This year marks the 75th anniversary of the American Council for Judaism. Since 1942, the Council has advanced the philosophy of Judaism as a religion of universal values, not a nationality, and has maintained that Americans of Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion — just as other Americans are Protestants, Catholics or Muslims. It has challenged the Zionist philosophy which holds that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews, and that Jews living outside of Israel are in “exile.” In doing so, it has contended that its philosophy represents the thinking of the majority of American Jews, a largely silent — but in recent days, increasingly vocal —majority, which is not represented by the organizations which presume to speak in their name. Clearly, the homeland of American Jews is the United States.
The Council’s philosophy is much older than the 75 years in which the organization has been in existence. In 1841, at the dedication of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared: “This country is our Palestine, this city is our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.”
In November 1885, a group of Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and wrote an eight-point platform that one participant called “the most succinct expression of the theology of the Reform movement that had ever been published in the world.” The platform emphasized that Reform Judaism rejected the idea of Jewish “peoplehood” and nationalism in any variety. It stated: “We recognize in the era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching realization of Israel’s Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. 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 of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”
Critical Response to Zionism
When Theodor Herzl called for the creation of a Jewish state at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in August 1897, the response of Jewish leaders in both Europe and the U.S. was sharply critical. The chief rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, denounced the mirage of Jewish nationalism. Belief in One God was the unifying factor for Jews, he declared, and Zionism was incompatible with Judaism’s teachings. The Jewish Chronicle of London judged the Zionist scheme’s lack of religious perspective to render it “cold and comparatively uninviting.” The executive of the association of German rabbis denounced the “efforts of the so-called Zionists to create a Jewish National State in Palestine” as contrary to the “prophetic message of Judaism and the duty of every Jew to belong without reservation to the fatherland in which he lives.”
Adolf Jellinek, who became known as the greatest Jewish preacher of his age and a standard bearer of Jewish liberalism from his position as rabbi at the Leopoldstadt Temple in Vienna, deplored the creation of what he called a “small state like Serbia or Romania outside Europe, which would most likely become the plaything of one Great Power against another, and whose future would be very uncertain.”
For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their belief in a universal Judaism. The first Reform prayer book eliminated references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel and who would rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. The prayerbook removed all prayers for a return to Zion.
The most articulate spokesman for the German Reform movement, the distinguished rabbi and author Abraham Geiger, argued that Judaism developed through an evolutionary process that had begun with God’s revelation to the Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive; new truth became available to every generation. The underlying and unchangeable essence of Judaism was its morality. The core of Judaism was ethical monotheism. The Jewish people were a religious community destined to carry on the mission to “serve as a light to the nations,” to bear witness to God and His moral law. The dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, but part of God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical monotheism.
“America Is Our Zion”
In 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution disapproving of any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution stated: “Zion was a precious possession of the past … as such it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope for the future. America is our Zion.” In 1904, The American Israelite, edited by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader of American Reform Judaism in the 19th century, declared: “There is not one solitary prominent native Jewish American who is an advocate of Zionism.”
In 1919, in response to Britain’s Balfour Declaration calling for a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine, a petition was presented to President Woodrow Wilson entitled “A Statement to the Peace Conference.” It reflected the dominant American Jewish view on Zionism and Palestine. The petition criticized Zionist efforts to segregate Jews “as a political unit … in Palestine or elsewhere,” and underlined the principle of equal rights for all citizens of any state “irrespective of creed or ethnic descent.” It rejected Jewish nationalism as a general concept and held against the founding of any state upon the basis of religion and/or race. The petition asserted that the “overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America, England, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and the other lands of freedom have no thought whatever of surrendering their citizenship in those lands in order to resort to a
‘Jewish homeland in Palestine.’”
Among those signing this petition were Rep. Julius Khan of California, Henry Morganthau, Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Simon W. Rosendale, former Attorney General of New York, Mayor L.H. Kempner of Galveston, Texas, E.M. Baker, president of the New York Stock Exchange, Jesse L. Straus of Macy’s, and New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs.
Orthodox Jewish Rejection of Zionism
It was not just Reform Jews who opposed Zionism, but Orthodox Jews as well. Indeed, prior to the mid-20th century, the overwhelming majority of all Jews rejected the philosophy of Jewish nationalism. In 1929, Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamarat wrote that the very notion of a sovereign Jewish state as a spiritual center was “a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.” He noted that, “Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which may be localized or situated in a single territory. Neither is Judaism a ‘nationality,’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the three-foldedness of ‘homeland, army and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah, ethics and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah, ‘Its measure is greater than the earth.’”
