The rise and fall and vindication of Jewish anti-Zionism

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Editor: Jack Ross’s new biography of the anti-Zionist rabbi Elmer Berger, Rabbi Outcast, performs two hugely-important tasks: It painstakingly recovers a noble tradition of anti-Zionist thought inside American Jewish life that few of us know anything about, and it situates that tradition religiously, as a fulfillment of prophetic Judaism, a mode that Ross himself adopts in predicting the near-times collapse of the Israel lobby. We’ll be running a review of the book soon. Meantime, Ross is flogging his book, and here is the “stump speech” that he will be taking to bookstores, shuls, bookfairs, you name it, in the coming weeks.

What do American Jews believe? This is the question that set me on the path to write this book. Old clichés speak of two Jews having three opinions, and stereotype has it that American Jews are among the most avowedly secular of all Americans. Yet beneath the surface, probably a majority of American Jews do believe, in Maimonides’ phrase, with a perfect faith in something called “Jewish peoplehood”, really a more benign term for Jewish nationalism or Zionism. A sacred story has emerged equal to if not greater than any biblical narrative, of the exile culminating in the Holocaust followed by literal redemption in the founding of the State of Israel. It was Will Herberg, the earliest and most thorough interpreter of Martin Buber, who first compared this to the doctrine of Charles Maurras, the French fascist intellectual who called for an avowedly atheist Catholic traditionalism.

It is not only American Jews who are enrapt to this set of beliefs. For the sacred story of Jewish nationalism is also the sacred story of American nationalism. The State of Israel is, to America, the ultimate symbol of itself as a force for good in the world, representing the salvation of the Jews as the heroic outcome of the Second World War, the founding myth of the American empire. Having come of age in the wake of the September 11 attacks and all they wrought, the question nagged at me for years – can one have an affirmative American Jewish identity while being unambiguously on the side of peace and non-intervention?

Thus was the discovery of the history of Reform Jewish anti-Zionism a revelation. As the definitive statement of belief by the founders of the American Reform movement put it – “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore, expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any laws concerning the Jewish state.” Just before his death in 1900, the father of American Reform Judaism, Isaac Mayer Wise, denounced the nascent Zionist movement as “a prostitution of Israel’s holy cause to a madman’s dance of unsound politicians” – a more perfect description of the modern Israel lobby there never could be.

Zionists began to make their presence known in the Reform rabbinate by the 1920s, after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration by America’s wartime ally made the establishment of a Jewish state official policy for the western democracies. The changing politics of American Jewish identity were therefore inextricably linked to America’s rise as a world power.

At the same time, Reform Zionists such as Stephen Wise were pushing for the establishment of an official governing body of American Jewry. This was looked upon by Classical Reform with horror, seeing in it the rabbinical despotism backed up by princes of the old order which Reform Judaism had been founded in rebellion against.

The American Council for Judaism was founded over several months in 1942, after several Reform rabbis dissented from their movement’s endorsement of the Zionist scheme to raise an army of “Palestinian and stateless Jews” to be granted the status of the Free French and Belgian forces. The following year, there was held an elaborate “American Jewish Conference” that codified the existence of an “official” Jewish community constitutionally committed to Zionism. It was in response to this that the American Council for Judaism released its official platform, with its vision for a future Middle East that should be heeded now more than ever – “a democratic government in which our fellow Jews shall be free Palestinians whose religion is Judaism, even as we are Americans whose religion is Judaism.”

Elmer Berger, the ostensible subject of my book, was hired as the Executive Director of the American Council for Judaism upon its founding, having spent the preceding decade as a humble congregational rabbi in Michigan. He had been mentored by his boyhood rabbi, Louis Wolsey, who had been the driving force behind the founding of the ACJ. Berger initially became opposed to Zionism after being put off to the aggressiveness and duplicity of the major Zionist fundraising apparatus, the United Jewish Appeal, which beginning in the late 1930s came to completely dominate all American Jewish philanthropy and direct it toward a Zionist agenda. It was also the heavy-handedness of the UJA which produced the most important lay leader of the American Council for Judaism, the philanthropist Lessing Rosenwald.

Before there was AIPAC, there was the United Jewish Appeal, established when the older United Palestine Appeal was able, in the panic of the onset of the Second World War, to absorb into itself the philanthropic arm of the American Jewish Committee, known as the Joint Distribution Committee. After the founding of the State of Israel, the ACJ soldiered on in great measure because the UJA would not separate its Zionist funds from general philanthropic funds. Not only did this arrangement facilitate the complete Zionist takeover of all Jewish organizational life in America, confirming the ACJ’s worst fears, but for a whole generation after the founding of the State of Israel, a religious devotion to fulfilling the quotas of the UJA was rigorously enforced.

