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Selling the Israel bonds, often against the opposition of community leaders, was not easy. Nevertheless, in the first three years of the drive, Israel sold more than $145 million worth of bonds to almost 700,000 subscribers.
Israeli and American Jews viewed the bonds differently. Israeli leaders treated the bonds mostly as an investment and enjoyed an increased stream of American dollars, free from the restrictions associated with regular philanthropy. Abba Eban, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, proudly explained that the bonds “expressed in the field of economic thinking the idea of independence and sovereignty.”
American Jews, in contrast, saw the bonds mostly as a gift to Israel. This orientation can be gleaned from the long-term trends of the sales. The Israel bonds’ sales surged during wartime. In contrast with typical investors, Israel bonds subscribers were not deterred by the risk associated with wars. At the same time, Israeli leaders never failed to thank subscribers for their generosity, and American Jews, for the most part, remembered to redeem their bonds upon maturation.
Both parties realized that the bonds were a bit of a gift and a bit of an investment, but by sustaining some kind of willful partial misunderstanding, American and Israeli Jews were able to cooperate and secure an increased flow of funds to the national project. After the first drive, others followed, and the sale of Israel bonds continues even today. Over the years, Israel bonds have provided Israel with more than $35 billion — roughly a third of Israel’s external debt.
Things could have gone very differently. In 1920, facing similar struggles over the distribution and control of philanthropic funds, the nascent Irish government issued Diaspora bonds in the United States. Like the Israel bonds, the Irish bonds combined elements of a gift and an investment. The first issue of the Irish bonds won considerable success, raising more than $5 million from more than 300,000 subscribers.
But in the Irish case, the sale of the bonds only intensified tensions between Irish American organizations and the Irish government. Irish American leaders treated the bonds exclusively as a gift. Accordingly, they demanded a voice on matters of national importance in exchange for their philanthropy. The Irish leaders, in contrast, insisted that the Irish bond was an investment, and so they rejected the Diaspora’s demands. As a consequence, an attempt to float a second issue of the Irish bonds in the United States in 1921 utterly failed.
Over and above finance, the contrasting outcomes of the bond projects influenced the development of Irish American and American Jewish ties to Ireland and Israel, respectively. In the Irish case, the conflicts surrounding the bond project led to the disintegration of major Irish American organizations. The intense conflict also crystallized the differences between Irish and Irish American communities and the incompatibility of their interests. That being Irish today in the United States is expressed largely through symbolic gestures devoid of practical implications, like wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, is in part due to the collapse of the bond project.
In the Jewish case, in contrast, the bonds provided American and Israeli Jews with an additional venue to engage each other (one that was less humiliating for Israelis than regular philanthropy). By preventing tensions between Israeli and American Jews from erupting into a head-on conflict, the bonds contributed to the belief that the differences between these communities were somehow extraneous. Through the ongoing sale of bonds, American Jews became not only financially invested in Israel’s future, but emotionally invested, as well.
Dan Lainer-Vos is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and the author of “Sinews of the Nation: Constructing Irish and Zionist Bonds in the United States” (Polity Press).