Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Nahum Goldmann Dead at 87

August 31, 1982
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Dr. Nahum Goldmann, the fiery and often controversial world Zionist leader, died yesterday in a hospital in Bad Reichenhall, West Germany, near the Austrian border. He was 87 years old. He will be buried Thursday on Mount Herzl among the founders of the State of Israel.

According to a hospital spokesman, Goldmann came to the small Bavarian village for a cure earlier this month. He was hospitalized a week ago for a viral infection. The immediate cause for his death reportedly was due to pulmonary collapse. His wife, son and secretary were with him at the time of his death.

In Paris, where Goldmann had a home, Le Monde, the country’s leading newspaper, announced Goldmann’s death in a three-column article on the front page. Messages of tribute were issued by leaders of various French political parties and similar messages were issued by Israeli officials and leaders of Zionist and Jewish organizations around the world. Most of the messages described Goldmann as a world statesman who helped shape the destiny of the Jewish people, and as a man bluntly honest and firm in his convictions.


Goldmann was a prominent member of virtually every international Zionist and Jewish organization since coming into prominence in 1927 when he was first elected a member of the Zionist Actions Committee and served as one of the members of the Political Commission which negotiated with the British government of Ramsey Mac-Donald after the publication of the Passfield White Paper by Britain.

He was co-founder of the World Jewish Congress in 1949 and its president until 1978 when he was succeeded by Philip Klutznick. Goldmann was also president of the World Zionist Organization from 1956 to 1968; the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture; the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany; and Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Diaspora.


Goldmann was frequently at odds with Israel’s leaders, both Labor and Likud. Some of his fiercest controversies were with Premier David Ben Gurion over the relationship between the Jewish State and the galut and on the issue of who was a Zionist.

Ben Gurion insisted that only those who had made alloy could be considered Zionists; all others, at best, could be considered as “lovers of Zion” or “friends of Israel,” but not Zionists-Goldmann contended that one need not make aliya to be a Zionist.

In one famous debate with Ben Gurion in the 1950’s, Goldmann pointed out that not every Jew can adhere to the 613 mitzvot and that observing only 612 did not diminish a person’s Jewishness. By the same token, he argued, many Jews could not make aliya, but this did not diminish their Zionism if they fought for its-basic principles outside Israel. Goldmann, himself, divided his time in recent years between France and Switzerland where he had homes.

Goldmann was also involved in a sharp controversy with Louis Pincus when the latter was chairman of the World Zionist Organization. In the early 1970’s, when many Soviet Jews began to seek exit visas, Pincus maintained that all Jews should leave the Soviet Union because the very nature of the Soviet regime restricted their freedom to live and function as Jews. Goldmann contended that not all Jews want to leave, and that for those who opt to remain, the campaign at world Jewry should be to demand that the Soviet government allow those Jews to live as Jews.

Goldman was an unyielding opponent of the government of Premier Menachem Begin. He recently accused Begin of fomenting anti-Semitism with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and described Defense Minister Ariel Sharon as a wild man who terrorized the Cabinet as well as Beirut. Goldmann ran into a storm of criticism when he, Klutznick and former French Premier Pierre Mendes-France issued a joint statement last month calling on Israel and the PLO to mutually recognize each other to achieve peace in the Middle East.


He managed throughout the years after the State of Israel was founded to irritate almost every Israeli leader he dealt with. When Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi leader, was brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Goldmann said the jury should include judges from every country that the Nazis had occupied. The idea was not well received.

He accused the government of Levi Eshkol of failing to understand Arab psychology and charged it with major mistakes in conducting military reprisals and with incompetence in dealing with the Soviet Union whose government, Goldmann always felt, could be swayed by rational arguments rather than by pressure.

He also often warned that Western governments would one day grow tired of having to deal with Israel’s security problems and would abandon it in order to get on with other world economic and political problems. He was also at adds with leaders of Jewish communities in the diaspora for being more concerned as he put it with fund-raising than with consciousness-raising.


During World War II Goldmann was a prime force within the Zionist movement in the United States, tirelessly arguing for America’s help in the creation of a Jewish homeland.

In fact, Goldmann had endorsed a controversial British government proposal in 1937 that recommended dividing Palestine into both Arab and Jewish states. Although many Jewish leaders bitterly opposed such a partitioning of Biblical Palestine, Goldmann argued that a sovereign state in even a small part of Palestine was preferable to a situation in which immigration — a matter of life or death for thousands of refugees from Germany and potential refugees from Eastern Europe — was increasingly subject to restrictions by Britain.

A number of historians give credit to Goldmann for his intense lobbying of the Truman Administration for support of the so-called Partition Plan to establish an independent Jewish State in Palestine. Final, strong support of the United States for the plan helped lead to the establishment of Israel in 1948.


Perhaps just as controversial as Goldmann’s advocacy of the British plan to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states in 1937 was his insistence following World War II that the German government pay reparations to both Israel and victims of the Holocaust.

Goldmann’s position on this issue faced vehement, passionate opposition from many within the Jewish community who argued against any contact with a country whose policy just a few years earlier was genocide. But Goldman felt it was the duty and the right of the Jewish people to make some claim for material restitution from Germany and, more importantly, to establish the principle that states have a moral if not legal duty to make some restitution for crimes committed in their name against a weaker people.

For months, Goldmann pursued secret preliminary contacts with German statesmen, including Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. These meetings eventually led to the formal negotiations that resulted in the historic Reparations Agreement of 1952.

In that document, Germany promised to pay 3.45 billion German Marks to the State of Israel as partial compensation for the financial burden of rehabilitating survivors of Nazi persecution who had settled there. Part of the indemnification — 450 million Marks — was to go to individual victims of the Nazis and for Jewish cultural and educational purposes.


The only child of Solomon and Rebecca Goldmann, Nahum was born in Poland in 1895 but grew up in Germany where his father was a writer and teacher of Hebrew. At age 15, Goldmann began writing articles in the “Frankfurter Israelitisches Familienblatt,” a popular weekly in the German Jewish community. It was at this time that the teenage Goldmann began making speeches at early Zionist meetings and participating actively in Zionist educational work.

Awarded his law degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1920, Goldmann and fellow Zionist Jacob Klatzkin a few years later founded the Eshkol Publishing Company. Their idea was to issue a new Jewish encyclopedia incorporating the most advanced research of Jewish scholars all over the world.

Ten volumes of the Encyclopedia Judaica were published in German and two in Hebrew before the regime of Adolph Hitler halted the undertaking and forced Goldmann to flee to Switzerland. Following World War II, which Goldmann spent in America, he resumed his project and expanded it to include an English-language edition. The 15-volume work has been described as “the most important Jewish publishing event of the 20th century.”

Following Goldmann’s forced exile from Germany, he repeatedly tried to warn the world of Hitler’s true intentions. As port of that effort, Goldmann and Rabbi Stephen Wise founded the World Jewish Congress, a body designed to coordinate the struggle to secure Jewish rights throughout the world.

Goldmann will not be given a state funeral and, according to his will, there will be no eulogies. However, President Yitzhak Navon will probably attend the funeral, but it is not yet known whether Begin will interrupt his vacation in Nahariya to attend.


A memorial meeting for Goldmann will be held in New York at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Thursday at 2 p.m. The meeting is jointly sponsored by the World Zionist Organization – American Section and the World Jewish Congress.

Recommended from JTA