Although the WZO permitted the ZVfD to seek collaboration with Nazism, and its leaders were eager to sell Hitler's wares abroad and even spy for him, they did not want the menace to spread. Even the Zionist movement in Palestine realised that fund-raising from a universally ruined Jewry would hardly be the same as collecting for the victims in Germany alone. Not willing to fight Hitler themselves, for fear that he would abrogate the Ha'avara agreement and outlaw the ZVfD if they gave him any trouble, Sokolow and Weizmann dreamt of a great power alliance that would hold Hitler back, but this was always an empty fantasy. Those in the WZO led by Goldmann and Wise, who wanted to struggle, invariably found the two presidents either indifferent or opposed, but Hitler's growing strength compelled the more militant faction to establish a World Jewish Congress (WJC) as a Jewish defence organisation.
Both Goldmann and Wise were themselves deeply committed to Zionism; Goldmann had even opposed inviting any assimilationists --that is to say, the majority of Jewry-- to their preliminary conference in 1932. Furthermore, they did not think to challenge Weizmann's right to retake the WZO presidency in 1935. Nevertheless, the WZO was determinedly opposed to the new initiative, for fear that it would deflect energy away from Palestine back toward world Jewry. In February 1934, a year after Hitler came to power, Sokolow, who was then still the WZO President, was reported speaking against the World Jewish Congress:
Doubt as to the wisdom of convening the World Jewish Congress tentatively scheduled for this summer was expressed by Nahum Sokolow, President of the World Zionist Organization... the Zionist veteran regards the fact that, at the Geneva Jewish Conference last summer where the World Jewish Congress was discussed, some question was raised as to whether or not Palestine should be included in the program of the World Jewish Congress, to be an indication of the disagreements and party battles which might take place in calling the parley... Mr Sokolow presents an alternative plan, according to which all shades of Jewry would be called upon to construct a Jewish body for Jewish self-defense, the execution of well considered, carefully formulated plans of such a body, which would include all Jewish groups with the exception of the avowed assimilationists, would bring much good, Mr Sokolow believes.
Sokolow was also stalling because he was afraid of the attacks on the Ha'avara agreement that were sure to be made at a broad World Jewish Congress. Stephen Wise returned fire:
We were given warnings that support would be alienated for the World Jewish Congress if the [Geneva] Conference adopts a resolution against the Palestine-German transfer agreement. I do not fear this threat. The Jewish people are prepared to accept the guidance of Eretz Israel, but not commands or threats, when they conflict with the interests of all Jews.
The conflict was painful to Wise; he had once thought along similar lines to Sokolow, but although he still thought of Palestine as the most positive side of Jewish life, he simply could not put Zionism so far ahead of the danger that threatened European Jewry.
I know very well some Zionist will say: only Eretz Israel interests me. Palestine has the primary place. I was the one who first used the word 'primary' some years ago; I had to withdraw the word 'primary' when I had the courage to say that though Palestine has the primary place in Jewish hopes, I cannot, as a Jew, be indifferent to the Galuth... if I had to choose between Eretz Israel and its upbuilding and the defense of the Galuth, I would say that then the Galuth must perish. But after all, the more you save the Galuth, the more you will ultimately do for Eretz Israel.
The WJC movement continued to gain strength in spite of Sokolow's opposition; the Nazi pressure was too great, the ranks wanted their movement to do something, and when Wise reluctantly endorsed the Ha'avara at the 1935 World Zionist Congress, the idea of the WJC finally received formal sanction from the WZO. However, there was never much enthusiasm for the WJC within the WZO. Chicago's Jewish Chronicle, itself an opponent of the WJC movement, accurately described the lack of serious interest in the idea of a defence organisation, even as late as May 1936, almost three and a half years into the Third Reich:
individual leaders of the Mizrachi and the Jewish State Party have no faith or interest in the Congress... Hadassah is not roused on the matter, and the poll of the members of the Executive Committee of the Zionist Organization of America revealed... the majority is overwhelmingly opposed to the Congress.
Despite the hostility of the right wing, the WJC had to come. This was now the period of the Popular Front; the Social Democrats and the Stalinists had finally learned the necessity for unity against Fascism in the wake of disaster, and the Zionists had to come up with a 'Jewish, equivalent or lose their small following among the Jewish workers, particularly in Poland, who were influenced by Popular Front notions. Labour Zionist support for Wise and Goldmann was enough to overcome the right wing, but the paradox was that the WJC was doomed to fail precisely when it suddenly threatened to turn into a genuine Popular Front.