In his book, What Is Modern Israel?, Professor Yakov Rabkin of the University of Montreal, an Orthodox Jew, shows that Zionism was conceived as a clear break with Judaism and the Jewish religious tradition. In his view, it must be seen in the context of European ethnic nationalism, colonial expansion and geopolitical interests rather than as an incarnation of Biblical prophecies or a culmination of Jewish history. The religious idea of a Jewish return to Palestine had nothing to do with the political enterprise of Zionism. “Jewish tradition,” writes Rabkin, “holds that the idea of return must be part of a messianic project rather than the human initiative of migration to the Holy Land. …There was little room for Jewish tradition in the Zionist scheme … It is not the physical geography of the Biblical land of Israel which is essential for Jews but the obligation to follow the commandments of the Torah.”
To the question of whether Jews constitute “a people,” Yeshayahua Leibowitz, the Orthodox Jewish thinker and Hebrew University professor, provides this assessment: “The historical Jewish people was defined neither as a race, nor a people of this country or that, nor as a people that speaks the same language, but as the people of Torah Judaism and its commandments … The words spoken by Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942) more than a thousand years ago: ‘Our nation exists only within the Torah’ have not only a normative but also an empirical meaning. They testified to a historical reality whose power could be felt up until the 19th century. It was then that the fracture, which has not ceased to widen with time, first occurred: the fissure between Jewishness and Judaism.”
Turning Away from Jewish Tradition
The early Zionists not only turned away from the Jewish religious tradition but, in their regard for the indigenous population of Palestine, Jewish moral and ethical values as well. In his book, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State, the French Jewish historian Maxime Rodinson writes that, “Wanting to create a purely Jewish or predominantly Jewish state in Arab Palestine in the 20th century could not help but lead to a colonial-type situation and the development of a racist state of mind, and in the final analysis, to a military confrontation.” Theodor Herzl was himself an atheist. The state he proposed, he wrote, “should there (the Middle East) form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” Embracing 19th century European colonialism as a model, Max Nordau, who became Herzl’s second in command, declared: “We will endeavor to do for the Near East what the English did in India. It is our intention to come to Palestine as the representatives of culture and to take the moral borders of Europe to the Euphrates.”
The immediate difficulty for the Zionists in the late 19th century was the “Arab problem” in Palestine, with an indigenous population 92 percent Arab. Israeli historian Benny Morris shows that the early Zionists understood that the establishment of a Jewish state would require the removal of these Palestinian Arabs. The idea of removal, he writes, “goes back to the fathers of modern Zionism.” In his diaries in 1895, Herzl wrote of the need to “spirit the penniless (Arab) population” across the border to Arab countries. According to Morris, the Zionist settlers referred to Palestinians as “mules” and “behaved like lords and masters, some apparently resorting to the whip at the slightest provocation …” The Russian Jewish writer and philosopher Ahad Ha’am wrote in 1891 that the settlers “behaved toward the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their boundaries, beat them shamefully without reason and brag about it.” Ha’am surmised that aggressive settler attitudes stemmed from anger “toward those who reminded them that there is still another people in the land of Israel that have been living there and don’t intend to leave.” Moshe Sharett, a future prime minister, acknowledged that, “We have come to conquer a country from a people inhabiting it … the land must be ours alone.”
Ahad Ha’am was hardly alone in voicing misgivings about the emerging Zionist enterprise. In an article published in Ha-Shiloah in 1907, Yitzhak Epstein, a Russian born teacher who had settled in Palestine in 1886, voiced an anxiety that was brushed aside by Zionist contemporaries but came back to haunt. He wrote: “Among the questions raised by the concept of our people’s renaissance on its own soil, there is one which is more weighty than all the others put together. This is the question of our relations with the Arabs. This question, on the correct solution of which our national aspirations depend, must not be forgotten. Rather, it has remained completely hidden from the Zionists, and its true form found almost no mention in the literature of our movement. While we harbor fierce sentiments towards the land, we forget that the nation now living there is also endowed with a sensitive heart and a loving soul. The Arab, like all other men, is strongly attached to his homeland.”
Forgetting There Were Arabs in the Country
Yosef Luria, a Romanian-born journalist and teacher who settled in Palestine in 1907, wrote in Ha-Olem in 1911: “During all the years of our labor in Palestine we completely forget that there were Arabs in the country. The Arabs have been ‘discovered’ only during the past few years. We regarded all European nations as opponents of our settlement, but failed to pay heed to one people — the people residing in this country and attached to it.”
