“Rabbi Outcast,” Jack Ross’s biography of the late anti-Zionist rabbi Elmer Berger, was published this weekend and is already being cheered. There’s a coming out party next Sunday in Brooklyn for the book; details at the end of this post. I’ll try and get a review/summary of the bio up in the next few days, though I’d point to passages like this one, in the Epilogue, that typify Ross’s preternatural ability to crunch large diverse trends into pithy ideas:
[T]he peace process was only interpreted as a license for American Judaism to become more closely and intensely identified with Zionism than ever before. Multiple factors contributed to this reality. One was the increasing prevalence of the Holocaust in defining American Jewish identity, peaking right around the time of the 1993 [Oslo] accord with the film Schindler’s List and the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Another was the dramatic increase of Israeli influences on the religious practices of American Jews, whether directly from Israelis themselves or through the intensely Zionist-oriented Jewish summer camps, which defined the exposure of whole generations to Judaism.
Smart. Ross also has a fine historical analysis of the Israel lobby up at the History New Network tonight. More smarts. Here are two excerpts, on the rise and (predicted) fall of the American Zionist Jewish establishment. Rise:
When the Eisenhower administration came to office in 1953, it looked on the [anti-Zionist] American Council for Judaism as a valuable ally. Officials hoped that Israel could be recognized by the Arab states within the 1949 armistice lines in exchange for a reasonable settlement of the refugee problem and that Israel could become, in the words of John Foster Dulles, “a part of the Middle East community and cease looking upon itself as alien to that community.” In practice, this meant that Israel would have become integrated into a regional anti-Communist bloc that came into a brief dubious existence as the Baghdad Pact. The American Council for Judaism also closely collaborated with the CIA-backed American Friends of the Middle East. But the Israel lobby, in its early gestations, protested these policies vigorously.The turning point in the history of an American Jewish establishment came in 1958, when the very thing feared by its opponents from the outset came to pass. The Eisenhower Administration, bowing to the premise that Zionists spoke for all American Jewry, requested the merger of the the governing bureaucracy of the various Jewish organizations to represent the American Jewish community as Zionists. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was formed, taking over the functions of the NCRAC [National Community Relations Advisory Council]. If the status of the Conference of Presidents as an ecumenical body should strike the casual observer as absurd, it was taken with absolute seriousness by its leaders. The leader of AIPAC in this era, Philip Bernstein, would describe the [anti-Zionist] American Council for Judaism in all necessary statements as having arisen to oppose “the united program of the American Jewish community adopted in 1943,” as though this carried something like the force of law….
[T]he most fateful factor [in the dissolution of that establishment] has been the alliance of the American Jewish establishment with the neoconservatives. It has been said that with friends like the neocons, Israel does not need enemies, and this is if anything even more true of the American Jewish establishment. Norman Podhoretz wrote frankly in his memoir Breaking Ranks that the opposition of the emerging neoconservatives to George McGovern was motivated in great measure by a concern that a less militarist America would be bad for Israel, and this was repeated at the time by many of his colleagues such as Irving Kristol and John Roche.
In neocon polemics against their political near-neighbors who remained on the left in the 1970s and 80s, we can see the origins of their present unmitigated hysteria toward progressive Zionists such as J Street and Peter Beinart. As early as this period, any suggestion by critics on the left that they cared more deeply about Israel and for that reason wanted it to make the necessary sacrifices to survive as a Jewish state touched a very raw nerve for the neocons. The great irony, however, is that the deep commitment to Israel and to Zionist first principles by the democratic left of this era, reflected in the present day by J Street, may have been the very thing that ensured the marriage of the American Jewish establishment and the neoconservatives. This commitment to Israel was not the only factor, but a critical factor, in the failure of principled non-interventionism to take hold on the left in the aftermath of Vietnam, thereby pulling American politics to the point where by the 1990s the left-most reach of political respectability was the Democratic Leadership Council.
In short, the American Jewish establishment based so much of its program on the assumption that this would be the case indefinitely, and a generation later it is paying dearly for it. The American Jewish establishment may still have all the friends it needs and more in the Democratic Party, but American liberalism has changed profoundly since the 1990s, to say nothing of the 1970s. The writer Irving Howe, who came to bitterly regret his alliance with the neoconservatives in his final years, gave a speech in 1989 foreseeing that “because the religion of most American Jews is not serious, it has become almost totally defined by Israel, and a major crisis will erupt as Israel’s actions become less and less defensible.”
Oh and here’s the party:
Sunday, June 19
315 Columbia Street