and Judah Magnes. No doubt this was because they were both men of outstanding mind and character; but I wonder if it was not also because their primary subject—the return to Palestine—exercised a powerful appeal. Magnes’s concept of a bi-national Arab-Jewish state made, I know, a strong impression on my father. I personally do not remember anything very significant about Wise, except that he was rather frightening. He wore an enormous black hat and, I think, a black cloak, and when we met him on the way to school on Central Park West near his synagogue, he used to sweep off the hat with a bow to a child of about eight, and say in his booming voice, “Good morning, Miss Wertheem,” a way in which no one else pronounced the name.

Magnes was different; there was a quality about him I cannot describe without sounding sentimental: something beautiful in his face, something that inspired a desire to follow, even to love. Although I had no individual contact with him beyond being allowed to sit at the dinner table and listen to him talk, I remember no one who made a greater impression. He talked about travels through wild areas of Palestine and a dangerous adventure in the desert—could it have been Sinai?—where he was stranded and came close to death. Beatrice Magnes, his wife, seemed to me equally admirable.

In an opposite sense from my grandfather, there was no dilemma for Magnes either, although he and Mrs. Magnes belonged to the “establishment.” It is interesting that of the American Zionist leaders, both Magnes and Brandeis were second-generation Americans, and Wise close to it, having come to this country from Budapest at the age of seventeen months.



To return to Morgenthau: at the age of fifty-six, moved by Woodrow Wilson’s appearance on the political scene in 1912, and by a doctor’s warning that a loud heart murmur left him not long to live (a prognosis happily wrong by thirty-five years), he reached the rare decision that he had made enough money and could terminate his business career to enter public service. Wilson’s fight against social exclusive-ness in the Princeton eating clubs made a special appeal to a Jew, who saw in him the image of a true democrat dedicated to equal opportunity for all Americans. Morgenthau pledged $5,000 a month for four months to launch Wilson’s presidential campaign, undertook the chairmanship of the Democratic Finance Committee, and, with an additional personal donation of $10,000, became one of the largest individual contributors.

The reward was not, as he had hoped, a cabinet post as Secretary of the Treasury, but a minor ambassadorship—as it then was—to Turkey, the more disappointing because it was a post set aside for Jews. Given Morgenthau’s passionate desire to prove that a Jew could and would be accepted in America on equal grounds with anyone else, the offer was peculiarly painful. It was, of course, this intense faith in equal opportunity for the Jew in America, and the fear of being thought to have another loyalty, that made him and others like him resist so strongly the movement for a separate Jewish state. Again, one has to think in terms of the time. The struggle for equal position was then less advanced than it is now and anti-Semitism more emphatically operative. Jews like my grandfather, who had set their lives to overcoming it, felt that political Zionism would supply an added cause for discrimination.

Morgenthau initially rejected Wilson’s offer. He changed his mind under the influence of Stephen Wise, who persuaded him of the importance of having a Jew officially in contact with Palestine. He took up his post in Constantinople less than a year before history broke over the Turkish capital, transforming it into one of the key diplomatic posts of the world. Morgenthau found himself in the role of the leading neutral ambassador, caretaker for the Allied embassies, protector and mediator for Christians, Jews, Armenians, and every person and institution caught in the chaos of the Ottoman empire. The task used all his talents—nerve, tact, imagination, humor, and, above all, a capacity for direct action in ways no trained diplomat would ever contemplate. Henry was electric, my grandmother believed; she said she felt weak when he entered the room. The spectacular activity of his tenure at Constantinople does not belong in this essay, except insofar, I think, as the praise and renown he won obscured for him the disappointment of Wilson’s original offer, reinforced his optimism, ambition, and belief in American opportunity, and thus his anti-Zionism.

No dilemma entered into his aid for the Jews of Palestine. The impulse was humanitarian, redoubled by group attachment. He was to do as much, if not more, for the Armenians and later, as League of Nations Commissioner, for resettlement of the Greeks. His sense of what it means to be an oppressed people, particularly in the case of the Armenians in whom he saw a parallel with the Jews, certainly underlay both those efforts. He remains today a national hero to the Armenians and has a street named for him in Athens, although none in Jerusalem, which is fair enough.

Zionism did not become an acute dilemma for its opponents until about 1917 when, in anticipation of the end of the Turkish empire, Zionist agitation for a recognized homeland grew intense. In some members of the Jewish establishment the Balfour Declaration touched off almost a sense of panic. At that time, Zionists were bringing pressure on President Wilson for a public commitment, and when, in March 1918, Rabbi Wise led a delegation to the White House for this purpose without informing Morgenthau, who was still president of his pulpit, the sad break came. Morgenthau resigned as president of the Free Synagogue.

In 1921 he proclaimed his opposition to Zionism in an exceedingly combative article, which he republished in full in his autobiography two years later. Zionism, he wrote, is “an Eastern European proposal . . . which if it were to succeed would cost the Jews of America most of what they have gained in liberty, equality, and fraternity.” Because of his opposition he saw hazards which the proponents preferred not to look at: that the Balfour Declaration was ambiguous, that the Arab inhabitants of Palestine resented the Zionist program and “intend to use every means at their command to frustrate it.” Through a massive polemic of political, economic, and religious arguments, he harshly concluded that the Zionist goal “never can be attained and that it ought not to be attained.”

In his eighties, in the shadow of the Holocaust, he privately acknowledged that he had read history wrong. He died at ninety-one, a year before the re-creation of the state of Israel.

The dilemma for Henry Morgenthau was really more American than Jewish. Prior to Hitler and the ultimate disillusion, he saw no need for nationhood because he believed the future of the Jew as a free person was here, and that it was threatened by the demand for separate nationhood. In his fierce desire for proof of assimilation, he established his summer home, when he was in his seventies, in the Wasp stronghold of Bar Harbor, Maine, consorting with the snobs, to my acute embarrassment on my visits. Possibly they liked or admired him—he was a man of great charm, known as Uncle Henry to all acquaintances from FDR to the policeman on the beat—but what slights he may have endured, I cannot tell. Yet he never for an instant attempted to play down his Jewish identity or remain passive in regard to his people. On the contrary, he emphasized his ties to them throughout his life, serving as founder, trustee, and officer of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, and every kind of Jewish organization.

Assimilation, for him, did not mean to cross over to Christianity; it meant to be accepted in Bar Harbor as a Jew: that was the whole point. He wanted to be a Jew and an American on the same level as the best. He wanted America to work in terms of his youthful ideals—and of course it did not. Perhaps the dilemma was America’s, not his.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.