Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Jews against Zionism

It will come as a surprise to many that the current adamant Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state was once American policy. An even greater surprise is that an American rabbi and the Jewish organization he headed played a major role in the government's articulation of that policy.

Relevant Links
Next Year in America  American Council for Judaism. Statement of principles of the ACJ, according to which the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is “spiritual, historical, and humanitarian”—and decidedly not political.
Revival?  Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times. While the establishment of Israel and its centrality to American Jews consigned the ACJ to irrelevancy for decades, the current wave of criticism against Israel has made it significant again—or so some hope.
Berger Speaks  YouTube. “With money, Jews could be offered an option—a place other than Palestine to go.” Interview with Elmer Berger (video; 1989).

In April 1954, Assistant Secretary of State Henry Byroade told an audience in Dayton, Ohio, that the Arab world should accept Israel as a fait accompli in return for that country's becoming "a Middle Eastern state" and no longer "a headquarters of worldwide groupings of a people of a particular religious faith who must have special rights within and obligations to the Israeli state." The Dayton speech was the product of close consultation with Rabbi Elmer Berger, Byroade's friend and adviser on Jewish affairs, whom he affectionately called the "Mad Rabbi." A few weeks later, Byroade expanded on the topic at a meeting of an organization headed by Berger, the American Council for Judaism (ACJ).

Although the suggestion of a de-Zionized Israel attracted considerable sympathy from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and others in the Eisenhower administration, a wave of protest led to Byroade's reassignment some months later to the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the deflation of his trial balloon.

Anyone not yet a senior citizen can be forgiven for never having heard of the American Council for Judaism, while many old-timers still speak of it the same way its Zionist enemies did at the time—a club for assimilated Jews outside the communal consensus. Its members, however, saw the Council as the expression of classical Reform Judaism, which defined Jewish identity in solely religious terms, its substance lying in the universalistic ethics of the biblical prophets. All national or ethnic elements, including traditional rituals, Hebrew prayers, and, certainly, the expectation of a return to the Land of Israel, were considered vestigial elements to be discarded. In the U.S., classical Reform Jews saw America as their homeland and dismissed the Zionist vision of a Jewish state in Palestine as, in the words of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, "a prostitution of Israel's holy cause to a madman's dance of unsound politicians."

At least that was the case until the 1930's, when the Nazi specter and its threat to Europe's Jews made the vision of a Jewish homeland appear increasingly sane and the mainstream of the Reform movement began to accommodate itself to the need for a state. In reaction, those still loyal to the tenets of classical Reform would, in 1942, form the American Council for Judaism. In the ensuing years, with the failure of their effort to prevent the American government from backing Jewish statehood in 1948, the ACJ focused on opposing such things as the teaching of modern Hebrew or Israeli folk dancing, and on fighting the state's influence in American Jewish life.

ACJ membership dropped precipitously after the 1967 Six-Day war, when even the most indifferent among American Jews rallied to an Israel apparently on the brink of destruction, and then reveled in its sweeping victory. As Norman Podhoretz famously declared, "we are all Zionists now."  While the Council remained alive on paper, for all intents and purposes a metaphorical stake had been driven into its heart.

The standard scholarly treatment of the Council, Thomas Kolsky's 1990 Jews against Zionism, portrays the organization as principled and in some ways perceptive, albeit naïve; after all, as Kolsky wrote, the unassailable fact was that "the Zionists won and their opponents lost." Not so a new biography of Berger. Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, by Jack Ross, argues not only that the battle continues but that a welcome wave of revulsion at Israel among today's young Jews could make ACJ and Berger look prophetic. The book is dedicated to the late Tony Judt, who caused a furor a few years ago by calling for an end to Israel as a Jewish state, and boasts a jacket blurb by John Mearsheimer, coauthor of the scurrilous The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

In common with his admirer Mearsheimer, Ross is not strong on factual accuracy: howlers abound, large and small and often laced with unadorned personal prejudice. Among them: Ross believes that when Berger's grandfather, widowered with two children, married his dead wife's sister, he was performing "the Orthodox Jewish practice known as Levirate marriage."  He claims that the Orthodox Union broke away from Conservative Judaism in the 1950's; that the Young Israel organization is modeled on "protofacist" movements; that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations "functions as the mythical elders of Zion"; that "it is believed" that Israel "approved" the assassination of John F. Kennedy; and that AIPAC was "implicated in the genesis of the Iraq War."

