WJC Past President
Nahum Goldmann was born in Lithuania and grew up in Germany in an identified Jewish home. He was educated at German universities where he studied philosophy and law. From an early age he became strongly allied with Zionist thought, and during World War I, while working at the Jewish division of the German Foreign Ministry, he attempted to enlist the Kaiser's support for the Zionist idea.
In the 1920's, Goldmann was involved in publishing a Zionist periodical and also in launching the project of a German Jewish encyclopedia. In all, twelve volumes of the encyclopedia, ten in German and two in Hebrew, appeared before the Nazi rise to power halted the project. Retaining the idea, Goldmann was a key figure in the 1960's behind the English language Encyclopedia Judaica.
During the Mandate period, Goldmann was involved in a range of Zionist causes, including negotiations with the British, aimed at realizing the idea of Jewish statehood. In particular, he supported the partition of Palestine, arguing that sovereignty was more important than territory. In 1935, stripped of his German citizenship and forced to leave Germany, he settled first in Honduras and thereafter in New York. He continued to labor there for Zionist causes, and for several years represented the Jewish Agency in New York.
In addition to his Zionist work, Goldmann championed other Jewish interests. Indeed, Goldmann never felt that a Jewish state would answer the needs of all Jews, and on the contrary, a strong Diaspora was always a reality, if not an ideal. In 1936, he helped organize the World Jewish Congress, and was the first chairman of its executive board; he later served as its president for many years. He was a major link in negotiating German reparations to survivors following the Holocaust. He founded the Conference of Jewish Organizations (COJO) and was actively involved with other causes such as Soviet Jewry, Jewish education, and Jewish culture. Goldmann believed that the future of world Jewry depended largely on a successful fight against assimilation, and hence the attention to developing vibrant Jewish institutions in the Diaspora.
In 1962, Goldmann became a citizen of Israel, but despite frequent visits, never became a permanent resident, dividing his time primarily between Switzerland and Israel. He was critical of what he deemed was Israel's excessive reliance on and adulation of its military prowess, and following 1967, he faulted Israel for not adopting a more conciliatory stance towards the Arabs. Despite his belief in the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people, he was also convinced of Israel's dependence on the support of World Jewry and the world at large. His critics attributed this belief, in their eyes erroneous, to a mentality that essentially belongs in and to the Diaspora.