In the wake of growing anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, many Jews began to look positively upon the idea of creating a Jewish state in Palestine as a refuge for those being persecuted. Jewish organizations in the U.S. which had always opposed Zionism, slowly began to view it more favorably. In February 1942, a resolution was adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform rabbinical group, which reversed Reform Jewish philosophy by calling for a “Jewish army” in Palestine, a direct violation of its 1935 resolution calling for “neutrality” when it came to the question of Zionism and Palestine. This was viewed by those who maintained the traditional position of Reform Judaism as an endorsement of Zionism and a rejection of its commitment to universal prophetic Judaism and its replacement by nationalism.
The American Council for Judaism was created in 1942 to maintain the philosophy of a universal Judaism free of nationalism and politicization. In his keynote address to the June 1942 meeting in Atlantic City, Rabbi David Philipson declared that Reform Judaism and Zionism were incompatible: “Reform Judaism is spiritual, Zionism is political. The outlook of Reform Judaism is the world. The outlook of Zionism is a corner of Eastern Asia.” The first pledge of major financial backing was made by Aaron Strauss, a nephew and heir of Levi Strauss of blue jeans fame.
Zionist Nationalism Similar to Other Forms of Nationalism
An early leader of the Council, Rabbi Morris Lazaron, who served from 1915 to 1946 as rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, was originally a supporter of cultural Zionism, but later altered his views. Slowly, he discovered that Zionist nationalism was not different from other forms of nationalism: “The Jewish nationalist philosophy of separateness as a people who would always and inevitably be rejected because they were Jews boldly asserted itself. The idea seems to have been to break down the self- confidence and opposition to Jewish political nationalism … Behind the mask of Jewish sentiment, one can see the specter of the foul thing which moves Germany and Italy. Behind the camouflage of its unquestioned appeal to Jewish feeling, one can hear a chorus of ‘Heil.’ This is not for Jews — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.”
Speaking at the January 1937 annual meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New Orleans, Lazaron declared: “Judaism cannot accept as the instrument of its salvation the very philosophy of nationalism which is leading the world to destruction. Shall we condemn it as Italian or German, but accept it as Jewish?”
Rabbis who joined the Council led some of the nation’s leading congregations. Among them were Samuel Goldenson of New York, Irving Reichart of San Francisco, David Marx of Atlanta, Edward Calisch of Richmond, Henry Cohen of Galveston, Samuel Koch of Seattle, and Julian Feibelman of New Orleans. The Council also recruited many nationally prominent laypersons, including Judge Marcus Sloss of the California Supreme Court, Herbert and Stanley Marcus of the Nieman-Marcus Company in Dallas, Admiral Lewis L. Strauss and Alfred M. Cohen, president of B’nai B’rith. The first president of the Council was Lessing J. Rosenwald, who had retired as chairman of Sears Roebuck and Co., which was founded by his father, the respected philanthropist Julian Rosenwald who, among many other things, worked with Booker T. Washington to build schools for black children in the South after the Civil War.
Rabbi Reichart made his first significant declaration of his opposition to Zionism in a January 1936 sermon: “If my reading of Jewish history is correct, Israel took upon itself the yoke of the Law not in Palestine, but in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai and by far the greater part of its deathless and distinguished contribution to world culture was produced not in Palestine but in Babylon and the lands of the Dispersion. Jewish states may rise and fall, as they have risen and fallen in the past, but the people of Israel will continue to minister at the altar of the Most High God in all the lands in which they dwell … There is too dangerous a parallel between the insistence of some Zionist spokesmen upon nationality and race and blood, and similar pronouncements by Fascist leaders in Europe.”
The Racial Philosophy of Hitler
In a sermon he gave on May 28, 1939, Rabbi Goldenson on New York’s Temple Emanu-El declared that the establishment of a single organization to promote Zionist aims in the name of all Jews, as was advocated by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and his new World Jewish Congress, “is an indirect acceptance to the racial philosophy of the Hitler regime. It seems to give notice to the rest of the world that in the promotion of our interests and in defense of our rights, we as American citizens cannot be effective enough through availing ourselves of the agencies of our government, but that we must have our own national organization so that our leaders may speak for us as a single unit. This endeavor separates us at one stroke from the rest of the population on the single ground that we are Jews … As long as the Jew feels he has a heritage worth cherishing, a heritage informed with the spirit of his lawgivers, prophets, psalmists and sages, and that through this heritage he can realize the best in himself and make significant contributions to the moral and spiritual life of mankind, he can feel personally justified to carry on and can claim the right to remain a Jew in any society. The moment he gives up these convictions, he abandons his special reason for existence and his warrant to survive as a member of a separate group. Thereafter, every claim that he makes in behalf of Jewish life and Jewish identity becomes less and less intelligible to others and loses force in their minds.”