The Berger who emerges from Ross's portrait is hardly endearing. His contemporaries at Hebrew Union College considered him standoffish and pompous; as a pulpit rabbi in Michigan, he carried on an adulterous affair with a congregant whose husband had been drafted into the army; he was abusive to the staff of the ACJ and eventually had to be removed from day-to-day operations of the office; and he enjoyed a munificent side income by officiating at mixed marriages at a time when this work, taboo even among Reform rabbis, paid very well.

Honest about Berger's character, Ross glorifies his ideas and his politics. He stresses his pacifism (rooted, of course, in prophetic ethics) and his linkage of nationalism—especially of the Jewish variety—to totalitarianism and aggression. When other ACJ figures deserted the fight, we learn, Berger was one of the few who stuck to his principles.  He even broke with the Council when it declined to condemn Israel after the Six-Day war, starting a breakaway faction: American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.

Ross believes that most American Jews today agree with Berger's view that there is no such thing as the "Jewish people," that they are "completely emancipated and integrated Americans," and that their Judaism is "primarily, if not solely a matter of confession." As for the "bitter Jewish parochialism" propagated by the Zionists and opposed by Berger, we are told that it too will soon be a thing of the past.

One wonders which Jews Ross has been spending time with. Most American Jews, even those who equate Judaism with ethical behavior, understand the Jewish ethical code as the product of a people with a proud history and a culture that in some hard-to-define way sets them apart from others, no matter how high the level of Jewish integration into the majority society. Many also believe that Jews have their homeland—political, spiritual, or both—in a small corner of the Middle East. Jews know in their guts that the renunciation of Jewish group identity is the denial of Judaism itself—which is why Berger and the ACJ are highly unlikely to experience a revival, through Ross's efforts or anyone else's. 

Lawrence Grossman is the editor of the American Jewish Year Book.  

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Sam Schulman on August 30, 2011 at 9:08 am (Reply)
A fascinating story and a wonderful review. The fact that the book is told from a kind of neo-anti-Zionist perspective is apt, because Berger's story is just one example of an age-old dialectic in Jewish history. I recall a friend's anecdote that his grandparents-relatives of Rabbi Stephen Wise - used to host "little old Rabbis" from the USSR and Poland in the '50s, here on lecture tours to preach that there was no anti-Semitism behind the Iron Curtain. The question I have for Mr. Grossman is whether the book's author, Jack Ross, is capable of making the distinction between the anxieties of, say, pre- and post-1989 Zionism. From the birth of Zionism, through both World Wars and after, US (and British, etc.) anti-Zionism (non-Communist anti-Zionism, at least) asserted that Zionism was a threat to the perceived and actual loyalty and Americanism (Britishness, etc.) of the national Jewish community. Whereas the anti-Zionism of Tony Judt, Phil Weiss and Max Blumenthal (to name exemplars of 3 generations) is anxious to identify itself not with patriotism toward one's own nationality, but patriotism to something larger and better - "progressive politics," "good Europeanism and anti-nationalism, anti-xenophobia and anti-racism. Although every anti-Zionist likes to tease non-Israeli Zionists with the dual loyalty charge, most of these unpleasant bullies are not particularly loyal to flag, Queen or country, but to an idea that is better, more lofty, more refined. (Walt, Mearsheimer, and Pat Buchanan are exceptions to this - they like to represent themselves as concerned with American interests, but their attachment to anti-Jewish strategies and tactics overwhelms their inclination and talent to realpolitiking in the self-interest of America). For more than a century, the constant loyalty among all these gentleman and ladies is to opposing Jewish rights - what they are in favor of changes with the winds of fashion.
Geof on August 30, 2011 at 12:42 pm (Reply)
This is surprising? Most of the Dati world was opposed to Zionism prior to its formation, and some of it still is. Much of it today is the mirror-opposite of the Liberal-internationalist anti-Zionism, loving the muscularity of the Jewish state, but reject its fundamental democracy, diversity-tolerating current form.
mj on August 30, 2011 at 12:50 pm (Reply)
Would also recommend Samuel Halperin's 1961 book The Political World of American Zionism as well as Frank E. Manuel's 1949 study The Realities of American-Israel Relations.

One of the major financiers of Rabbi Elmer Berger's rabidly anti-Zionist organization was the Sulzberger family, owners and publishers of the New York Times. It could be argued that the Sulzbergers continue to wage war against the State of Israel. Their current list of anti-Zionist columnists include Roger Cohen and Nick Kristof.

