Two historiographies: Israeli historiography and the mass Jewish migration to the United States, 1881-1914

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The years between 1881 and 1914 were a formative era both for the Zionist movement and American Jewry. Immigrants came both to Palestine and America, where they built the infrastructure on which the two most important Jewish communities in the world later developed. Even though the migrants came from the same countries of origin and often left them for the same motives, two very different approaches developed in historiography. Zionist scholarship tended to see aliyah as without parallel in the annals of migration anywhere in the world. This attitude was developed in the 1930s and 1940s by Zionist sociologists and demographers, who found it difficult to study aliyah using the standard criteria of migration studies. In practice, they created the Zionist narrative, which saw everyone who came to Palestine in those years of the First and Second Aliyot as ideologically motivated 'olim who wanted to build up the land and be rebuilt by it. Historians adopted the social scientists' narrative, though unlike the sociologists and demographers, for whom the mass immigration was an important object of research, Israeli historians paid scant attention to the topic. My survey reveals the poverty of Israeli historiography's treatment of the mass emigration to the West, in the 1950s and 1960s. There is still no study in Hebrew that focuses on Jewish immigration to the United States and the emergence of the Jewish community there. It is not clear why Israeli historians have failed to address the age of the mass migration. The question becomes more acute if we consider the volume of research about Eastern European Jewry during those same years. The many trailblazing works have been written about it also tend to relegate migration to the background. Why has Israeli historiography ignored the Jewish immigration to the United States? It is hard to answer this question, given that the answer is not to be found in the archives and cannot be pinned down using the standard methods of empirical historical research. I can only propose an interpretation based on my acquaintance with the historical literature and the trends described above. There seem to be two independent causes. First, after the Holocaust, it was clear that the immigration of more than two million Jews to the New World had proved to be just as good a solution for the Jewish people as that proposed by Zionism. The decision by hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe to exchange the shtetl for Manhattan, despite all the difficulties and dangers, proved to be a wise decision both for the individual and the collective. The mass migration created two strong and prominent Jewish communities with complex and ambivalent relations between them. For Zionists, the murder of six million Jews was tragic proof of the validity of their rejection of the Diaspora. And yet, if the rejection of the Diaspora was the right answer for some, it certainly was not appropriate for the thriving Jews of America. Thanks to the successful assimilation of millions of Jews in the United States, the story of their migration became a dramatic and fascinating tale, much like that of the 'olim to Palestine. It was hard for the Zionist movement to assert its rejection of the Diaspora in the face of a strong and confident American Jewish community. What is more, all Zionists agreed that the realization of the Zionist idea depended on aliyah and settlement, without which there could have been no change in the demographic situation in the country. All shades of the Zionist leadership recognized this fact and did all they could to bring more 'olim and buy more land. Concomitantly, aliyah assumed a central and prominent place in Zionist historiography. Five separate waves of aliyah were demarcated, each of which made its specific contribution to the development and consolidation of the Yishuv. But there were waves of immigration to other countries as well, where communities of Eastern European Jewish immigrants took root and flourished at the end of the nineteenth century. This made it difficult, in the 1940s and 1950s, to write a serious and broad study of migration and the diaspora (especially the American community), because it posed an alternative - and threat - to Zionist teleology. For example, Shmuel Ettinger's History of the Jewish People in Modern Times gives American Jewry scant attention, despite its centrality and great contribution to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. As mentioned, Ettinger taught a course about Jewish migration and discussed the 'Am 'Olam society and its place in the Jewish world with his students; he even compared its colonists in America with the Bilu pioneers. However, he elected not to share with his Israeli readers the story of the consolidation of American Jewry in the very same years that the New Yishuv was taking shape in Palestine. As the historian Jacob Barnai has noted, Ettinger made sure to place the Land of Israel at the center and to steer his writing by the star of the Zionist idea.52 In this way, the Palestinocentric approach shunted Jewish migration to the margins of research while emphasizing the unique status of aliyah. Because no appropriate research infrastructure was established for this topic, it was difficult for scholarship to develop in other directions. The topic faded away and became irrelevant in the academic discourse and research community. A second and more prosaic factor has to do with American Jewish historians. Although, as noted, many studies of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe have been written, none of them has been translated into Hebrew for the benefit of Israeli readers. It seems that even Jewish historians in the United States accepted the axiom that aliyah and immigration to the United States are two very different phenomena that cannot be compared. What is more, had the two communities of historians (Israeli and American) viewed the period of mass migration as a single time period, there might have been extensive and serious scholarly collaboration about various issues related to Jewish migration to both Palestine and the Americas. A direct result of the paucity of studies about Jewish migration is that the Israeli public, including university students, has not been exposed to the tale of the epic migration westward and the stories of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews who crossed the Atlantic in search of a secure refuge. Hebrew readers are unaware of the thousands of Jews who worked in the sweatshops of Manhattan and their difficult integration into American society. In the absence of a rich and comparative research literature, Jewish migration has gradually become a field of research that is irrelevant for Israeli scholars. By contrast, the study of the first two aliyot has seen a revival and, both in Israel and America, those migrations are still regarded as a seminal episode in the history of the reborn Jewish community in the land of Israel.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-129
Number of pages31
JournalJewish Quarterly Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2015 Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Religious studies


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