BEN-GURION IN KNOXVILLE—On May 6, 1951, Knoxville's Jewish community turned out for a dinner at the Farragut Hotel honoring Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. From left: Ben-GurionŐs then deputy and subsequent successor, Golda Meir; the dinnerŐs hostess, Ida Glazer; TennesseeŐs Gov. Gordon Browning; Ben-Gurion; Congressman Howard Baker, Sr.

Jewish Knoxvillians recall IsraelŐs creation

by Joe Sullivan

The mood of those assembled at the Jewish Community Center on Summit Hill that May evening in 1948 was one of jubilation. They danced the Hora, sang Zionist songs in Hebrew, and praised God for his beneficence.

The occasion was a celebration of the creation of the state of Israel, whose 50th anniversary is being observed throughout most of the world this month. While Knoxville hadn't exactly been a bastion of Zionism prior to World War II, the Holocaust brought the need for a Jewish homeland to the forefront of the minds of Jews here—and everywhere—in its aftermath.

"There were 500,000 displaced Jews in Europe [the remnants of a pre-war population of 6.5 million], and no other country in the world would take them," recalls Barbara Bernstein, who was 15 at the time. Bernstein, now the wife of prominent attorney Bernie Bernstein, is the chair of the Knoxville Museum of Art, among many other civic and philanthropic involvements. Back then, though, she was Barbara Winick, daughter of attorney Ben Winick and granddaughter of Issac Winick, who became Knoxville's first rabbi when he moved here in 1895 after emigrating from Russia during the pogroms of the 1880s.

Ben Winick was as Knoxvillian as you can get—a huge UT football fan, Republican party activist and courthouse raconteur. But he was also an ardent Zionist, dating back well before World War II. At that time, the Zionist vision of turning Palestine into a Jewish homeland was just that—a vision, embraced mainly by a vanguard of Jewish intellectuals. After the war, though, as the full horror of the Holocaust's devastation was revealed for all the world to see, the cause gained broad support. And Ben Winick stepped up his efforts here.

"My father was constantly writing letters to Congressmen, to the newspapers, to anyone who would listen, urging the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish sectors," Bernstein recalls. When a partition plan came to a vote in the United Nations, the Winick family and a great many others were glued to the radio. Bernstein's diary for December 3, 1947, records, "Hallelujah, the United Nations voted today to partition Palestine, half Arab, half Jewish. That means that we now have a homeland."

The British, who had maintained a protectorate over Palestine since World War I, set May 15, 1948, as their evacuation date. Because the U.N. partition plan was just a piece of paper, it was left to the Jews and the Arabs to set the boundaries. And the only way they could do so was with guns. Despite a U.S. and British embargo on arms shipments to Israel, the fledgling nation managed to prevail in the bitter fighting that ensued.

During the fighting and thereafter, Knoxville's Jewish community of about 1,500 supported the Israeli cause in a variety of ways. Foremost was through contributions to the United Jewish Appeal that went toward clothing, food, housing, and other essentials for a population then comprised in large part of impoverished refugees. The local chapter of Hadassah, the Jewish women's organization, sent layettes for the newborn and medical supplies to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

"We started sending the layettes in 1948, and we're still doing it today," says Sylvia Silver, who was an officer of Hadassah for many years.

Perhaps the first Knoxvillian to go to Israel after the fighting subsided was Stanley Robinson. Fresh out of Knoxville High School, he spent the summer of 1949 working on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee.

"It was true communal living where no one had any money, and we all shared everything. I mainly picked corn. But we also grew a lot of watermelons, and we'd have these huge watermelon breakfasts," recalls Robinson, who is now a tax attorney in New York.

When Marian Goodstein graduated from UT in the spring of 1950, her parents offered her two choices for a graduation present: a new car or a trip to Israel. She took the trip.

"I'd been involved in Young Judea [a Zionist youth movement] since 1939, and going to Israel was the realization of a dream. But when I got there, I realized how much the people had sacrificed. The refugees were still pouring in faster than they could be absorbed, and everything was scarce," says Goodstein, who is now the wife of local architect Joe Goodstein. Their two children and 10 grandchildren all live in Jerusalem.

The spring of 1948, which brought Israel's creation, also marked the publication of a book entitled TVA on the Jordan. Its author, James B. Hays, was a former TVA engineer who had become chief engineer for a Commission on Palestine Surveys. The book provided a plan for a system of dams along the Jordan River for power generation, flood control, and irrigation. In its foreword, Hays pays tribute to the man who was TVA's chairman while the plan was being formulated, David E. Lilienthal.

"He not only encouraged his associates and staff to place at our disposal their vast fund of knowledge and expertise but also took a personal interest in the work and conferred with me on various occasions," Hays records.

In May, 1951, Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and his then-deputy, Golda Meir, came to Knoxville, primarily to visit TVA. Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Eliahu Elath, who accompanied them, told the Chattanooga News-Free Press, "I don't think the people of the Tennessee Valley quite realize that to all foreign people, especially to the people of Asia whose countries are undergoing such changes at the present, the TVA represents the dynamic symbol of American democracy in action." Ben-Gurion added a jocular note in his comments to the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

"There will be some fishing sports on the Jordan River in Israel just as there are on TVA lakes," the legendary prime minister said. (The Jordan serves as Israel's eastern border with Syria and Jordan, and these hostile nations have never been able to get together on a plan for harnessing its water resources.)

Knoxville's Jewish community turned out en masse for a lavish dinner honoring Ben-Gurion at the Farragut Hotel on May 6, 1951. Ida Glazer, widow of the founder of the flourishing Glazer Steel Company, and her son, Guilford Glazer, were the hosts. Tennessee's political elite also had a presence, including Governor Gordon Browning and Congressman Howard Baker, Sr.

Joe Goodstein recalls that his father, Ben, had come to Knoxville in 1912 from the same city in Poland (Plinsk) where Ben-Gurion then resided. "My father had vivid memories of listening to Ben-Gurion speak there, and the two of them reminisced together at the dinner here."

This past Sunday, about 250 Jewish Knoxvillians assembled at what's now known as the Arnstein Jewish Community Center on Deane Hill Drive for a 50th anniversary celebration. Among those in attendance was Arnold Cohen, a 57-year-old lawyer who is Ida Glazer's grandson. Cohen reflected on what it means to be both an Israel celebrant and an American:

"Israel is our promised land under the covenant that Abraham made with God. But while my spiritual roots lie there, I consider myself to be a patriotic American. I've lived all my life in Knoxville, and this is my community."

The most important dinner on Cohen's calendar this May is the annual brotherhood/sisterhood award dinner of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, whose mission is to promote harmony between people of all religions, races, and ethnic groups. The honorees at this year's dinner at the Hyatt Regency Hotel are radio talk show host Hallerin Hill and television anchorman Bill Williams.