Berger continues to be quite a popular figure, especially among some of the more vicious antisemitic organizations such as Stormfront. Much like Max Blumenthal and Roger Cohen today, Berger used his Jewishness to legitimatize hatred against Israel.
Vicious Babushka on August 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm (Reply)
A whole article about anti-Zionist Jews that doesn't even mention Neturei Karta? What are they, chopped liver? (If Neturei Karta is chopped liver, I wouldn't feed it to my cat)
John Jaffe on August 30, 2011 at 1:13 pm (Reply)
The author Ross unfortunately typifies the ultimate in American assimilated Jews, who spend their whole lives trying to convince the world they're really not.

The degree of enmity for Israel and indeed all things Jewish, exemplified by his many dishonesties and distortions in this shabby little tome, makes it very clear that Ross has a strong anti-Israel agenda and indeed bias.

The sad truth of the matter is that Jews like Ross, Soros, "J Street", and even the pathetic likes of Adam Shapiro "leader of the farcical "flotilla movement" against Israel, all have a big problem with self-hatred and their Jewish identities. Not that there's no room to criticize Israel at times; but really, given all the horrible human rights-abusing terror-sponsoring murderous theocracies in the Mideast, it just doesn't otherwise make sense that people like Ross are so stridently and totally and 100% always critical of Israel, their people, and everything they do.

What I've thought for a while would be much more useful and honest than another attempt by a Gentile-wannabe American Jew like Ross to prove how un-Jewish he is, would be a serious psychological examination of what drives Jews like him to work so hard at criticizing all things Jewish--their background, relationships with parents, Jewish education or not, and/or underlying psycho-pathologies.

Without this type of investigation, the question of the Jewish self-haters and Israel-bashers, those who would basically trash their culture, religion, families, and an unarguably wonderful 3,000 year old religious and cultural history which has opened the world to civilized behavior, will remain a puzzling and disturbing phenomenon very damaging to Israel and indeed worldwide Judaism.
Ben on August 30, 2011 at 3:17 pm (Reply)
The brief biography of the author from the publishers' website notes that his c.v. includes work for the Washington Report for Mid-East Affairs, Mondoweiss, and the American Conservative. I believe from past readings that the author also produced columns for and fawning commentary on American neo-Nazi Hitler wannabe Bill ( White. So the kind of book that he produced--from Mearsheimer's hosannas to his complete lack of interest in facts or the reality of how despised anti-Zionism is among present-day Jews--doesn't seem too surprising. I am deeply sorry you were forced to spend any time reading this loser's work.
Jerry on August 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm (Reply)
Thank God Israel is a strong vibrant country.
One day Jack Ross just might have to run from the USA and will need a haven to rest his bones.
David Baden -Australia on August 30, 2011 at 7:51 pm (Reply)
I am a proud Zionist, actively working for the continuation of Israel and I find it incomprehensible that any Jew given our history, and current situation in the world could think otherwise. The anti Zionist Jews are deluded fools and I can only ask them one question. Where would they go if another Nazi party or similar were to rise to power and seek their destruction? If I asked this question in Europe in, say, 1930 I would have been ridiculed,and look what happened a few years later! What on earth does it take for people to learn from history?
Elliott on August 31, 2011 at 9:25 am (Reply)
Lawrence, for a more fully bodied appreciation of Berger it would be necessary to go back to his behavior and political positions before and during the Holocaust. From what I understand, his positions at those times were equally as bad as those regarding Israel. Berger was thoroughly loathsome, personally and politically. By making Berger into a hero, Ross shows his own taste for the repulsive.
Marek Singer on October 2, 2011 at 1:33 pm (Reply)
The mind assimilated Jews, Rabbis and all other anti-Zionist Jews are the blind human beings like the dervish dancers, with their spiritual minds in a wholly spiritual Jerusalem lacking reality. These were the Jews that in 1944 didn't back the young Zionist leader Golda Meir in Palestine and the Labor Zionists of America in their Campaign for an Allied Bombing of Auschwitz. They were more involved in fighting against Zionism because they were afraid that Zionism "could"(?!) destroy their lives in a particular country and that they would be pushed to live to Palestine. So what, you anti-Israel Jews--live where you want and enjoy your lives there. But don't try to destroy Israel with your fake anti-Israel campaigns if you don't want to be responsible in the future for another genocide, one that "Palestine" Arabs and the Muslim world wish for Israeli Jews!

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham