Jewish News Weekly: How Israel Was Born
ZOA in the news
March 28, 2008

Thursday March 27, 2008

In the beginning, the Torah tells us, God created heaven and earth. The oceans were made to teem with life and the land blessed with seed-bearing fruit. God said,

“Let there be light,” and there was light.

This is a clean and efficient way to do business. God, notably, did not say, “Let there be a modern Jewish state.” The creation of that, 60 years ago, required immeasurable toil, guile, sacrifice and blood.

Israel was not born through a pronouncement from God or man, but by the efforts of thousands of people.

Many Bay Area men and women put their lives on the line for Israel in 1948.

There are countless stories.  

Jacques Torczyner

Names, places and dates. It was Johnny Cash who sang “I’ve Been Everywhere,” but Jacques Torczyner really has — and he’s got the names, places and dates to prove it.

With startling alacrity, the 95-year-old Rossmoor resident rattles off the play-by-play from Zionist meetings on several continents or recalls long, windswept walks along the Seine with future Israeli heads of state.

It has been an improbable life for a man who would have been content simply carrying on his father’s Antwerp diamond business. But the Nazis had other plans.

The entire Torczyner clan fled Belgium, traveling on the lam from Paris to the Pyrenees, where they walked over the border to Spain. From there, the family took a boat to Cuba. And on Dec. 17, 1940 — Torczyner remembers the dates for everything — they landed in Miami.

“And we made such a big mistake!” he says. “We had cousins who asked us to buy land on Collins Avenue, but we went to New York. Oh, if we’d done that, we’d have made a lot of money!”

In New York, Torczyner soon maneuvered himself to the top of the political department of the World Zionist Organization. Before long he was the right-hand man of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the fiery and outspoken Zionist orator.

Silver told Torczyner to join the Republican Party — “there were no Jews there.” And that suited Torczyner fine. Along the walls of his flat are photographs of him in various stages of life with every major Republican figure from Sen. Robert Taft to President George H.W. Bush.

Silver’s name is not as well known as the men and woman currently pictured on, say, Israeli currency. But the Cleveland rabbi and Zionist Organization of America president was a powerful influence on the people and government of the United States regarding the formation of a Jewish state. And his man in the trenches was Jacques Torczyner.

It was Torczyner who oversaw the North American delegate election for the World Zionist Congress in December 1946. On the table were two courses of action: Should Israel declare statehood, or hold off in exchange for Britain’s promise of allowing 100,000 Jewish refugees into pre-state Israel?

This election was all about rounding up the most delegates. Torczyner had delivered the plurality of delegates to the plenum, and the vote went the ZOA’s way: A declaration of Jewish statehood was recommended. The decision came at 4 a.m., and Torczyner still remembers how future Israeli President Chaim Weizmann and his “moderates” slumped off into the night after losing the day to Silver and David Ben-Gurion.

It was a major day in Torczyner’s life, and for more than the obvious reasons. “Silver had said, ‘Jacques, in your campaign for the World Zionist Congress, if you don’t succeed, I’ll chop your head off.’”

Yet the groundwork for a declaration of Israeli statehood — and the inevitable war to follow — was long in the making.

On July 1, 1945, Torczyner, Ben-Gurion and 16 others filed into the East 57th Street apartment of Rudolph Sonneborn in Manhattan.

For nearly seven hours, Ben-Gurion spoke. At the end of the day, the Haganah had been founded. Sonneborn would soon be running weaponry to Israel.

“Ben-Gurion said something that nobody in America would like to hear. He said we cannot create a state without a war,” recalls Torczyner.

“And he explained how we must be able to defend ourselves — because don’t forget, America had made an embargo on weapons to the Mideast.”

Torczyner recalls walking the streets of New York with future Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, whose pockets were bulging with cash for purchase of guns on the down-low.

When asked where Kollek made his purchases, Torczyner gives a wicked grin.

“I don’t know, he didn’t take me there. This was illegal, don’t you forget.”

On Nov. 29, 1947, Torczyner sat in the stands at a former skating rink in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., that had been converted into a United Nations building. By a vote of 33-13 with 10 abstentions, the U.N. voted Israel into existence. It wasn’t a particularly nerve-wracking day for Torczyner. He knew the votes were there.

“Let me tell you, I know we had the votes and I’ll tell you why. On Thursday, it was Thanksgiving. On Wednesday, we didn’t have the votes. So we forced the U.N. to observe Thanksgiving and because of the weekend, they postponed [the vote] until Saturday,” he recalls.

Spotted a few days, Torczyner and his ZOA allies began working individual delegates. When asked what methods of persuasion they employed, he grins again.

“I won’t tell you. I don’t want to corrupt you. But the only way for some of them — you know how.”

He rests on his couch, surrounded by books and maps and photos of Silver, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion. His more youthful self stares out from many of the photos as well.

“I think I can tell you that this was a historic moment in Jewish history. So I was part of Jewish history,” he says with a nod.

“And now, 60 years later, I am worried about the future.”

[Jacques Torczyner is Honorary President of the Zionist Organization of America]

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