The Council was incorporated in December 1942 and Rabbi Elmer Berger was named executive director. Judah Magnes, chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote a letter endorsing the Council’s statement of principles: “It is true that Jewish nationalism tends to confuse people not because it is secular and not religious, but because this nationalism is unhappily chauvinistic and narrow and terroristic in the best style of Eastern European nationalism.”
The full text of the Council’s statement of principles was included in a feature article in The New York Times. It read, in part: “… the Prophets placed God and the moral law above land, race, nation, royal prerogatives and political arrangements. Now, as then, we cherish the same religious values which emphasize the dignity of man and the obligations to deal justly with man no matter what his status. Palestine is part of Israel’s religious heritage, as it is part of the heritage of two other religions of the world. We look forward to the ultimate establishment of a democratic, autonomous government in Palestine, wherein Jews, Muslims and Christians shall be justly represented, every man enjoying equal responsibilities, 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.”
“We Have Belonged to Every Nation”
In 1943, Elmer Berger participated in a public debate in Richmond, Virginia with Maurice Samuel, who had published an article attacking the Council at its formation. Berger stated the fundamental position he would champion throughout his life: “I oppose Zionism because I deny that Jews are a nation. We were a nation for perhaps 200 years in a history of four thousand years. Before that we were a group of Semitic tribes whose only tenuous bond of unity was a national deity — a religious unity. After Solomon, we were never better than two nations, frequently at war with one another, disappearing at different times, leaving discernibly different cultures and even religions recorded in the Biblical record. Certainly, since the Dispersion, we have not been a nation. We have belonged to every nation in the world. We have mixed our blood with all peoples. Jewish nationalism is a fabrication woven from the thinnest kinds of threads and strengthened only in those eras of human history in which reaction has been dominant and anti-Semitism in full cry.”
On Dec. 4, 1945, hours after the first meeting with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, President Harry S. Truman received Lessing Rosenwald in the Oval Office. Stressing that he could speak only for members of the ACJ, and that no one could speak for all American Jews, Rosenwald asked the president for the opportunity for members of the Council to testify before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and called for the admission of both Jewish and non-Jewish displaced persons to Palestine. He urged that, “Palestine shall not be a Muslim, Christian or a Jewish state but a country in which people of all faiths can play their full and equal part,” and that the U.S. take the lead in coordinating with the U.N. a cooperative policy of many nations in absorbing Jewish refugees.
Rosenwald testified before the Committee of Inquiry on Jan. 10, 1946 and urged that large numbers of Jews be admitted into Palestine on the condition that “the claim that Jews possess unlimited national rights to the land, and that the country shall take the form of a racial or theocratic state, were renounced once and for all.”
From 1943 to 1948, the Council conducted a public campaign against Zionism. One of the speakers at its 1945 conference was Hans Kohn, a one-time German Zionist associated with the University in Exile in New York. He declared: “The Jewish nationalist philosophy has developed entirely under German influence, the German romantic nationalism with the emphasis on blood, race, and descent as the most determining factor in human life, its historicizing attempt to connect with a legendary past 2,000 or so years ago, its emphasis on folk as a mythical body, the source of civilization.”
Resist Zionist Efforts to Dominate Jewish Life
In the face of the 1947 partition of Palestine, the Council wished the new state well and declared its determination to resist Zionist efforts to dominate Jewish life in America. Rabbi Berger published an extended essay that outlined “the challenge to all Americans who are Jews by religion presented by Zionist plans to foster an ‘Israel-centered’ Jewish life in the U.S.” He wrote: “The creation of a sovereign state embodying the principles of Zionism far from relieving American Jews of the urgency of making that choice, makes it more compelling.”
Many non-Jewish leaders found the Council’s views compelling and worked together with Council leaders to advance them. Among these were Barnard College President Virginia Gildersleeve, journalist Dorothy Thompson, a fierce opponent of Nazism who exposed Hitler early in his career, the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, and socialist leader Norman Thomas. Thomas praised the ACJ as early as 1949 in a syndicated column on the Arab refugee crisis and spoke frequently at Council functions. Many years later, after Thomas’s death, Elmer Berger would recall, “I needed him, for our basic agreement about the Middle East and Palestine reassured me in the many moments of self-doubt, not of our fundamental principles, but of my continuing ability to see those principles in the broad vision of a world which we hoped, somehow, to leave a little better than we found it.”
