Even 30 years after Nahum Goldmann's death, he remains a controversial figure. Goldmann was a Jewish and Zionist leader who refused to relinquish the option of living in the Diaspora. He was an Israeli who lived in Switzerland and struggled for peace. He was a leader on the level of first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, but he never dared run against him.
Nahum Goldmann was born in a small sleepy town in Lithuania. After six years of living in his grandfather's home, he moved to his parents' home in Frankfurt, Germany and learned to love his new home. During World War I, he worked in the Jewish department of the German Foreign Ministry, believing that Germany could help the Zionist movement. He studied law and economics at Heidelberg University, where he was ultimately awarded a doctoral degree. From then onward, he dedicated his time to the Zionist Movement and to work on the Encyclopaedia Judaica project with his friend, Jakob Klatzkin. After the publication of ten volumes of the encyclopedia, Hitler rose to power and Klatzkin and Goldmann were forced to stop their work.
In 1935, Goldmann's German citizenship was revoked and he ended up in Honduras and then in Geneva, Switzerland; in both locations, he served as the World Zionist Organization's representative to the League of Nations. In 1936, he established the World Jewish Congress, over which he presided as president for 30 years. Jewish education topped his agenda, as he viewed education as the only way to prevent assimilation. In 1937, he was one of the outspoken supporters of the division plan proposed by the Peel Commission.
When World War II broke out, Goldmann moved to New York, and immediately found his place as one of the Jews' most important leaders — a representative of the Jewish Agency and an activist for the American Zionist Emergency Council. In 1942, he collaborated with Rabbi Stephen Wise in an effort to raise American awareness on the extermination of European Jewry.
Immediately following the establishment of the State of Israel, he was elected president of the World Zionist Organization, a role he held until 1968. Goldmann worked with Ben-Gurion on the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany; his close personal relationship with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was a great help in negotiating the agreement, which completely changed Israel.
Goldmann was affiliated with the General Zionists political party, the largest party in the opposition at the time and the predecessor of today's Likud party. As a member of the party, he believed in the importance of peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors, and was convinced that Ben-Gurion did not work hard enough to achieve them. In July, 1953, the Foreign Ministry went out of its way to deny allegations by various news outlets that Goldmann was negotiating "with Arabs." One must note that whether or not such negotiations took place, his rumored work did not lead to any real negotiations and certainly not to any peace agreements.
After the Six-Day War, Goldmann came out vocally against the general euphoria that prevailed in Israel, urging Israeli leadership to strive for peace agreements with the neighboring Arab countries. At the time, he was seen as a statesman overstepping his authority from high on up in the seat of Zionist Movement president. The Labor Party was not prepared for him to remain in his role, and in 1968, Goldmann decided not to run for another term. He frequently visited Israel but he chose to reside in Switzerland, where he was granted citizenship. Although he considered himself a Zionist, he was ready to tell anyone who would listen that the Zionist solution is not the only possible solution and that it was important for Israel that there be a vibrant non-assimilated Jewish Diaspora.
After being released from his official Zionist role, Goldmann gained the freedom to engage in informal diplomacy, culminating in the infamous 1970 meeting with Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser that never transpired. Goldmann was 75-years old at the time and was still serving as the head of the World Jewish Congress.
The story of the meeting that never happened elicited a lot of media attention. It seemed that Goldmann had accepted an invitation from Nasser, who wanted to test out a peace initiative with Israel. The preconditions of the meeting were kept totally secret, as well as the approval of then-Prime Minister Golda Meir. Goldmann subsequently met with Meir and expressed his desire to meet with Nasser. When Meir was later asked if she hadn't been worried that she was passing up an opportunity for peace, she replied that she had never missed an opportunity to pass up an opportunity, explaining that describing Goldmann's initiative as a missed opportunity for peace was absurd, like "flying to the moon."
Goldmann intended to directly inform Meir but she surprised him. Instead of rejecting or approving the proposal, she simply informed him that the matter would be discussed by the Cabinet. He didn't want that, but she refused to relent. He insisted that it had to be a secret meeting and that if she didn't want him to go, he would respect her wishes, but beseeched her not to bring it before the Cabinet. Meir was insistent, as she always was, and Goldman spoke directly with several ministers in efforts to rally them to his side. Shimon Peres, for example, believed that despite Goldmann's contentious ideas they should allow him to go, but not as a representative of the State of Israel, so as not to miss an opportunity for peace.
On March 29, 1970, a Cabinet meeting was held, after which it was concluded that "the government of Israel would have been open to any initiative on behalf of the Egyptian president to meet and work out issues pertinent to both our nations, when each side is free to choose its representatives. Therefore, in response to Dr. Goldmann's request for government approval of a meeting with Egypt's president, the request is denied."
Following the publication of this decision, journalist Haim Guri wrote in the daily newspaper Davar that Goldmann was an old adventurous attention monger. A subsequent survey revealed that 65 percent of Israelis supported the government's decision, while only 35% supported Goldmann. Yitzhak Rabin demanded that Goldmann's diplomatic passport be revoked. A month later, Goldmann left Israel.
In an interview with Goldman, he was asked if he was disappointed by the rejection. He gave a typically Goldmann response: "My life is not limited to politics. I would rather be at the Salzburg Festival and read a good book. Politics is not my livelihood."