A viewer of the modern sensibility could be forgiven for mistaking this phenomenon for the transparent money-making rituals of certain religious cults. Indeed, in 1956, when the Reform movement finally issued what effectively amounted to a herem or writ of excommunication against the ACJ, the first and foremost charge listed was “impairing the vital work of the United Jewish Appeal in a time of dire emergency.” Earlier banishments had occurred even before the founding of the State of Israel, when the ACJ, led by Lessing Rosenwald, insisted that the idea that the Jews had to be settled into a state of their own after World War II was an insult to all the war had been fought to achieve. The successor to the American Jewish Conference, the National Community Relations Advisory Council and today the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, issued its herem in 1950 after Rosenwald and the ACJ had spoken out for the Palestinian refugees.

Even before the end of World War II, Elmer Berger was the face of the ACJ and all it represented in the Zionist imagination. Though all but forgotten today, there was a time when the very mention of his name could be expected to elicit hysteria. Berger was not the most intellectually impressive of his anti-Zionist colleagues, nor the most charismatic or accessible. A three-times-married heavy smoker and drinker, and reluctant to enter the limelight, he was not a natural candidate for the mantle of prophet. What made Elmer Berger stand out was the simple moral force of his speaking the truth as he saw it, consequences be damned. The title he gave to a published book of his travel letters from the Middle East in 1955 says it all – “who knows better must say so.”

Yet, it must be said, in his preferred policy prescriptions for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elmer Berger was remarkably moderate. His views essentially remained throughout his life those which had been the official policies he even personally had a hand in helping craft during the early years of the Eisenhower Administration. This was simply that Israel offer a reasonable settlement of the refugee problem in exchange for Arab recognition within the borders of the 1949 armistice, and that Israel become integrated into an anticommunist regional bloc anchored in Saudi Arabia. In fact, one of Berger’s closest friends in the U.S. government was Kermit Roosevelt, who achieved certain infamy in recent years as the CIA architect of the restoration of the Shah of Iran in 1953. These policies thus bear at least as much responsibility as Israel for the crisis which began with the September 11 attacks. 

The true heresy of Elmer Berger was his rejection of Zionism’s first principles, that is, that the essence of Judaism should be the political imperatives of a transnational entity called “the Jewish people”. As American Jewish life became dominated in the postwar era by institutions committed to putting that principle into practice, Berger and his colleagues became objects of unmitigated hysteria in the Zionist imagination because, believing as it does in an idealized “Jewish collective”, any individual Jewish opposition to that collective is viewed as a mortal threat. The legacy of this pathology in the controversies roiling American Jewry today is unmistakable. While the hysteria of the American Jewish establishment is most often directed toward those such as J Street, who believe in and desperately want to save Zionism and the “Jewish collective”, the greater number of progressive rabbis and Jewish youth are joining groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which seriously question, if not flatly reject, the first principles of Zionism and the American Jewish establishment.

For history has rarely presented such an unambiguous example of prophetic dissenters who were viciously attacked and reviled in their time, only to be completely vindicated in their warnings a generation after they passed away, as Elmer Berger and his colleagues in the American Council for Judaism. Few now deny that at the heart of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the twin crisis of American Jewry is the persistent belief, with a perfect faith, in “Jewish peoplehood”, brilliantly described by the late Tony Judt as “a characteristically late-19th century separatist project in a world that has moved on.” Indeed, this is self-evident in the increasingly erratic demand of the current Israeli government, that both the Palestinians and the world at large recognize it as “the national home of the Jewish people”, and that the threat to “the world” of such countries as Iran be viewed through this prism.

An extraordinary series of events over the last decade has served to vindicate the life’s work of Elmer Berger, but perhaps none stands out more than the publication in 2009 of Shlomo Sand’s groundbreaking work The Invention of the Jewish People. Comprehensively deconstructing Jewish nationalism with both contemporary theories of nationalism and sources with which Berger would have been very much familiar, it is probably a book that Berger himself wished he had written at the end of his life. Yet it may also be a book that shows the way forward. Before he was seized by the controversy of Zionism, the great youthful aspiration of Elmer Berger had been to use the sources on antiquity cited by Sand to prove the empirical validity of the anti-nationalist narrative of Judaism which the Classical Reform movement had trained him in. 

Berger would have been stunned enough to see there has yet emerged at this late hour a progressive alternative of Jewish religion to that of the American Jewish establishment. To continue building this alternative with the knowledge of history provided by Sand, and its corollary in American Jewish history I hope to have provided with my humble book, is the most fitting tribute that can be paid to the legacy of Elmer Berger and the American Council for Judaism.

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