Thomas Kolsky: Review of Jack Ross' Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism (Potomac Books, 2011)
Thomas Kolsky is Professor of History and Political Science, Montgomery County Community College and the author of Jews Against Zionism (Temple University Press)
Rabbi Elmer Berger, the leading ideologist and main strategist of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), the American Jewish organization created in 1942 specifically to oppose Zionism, is the subject of Jack Ross’ sympathetic and well-researched. In this biography, Ross ably portrays and analyzes the sources and evolution of Berger’s anti-Zionist thought and traces the rabbi’s career as probably one of the fiercest and most enduring American Jewish anti-Zionists.
From his early thirties until his death at the age of eighty-seven, Berger dedicated himself totally to an unrelenting campaign against Zionism. In the course of this endeavor, he constructed perhaps the most systematic, aggressive, and persistent Jewish ideological and public assault on Zionism and its partisans in the United States. Between 1942 and 1967, his most productive years, Berger played a leading role in the ACJ. As the organization’s executive director and chief ideologist, Berger closely supervised the formulation of almost every official ACJ document and organizational policy. Despite Lessing Rosenwald’s and Clarence Coleman’s formal leadership as the presidents of the organization, it was Berger who played the commanding role in shaping and guiding the ACJ’s anti-Zionist campaign.
The ACJ came into existence in 1942 as the response of a group of Reform rabbis and lay opponents of Zionism who were alarmed by what they considered to be the rapid growth of Zionism in the U.S. and its intrusion into Jewish communal and religious life. Theirs was a direct reaction to a February 1942 resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the one-time stronghold of Reform anti-Zionism, favoring the creation of “Jewish army” in Palestine as well as to the gathering of the Zionist Biltmore Conference in New York in May in which the Zionist movement openly declared its end-goal—the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Shocked and angered by the turn of events, the dissident rabbis and their lay supporters, who were committed to classical Reform’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform that affirmed the purely religious identity of Jews and rejected the creation of an exclusively Jewish state, founded the ACJ as an act of defense against Zionism. The organization’s platform, based on the tenets of nineteenth-century Reform Judaism (classical Reform), emphasized the purely religious nature of Judaism and unequivocally rejected Jewish nationalism. It repudiated the establishment of a Jewish state as regressive, undemocratic, and contrary to Jewish interests. For the ACJ, Zionism represented a philosophy of despair, a retreat from and loss of faith in emancipation, and above all, self-segregation. Instead of a Jewish state the ACJ supported free Jewish immigration and equal rights for Jews throughout the world. For Palestine, specifically, it advocated the establishment of a democratic state wherein all citizens, regardless of their religion, would enjoy equal political rights. This platform and the principles that it embodied, which Berger helped to formulate, guided him throughout his career.
Berger’s campaign against Zionism may be divided into three major phases. From 1943 to 1948, he led the ACJ’s relentless fight against the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. With the vast majority of American Jews rallying behind the Zionist program as the result of the emotional impact of the Holocaust, the ACJ failed to make significant inroads into the Jewish community. While remaining largely isolated among Jews, it maintained contact and closely collaborated with the State Department, the main opponent of Zionism within the U.S. government. Berger, a steadfast and enthusiastic proponent of cooperation with American governmental agencies and international agencies, maintained close contacts with Loy W. Henderson, the person in charge of Middle Eastern Affairs in the State Department, and worked energetically until the end to prevent the creation of the State of Israel. On the domestic front, Berger focused on fighting Zionist efforts to capture the support of the Jewish community, their claim to speak for all Jews as well as their drive to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. He repeatedly warned of the dire consequences for Jews in the United States and the world, if a Jewish state did come into existence. The ACJ’s efforts to prevent the creation of Israel obviously course failed.
From 1948 to 1967, following the establishment of Israel, Berger turned to what he called a “second line of defense” in his encounter with Zionism: defending American Jews from Israeli intrusions into American Jewish life. He constantly stressed that Israel was a foreign state and repeatedly emphasized the need to clearly distinguish between “Zionism” and “Judaism.” To promote his line of defense, Berger oversaw a three-part anti-Zionist campaign, focusing on public affairs, religious education, and philanthropic programs, all designed to counteract American Zionist and Israeli efforts to bind American Jews to Israel. Every Zionist or Israeli political pronouncement or action that could be interpreted as interference in American Jewish life drew vigorous protest from the ACJ. Berger carefully scrutinized Israeli foreign policy and frequently criticized it. From time to time, he would appeal to organs of the American government for support in his repudiation of Israeli policies. For example, he sought a probe of the United Jewish Appeal by the State Department. In the 1950s, he even volunteered to offer advice to Assistant Secretary of State Henry Byroade on how to deal with Israel, earning him the nickname “Mad Rabbi.” In fact, some of Berger’s most gratifying activities during the 1940s and 1950s seem to have been his dealings with State Department officials.
The June 1967 War created an acute crisis within the ACJ that resulted in Berger’s break with the ACJ. Berger’s vehement condemnation of Israel as the aggressor and his extremely critical comments about the American Jewish community’s “hysterical” response to the war deeply upset most of the ACJ leaders, who were overwhelmed by the intense emotional response of American Jews to the war. His ensuing conflict with the ACJ leadership resulted in Berger’s divorce from the organization.
With his separation from the ACJ began the third and last phase of Berger’s anti-Zionist crusade. Within two years, free from the constraints of the ACJ, he created the American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism (AJAZ), an organization with a small membership, consisting mostly of his ardent ACJ supporters, but which served as an outlet for his anti-Zionist activities. His remained a bold, but quixotic and lonely, journey. In the remaining almost three decades of his life, Berger focused primarily on criticism of Israeli foreign policy. During those years, a virtual pariah in the Jewish community, he associated mostly with his Jewish anti-Zionist ardent supporters, non-Jewish anti-Zionists, Arab American organizations, and representatives of Arab states. As for his attitude toward the Arabs, Berger claimed that it was shaped by his commitment to the principles of classical Reform Judaism and to the teachings of social justice inspired by the Hebrew prophets.
The essence of Berger’s anti-Zionist ideology was that Judaism was a religion, not a nationality; that there was no such entity as “the Jewish people;” that no Jewish organization was entitled to speak for all Jews; that Palestine was not to be a Jewish state, but a state of all its inhabitants as equal citizens; that the creation of a Jewish state would have harmful consequences for Jews in Palestine and throughout the world. The solution for the persecution of Jews was to be full emancipation—their integration into the societies in which they lived. Only a truly enlightened, liberal world would make Jewish life secure. Although Berger’s main work as the ACJ’s chief ideologist for twenty-five years and subsequently as a solo spokesperson for AJAZ did not bear tangible results, he did establish a record of rational dissent vis-à-vis Zionism, of which he was proud and which he saw as his legacy. In fact, many of his predictions about the consequences of the Zionist venture, especially those related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, did materialize.
Recently, a growing number of concerned Jews, such as the distinguished historian Tony Judt, have been coming to views reminiscent of the concerns and predictions expressed by Berger. In his informative and engaging biography of Berger, Jack Ross resurrects the memory of an important Jewish dissident, a man with whom many may disagree, but whose important insights into the nature and consequences of Zionism may be ignored only at our own peril. In so doing, he makes an important contribution to the understanding of American Jewish anti-Zionism.
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