Early in 1953, Berger and Rosenwald met at the White House with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president accepted their memorandum, which discussed the “confusion of Judaism with the nationalism of Israel,” such as Israel’s “Law of Return,” enacted in 1951, which could be interpreted as granting de facto Israeli citizenship to all the world’s Jews. The new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, took the memorandum with him on his first trip to the Middle East and echoed many of its points in a radio address at the end of the trip. Dulles urged that Israel “become part of the Near East community and cease to look upon itself as alien to that community.”
Religious Schools for Children
The Council ran religious schools, published children’s textbooks and established a philanthropic fund. Among the books it published were Samuel Baron’s Children’s Devotions, Abraham Cronbach’s Judaism for Today, and Not by Power, by Allan Tarshish, who was rabbi at the first Reform congregation in America in Charleston, South Carolina. Rabbi David Goldberg, who served as the first Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Navy during World War l, was the Council’s research director. He wrote three books, Meet the Prophets, Stories About Judaism, and Holidays for American Judaism. For a number of years, the Council published a children’s magazine called Growing Up. The curriculum was designed by Leonard R, Sussman, who served for many years as the Council’s executive director and later distinguished himself as the executive director of Freedom House.
While it opposed the creation of a Jewish state, the Council called for Jewish immigration to Palestine under the British Mandate to ease the post-World War ll refugee crisis in Europe. When the State of Israel was established, the Council made clear that, “Nationality and religion are separate and distinct. Our nationality is American. Our religion is Judaism. Our homeland is the United States of America.”
In his important biography of Rabbi Elmer Berger, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, Jack Ross shows how Berger worked closely with U.S. Government officials to oppose any idea that Israel could speak in the name of the “Jewish people,” rather than its own citizens. He also worked with, among others, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to have Zionist groups register as foreign agents of Israel. He wrote and spoke frequently about the plight of Palestinian refugees.
Rejecting Legal Status of “the Jewish People”
One of Berger’s goals was for the U.S. Government to issue a formal declaration as to whether it accepted the claim of Israel to represent an entity called “the Jewish People.” When it captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina, Israel had claimed to be acting in the name of “the Jewish people.” On April 20, 1964, Assistant Secretary of State Philips Talbot formally replied in what Berger considered as a victory for the Council’s position. Talbot wrote: “The Department of State recognizes the State of Israel as a sovereign state and citizenship in the State of Israel. It recognizes no other sovereignty or citizenship in connection there with. It does not recognize a legal-political relationship based upon the religious identification of American citizens. It does not in any way discriminate among American citizens upon the basis of their religion. Accordingly, it should be clear that the Department of State does not regard the ‘Jewish people’ concept as a concept of international law.”
Rabbi Berger believed in Classical Reform Judaism which Ross explains as involving, “The centrality of the biblical prophets. That is that the essence of Judaism is not in the ‘national narrative’ that ostensibly constitutes the Old Testament but rather in the example of those, namely the prophets, who spoke out against the Kings and priests who corrupted the nation and the people. It has been said by many that there is no greater power in all of human literature than the warning of the Prophet Samuel against the Israelites’ desire for a king. Implicit in all of this is the overarching premise that the downfall of Biblical Israel was its eagerness to define itself as a temporal kingdom — in other words, a state, with all its trappings of power.”
In today’s America, in Ross’s view, the majority of American Jews really share the philosophy enunciated by Berger and the Council: “… the majority of American Jews today would be completely baffled by the suggestion that they were anything but completely emancipated and integrated Americans whose Judaism is primarily if not solely a matter of confession … Berger … must be given credit for recognizing the underlying essential sociological truth of American Jewish life — that regardless of the theological and even sociological merits of the question of Jewish peoplehood, the concept could not withstand the reality of U.S. society.”
Keeping Faith with Prophetic Judaism
During a dark period, Ross believes, Berger and his colleagues kept faith with a prophetic Judaism of universal moral and ethical values. He writes that, “When we consider the fallen nature of mankind, the record of the Jews remains by far among the better in existence for persistently serving as an example of justice and righteousness. Under the same appalling circumstances of the 20th century, it is indeed difficult to imagine any other group producing such extraordinary men of conscience as Elmer Berger, Lessing Rosenwald, Uri Avnery … to name but a few. Like the Prophets of old, their example remains for the time when the world finally begins to retreat from barbarism and looks to those who warned against the madness in seeking how it might do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
In his history of the early years of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), Jews Against Zionism (Temple University Press), Professor Thomas A. Kolsky pointed to the fact that the Council was maintaining the tradition of Reform Judaism’s founders. The warnings which the ACJ expressed during its early years, he concluded, have been prophetic: “… many of its predictions about the establishment of a Jewish state did come true. As the ACJ had foreseen, the birth of the state created numerous problems — problems the Zionists had minimized. For example, Israel became highly dependent on support from American Jews. Moreover, the creation of the state directly contributed to undermining Jewish communities in Arab countries and to precipitating a protracted conflict between Israel and the Arabs. Indeed, as the Council had often warned and contrary to Zionist expectations, Israel did not become a normal state. Nor did it become a light to the nations. Ironically, created presumably to free Jews from anti-Semitism and ghetto-like existence as well as to provide them with abiding peace, Israel became, in effect, a garrison state, a nation resembling a large territorial ghetto besieged by hostile neighbors … The ominous predictions of the ACJ are still haunting the Zionists.”
Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University historian and author of the book American Judaism, says that, “Everything they (the American Council for Judaism) prophesied — dual loyalty, nationalism being evil — has come to pass.” He states that, “It’s certainly the case that if the Holocaust underscored the problems of Jewish life in the Diaspora, recent years have highlighted the point that Zionism is no panacea.”
Samuel Freedman devoted his “On Religion” column in The New York Times (June 26, 2010) to the ACJ. He notes that, “While the establishment of Israel and its centrality to American Jews consigned the Council to irrelevancy for decades, the intense criticism of Israel now growing among a number of American Jews has made..(the) group look significant, even prophetic … The arguments that the Council has levied against Zionism and Israel have shot back into prominence … The rejection of Zionism … goes back to the Torah itself. Until Theodor Herzl created the modern Zionist movement … the Biblical injunction to return to Israel was widely understood as a theological construct rather than a pragmatic instruction … The Reform movement maintained that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality.”
Corrupted and Politicized
It has become increasingly clear that Judaism as a religion has become increasingly corrupted and politicized. Jewish religious bodies, ranging from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform have embraced the notion that the State of Israel — not God — is, somehow, central to Judaism. In its 1999 Statement of Principles, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) went so far as to declare that, “We affirm the unique qualities of living in the land of Israel and we encourage aliyah (immigration to Israel).”
From Israeli flags in synagogues to “Birthright Israel” trips sending young people on free visits to Israel to a host of Jewish organizations focused on influencing U.S. Middle East policy — the center of attention within the organized American Jewish community has not been the traditional commitment to God but something far different. This has become a form of idolatry, making Israel a virtual object of worship, much like the golden calf in the Bible. It should be no surprise that more and more American Jews, particularly young people, are increasingly alienated from this enterprise.
A study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen found that among American Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the one before. Among American Jews born after 1980, only 54% feel “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” The reason, Cohen explained, is an aversion to “hard group boundaries” and to the notion that “there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else.” Other polls show that among younger non-Orthodox Jews, only 30% think that “caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.”
In his book Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel, Professor Dov Waxman of Northeastern University reports that “A historic change has been taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel. The age of unquestioning and unstinting support for Israel is over. The pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews is eroding, and Israel is fast becoming a source of division rather than unity for American Jewry … A new era of American Jewish conflict over Israel is replacing the old era of solidarity … Israel used to bring American Jews together, now it is driving them apart.”
Division about Zionism Is Nothing New
Division about Zionism in the American Jewish community, Waxman points out, is nothing new. The current debate, he notes, “… echoes earlier debates about Zionism that occurred before 1948. Then, as now, there were fierce disagreements among American Jews and the American Jewish establishment … It was only after Israel’s founding that the communal consensus came to dominate American Jewish politics. Thus, from a historical perspective, the pro-Israel consensus that once reigned within the American Jewish community is the aberration, rather than the rule. Jewish division on Israel is historically the norm.”
In the years after Israel’s creation in 1948, the organized American Jewish community embraced it, with dissenters largely ostracized. But, Dov Waxman points out, the overwhelming majority of American Jews, while supporting Israel and wishing it well, were never really Zionists. He writes that, “Classical Zionism … has never had much relevance or appeal to American Jewry. Indeed, the vast majority of American Jews reject the basic elements of classical Zionism — that Diaspora Jews live in exile, that Jewish life in Israel is superior to life in the Diaspora, and that Diaspora Jewish life is doomed to eventually disappear. American Jews do not think that they live in exile and they do not regard Israel as their homeland … For many American Jews, America is more than just home; it is itself a kind of Zion, an ‘almost promised land.’ Zionism has never succeeded in winning over the majority of American Jews.”
By the 1980s, a host of liberal Jewish groups emerged such as New Jewish Agenda, Americans for Peace Now, Project Nishma and the Jewish Peace Lobby. More recently, groups such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have emerged, and have attracted much support. Established in 2008, J Street, by 2013, had around 180,000 registered supporters, 20,000 donors and over 45 local chapters. Jewish Voice for Peace was established in Berkeley, California in 1996. Expressing the view of established organizations which were slowly seeing themselves displaced, the Anti-Defamation League publicly listed JVP as one of “ten most influential anti-Israel groups in the U.S.” For many years the journal Tikkun edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, has been important advocate for Judaism’s commitment to universal moral and ethical values.
Jewish Establishment Is Not Representative
It is Waxman’s view that the American Jewish establishment “only represents a small segment of American Jewry, which is more right-wing and religious than the majority of American Jews. Most American Jews, especially younger ones, are largely, if not entirely, disconnected from the American Jewish establishment, and thus effectively disenfranchised … Social, cultural economic and technological changes within the Jewish community and the U.S. in general … threaten the very survival of the American Jewish establishment, and by extension, its ability to represent and collectively mobilize the Jewish community.”
How unrepresentative the organized Jewish community has become can be seen in the response to the U.N. Security Council’s resolution in December criticizing Israel’s policy of settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the decision by the Obama administration not to veto this resolution which was, in fact, a restatement of longstanding bipartisan U.S. policy. The U.N. Resolution was followed by an address in which Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Israeli government was undermining any hope of a two-state solution. “The status quo is leading toward one state and perpetual occupation,” said Kerry. “Some seem to believe that U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy, regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own principles — even after urging again and again that the policy must change. Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendship requires equal respect.”
Groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations immediately expressed outrage at both the U.N. Resolution, the U.S. decision not to veto it, and Secretary Kerry’s speech. Some went even further, Mortin Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, declared, “Obama has made it clear that he is a Jew-hating anti-Semite.” David Friedman, President Donald Trump’s recently named ambassador to Israel, compared J Street and other Jewish critics of Israel to “kapos,” Jews who assisted the Nazis at concentration camps during World War II.
Right Wing’s Loud Voice
In expressing such views and in embracing Israel’s policy of occupation and settlement building, such groups were hardly representing the thinking of most American Jews. Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College specializing in Jewish life, said that, “These days the right-wing has a louder voice in Israel, and, in some ways, it also has a louder voice in America, because the people who are most actively and publicly Jewish, sectarian Jewish, share the right-wing point of view, and are very pro-settlement. But it’s not the mainstream point of view.” Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College and a consultant to the recent Pew study of American Jews, said that Secretary Kerry’s speech represented the thinking of most American Jews: “On survey after survey, American Jews are opposed to Jewish settlement expansion. They tend to favor a two-state solution and their political orientations are liberal and moderate.”
Cohen reports that “serious donors” to Jewish organizations have started to balk at giving money to Israel. He cites his work with Jewish Federations, the largest Jewish charity organizations: “The issue of Israel is and will continue to be a major source of polarization and friction. I was having questions — what pulls our community apart? Is it Orthodox, secular, Reform, Haredim? And people say, that’s the number two issue. What’s number one? Number one is Israel. Recently, we’re seeing a lot of tension on Israel, we really have a hard time managing the Israel conversation. It’s like our donors are telling me, I’ll give you money as I have before … But not if you’re going to give it to Israel.”
The evidence of widespread disagreement with the positions taken by established Jewish organizations is overwhelming. Rabbi Henry Siegman, a former leader of the American Jewish Congress, declared: “Netanyahu’s ‘J’accuse’ against Obama is a concoction of lies and deceptions.” Rabbi John L. Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, California, chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, applauded Secretary Kerry’s speech and said that many American Jews were broadly supportive of the Obama administration’s position. “I felt Kerry was exactly right. The people who will criticize him and will take a leap and say he’s anti-Israel, just as some are saying Obama is an anti-Semite. This is ridiculous.” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights organization, says, “There’s a very clear values clash going on. On the one hand, we have a small but vocal minority of American Jews who believe that supporting Israel means supporting the right-wing agenda, the current government. And on the other, there is a larger percentage of American Jews who are committed to Israel and committed to democracy and want to see it as a safe place that reflects our values.”
A Lesser Evil Is Still Evil
After Prime Minister Netanyahu sharply criticized the U.N. for challenging Israel’s violations of human rights more than those of other countries and chastised President Obama and Secretary Kerry for permitting the U.N. Resolution to proceed, Peter Beinart, contributing editor to The Forward (Jan. 13, 2017), provided this assessment: “The Israeli leader illustrated George Orwell’s famous insight: The abuse of human beings begins with the abuse of language … The test of whether Israeli settlement policy deserves international condemnation is whether Israeli settlement policy is morally wrong, not whether other governments deserve condemnation more … The UN’s action or inaction on Syria doesn’t excuse Israeli settlement policy. A lesser evil is still evil. … In the West Bank, Israel is not the ‘one true democracy in the Middle East.’ It’s not a democracy because Palestinians — who comprise the vast majority of the West Bank inhabitants cannot vote for the government that controls their lives … Netanyahu never offered a map of the kind of Palestinian state he could accept. What he offers instead is rhetoric: cutesy Americanisms like ‘Friends don’t take friends to the Security Council.’”
Beinart concludes: “There are realities that public relations-lingo can’t obscure. By creating one law for Jewish settlers, who enjoy Israeli citizenship, free movement, due process and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and another for Palestinians, who live as non-citizens under military law, Israel in the West Bank has become a ‘brutal occupation force’ that is making the lives of millions unbearable.’ Those words come from Avraham Shalom and Carmi Gillon, two former heads of the Shin Bet. Their English isn’t as polished as Netanyahu’s. But as Orwell taught long ago, you don’t need fancy language when you’re speaking the truth.”
In Israel itself support was expressed for Secretary Kerry’s speech and the U.S. abstention on the U.N. resolution. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz had the headline, “A very Zionist, pro-Israel speech.” Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history and a former prime minister, warned, “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic. If the bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, this will be an apartheid state.” Just after the Kerry speech, Barak declared on Twitter, “Powerful, lucid … World and majority of Israelis think the same.” Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev pointed to a lack of gratitude on the part of the Israeli government toward the U.S., engaging in an attack upon President Obama shortly after the U.S. granted Israel $38 billion in military aid, an unprecedented sum. “The check barely even cleared,” said Shalev. “Ingratitude, Jewish sages teach us is the absolute worst of traits. ‘Whoever rewards evil for good … Evil will not depart from his house,’ as Proverbs puts it.”
Einstein Warned Against Narrow Nationalism
In light of recent events, it is important to remember the long history of Jewish opposition to chauvinistic nationalism. In 1938, alluding to Nazism, Albert Einstein warned an audience of Zionist activists against the temptation to create a state imbued with “a narrow nationalism within our own ranks against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state.” Another world-renowned German Jew, the philosopher Martin Buber, spoke out in 1942 against the “aim of the minority to ‘conquer’ territory by means of international maneuvers.” In the midst of hostilities that broke out after Israel unilaterally declared independence, Buber cited with despair, “This sort of ‘Zionism’ blasphemes the name of Zion; it is nothing more than one of the crude forms of nationalism.”
While Reform Judaism moved away from its traditional opposition to Zionism, Professor Yakov Rabkin points out that this older tradition of universal prophetic Judaism was kept alive by the American Council for Judaism: “Reform rabbis focused on the priority of religious identity and deplored its transformation into a national, even a racial, concept … Principled anti-Zionism has survived mainly in the American Council for Judaism … For Reform Judaism, Zionism is as much a departure from tradition as it is for Orthodox Judaism.”
As support for Zionism grew, its critics were treated harshly but, Rabkin argued, they have now come to be seen as prophetic: “Those who warned against the creation of a Zionist state saw their words treated with disdain, or at least with condescension. However, these same Jewish authors have proven to be prophetic in identifying early on the trends that have now appeared in Israeli society and in Jewish communities around the world. They had, in particular, foreseen the upsurge of chauvinism and xenophobia, the creeping militarization of society, and the growing popularity of fascist ideas. This is why their writings today warrant the most serious attention.”
Council Kept Universal Faith Alive
Recently, more and more voices have challenged the Zionist consensus which has emerged in organized American Jewish life. They have come to understand that the growing idolatry of the state of Israel has led to the distortion of a rich religious heritage. The founders of Reform Judaism rejected the notion of a God confined to a particular “holy” land, embracing instead a universal God, the father of all men and women, and a religion of universal values as relevant in New York, London or Paris as in Jerusalem. Many Conservative and Orthodox Jews also share this vision. One of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for civil rights for all people, said, “Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil. So, too, the State of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Israel.” Early in the 20th century, Hermann Cohen, one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of modern times, understood the danger that Zionism would re-ignite an intoxication with land that would strangle Jewish morality.
For 75 years, the American Council for Judaism has never abandoned its vision of a universal faith of ethical values for men and women of every race and nation which the prophets preached and in which generations of Jews believed. The Council’s early leaders recognized how narrow nationalism would corrupt the humane Jewish tradition. For the past 75 years, the Council has kept that tradition alive. That more and more men and women, particularly in the younger generation, are returning to that faith at the present time is a vindication of their vision.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of the American Council for Judaism here.