'Centers about the Anti-Fascist Struggle Alone'
The American Communist Party (CPUSA) decided to back the World Jewish Congress as their leaders believed that once inside the movement they would not have any problem getting the honest Zionist ranks to focus their primary attention on the Nazi menace rather than Palestine. But admitting the pro-Arab CPUSA was out of the question for Wise. The fight against Hitler was important, but Palestine and Zionism were ultimately more important. His Congress Bulletin came out flatly against letting the Communist Party in:
Although the struggle against anti-Semitism and Fascism will, of necessity, be one of the chief issues on the agenda of the Congress... the problems with which the World Jewish Congress will deal... will also include the upbuilding of Palestine and the struggle for religious and cultural freedom for Jews in all countries... The instructions under which the American Jewish Communists are trying to find their way into all coordinated Jewish efforts, centers about the anti-Fascist struggle alone... the 'Morning Freiheit' could easily spare itself the trouble of even considering the question of the participation of the Jewish Communists.
The World Jewish Congress finally held its foundation congress in Geneva in August 1936. A pro- Communist American delegation attended, in the hope that they would win last minute admittance in a floor fight, but it was to no avail. The meeting passed a boycott resolution against the Nazis, but there was never any serious effort to establish it. Weizmann's loyal lieutenant in the USA, Louis Lipsky, the President of the Zionist Organisation of America, had only reluctantly agreed to the idea of holding the Congress; taking real action against Hitler was far more than he and his cohorts were prepared to accept. A correspondent for World Jewry described Lipsky's scuttling of the one anti-Nazi action that the Congress thought to take:
The general boycott resolution... was adopted unanimously...but when it came to the question of giving practical effect to the resolution, then it was that the opposition made itself felt. The Commission had drawn up a resolution demanding the creation of a special department for boycott work... To this certain American delegates, led by Louis Lipsky, strongly objected... it is clear that the responsible authorities are not enamoured of the proposal and I am inclined to doubt if they really intend to give it practical effect.
The observer went on to describe the Congress as 'confused as to its means and lacking just that touch of inspired leadership that might have made its advent a tuming point in Jewish history'.
The magazine's gloomy description was fully justified. This was a conclave primarily of professional Zionist leaders; these were not the people to build a serious boycott or do anything else to fight Hitler. Without unity with the assimilationalist Jews, including the Communists, as well as Gentile anti-Nazis, they could never begin to harm the Nazis either through the boycott or any other way. Their refusal to work with the Stalinists was not because of hostility to the regime in the Soviet Union. Zionism was banned there, the Hebrew language was seen as alien to the real lives of the Jewish masses, but none of them saw the Soviet Union as anti-Semitic; on the contrary. When Stephen Wise was asked to join John Dewey's commission to investigate Stalin's charges that Trotsky was a Nazi agent, he declined. Trotsky had called Stalin an anti-Semite and that, Wise insisted, was so obviously untrue that it made everything else he said equally suspect. There is no doubt that Wise and his associates thought there would be war and they wanted to see the United States, Britain and the Soviets united against Hitler; they had no confidence in the masses stopping Nazism and, consistent with their reliance on the ruling classes to solve the Jewish question, they saw an alliance of the Great Powers as the only possible weapon against Hitler. Despite their enthusiasm for an alliance between their ruling-class patrons and Stalin, the members of the American Jewish Congress were not economic radicals and had no desire to involve themselves with their own local Communist party. That and the pro-Arab Communist line ruled out any association with the CPUSA. The lack of political realism in the World Jewish Congress flowed out of the marginal nature of Zionism in the real life of world Jewry. The more the Zionists worked for remote Palestine, the less they involved themselves in the real struggles of the Jewish masses. When a mass street movement became imperative, the WJC had neither the desire nor the experience to run such a struggle nor the willingness to learn.
Between the 1936 World Jewish Congress and the Stalin-Hitler pact, the CPUSA membership increased to 90,000 and had a union following of over a million. It became politically much more important than Wise's American Jewish Congress or the American Zionist movement. Certainly the Communists and the Zionists had great differences. Each had severe limitations, and clearly much more than a boycott was required to beat Hitler, but there can be no doubt that an alliance between the two forces would have galvanised the Jewish community in America, and many non-Jewish anti-Nazis would have moved together with them. Whether such a coalition would have been effective is another matter, but the WJC's refusal to take in the Communist Party was a tremendous blow to the Jewish struggle against Hitler. The desperately needed united Jewish front became another tragic sacrifice to Zionism.