Jews against Zionism

By Lawrence Grossman
Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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.

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.  

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