Elmer Berger’s Anti-Zionism:
Keeping the Humane Jewish Tradition Alive
Allan C. Brownfeld
RABBI OUTCAST: ELMER BERGER AND AMERICAN JEWISH ANTI-ZIONISM
By Jack Ross, Potomac Books, 232 Pages, $29.95
While many Americans, and many American Jews, may not know it, Jewish opposition to Zionism has a long history. Rabbi Elmer Berger, a long time leader of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), was probably the best known Jewish anti-Zionist during most of his lifetime, particularly from World War II through the 1967 Six Day War and its aftermath.
A Reform rabbi, Berger served throughout the period as executive director of the ACJ, which was founded by leading Reform rabbis emphasizing its belief that Judaism was a religion, not a nationality, and that Americans of the Jewish faith were Americans by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans were Catholics, Protestants or Muslims.
In an important new biography of Rabbi Berger, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, Jack Ross places liberal Jewish anti-Zionism (as opposed to that of Orthodox or revolutionary socialist Jews) in historical perspective. That brand of anti-Zionism, Ross believes, was embodied by Elmer Berger and his predecessors in the Reform rabbinate
The classical doctrine of Reform Judaism, which prevailed for the century of its existence until about the 1930s, writes Ross, “based its opposition to Zionism on two premises: first that Judaism was a religion only and not the basis of an ethnic or national identity, and second, the renunciation of any messianic expectations, be it the coming of a personal messiah, the restoration of the Jewish state, or of the ancient sacrificial religion and priesthood.”
The definitive statement of Reform Jewish belief was issued in 1885, reflecting the classical liberal-ism of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. This was the Pittsburgh Platform which declared, “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.”
When the first permanent Reform congregation in America was established in Charleston, South Carolina in 1841, it declared in the dedication that “This house of worship is our Temple, this free city our Jerusalem, this happy country our Palestine.” Ross points out that, “This unabashed optimism and virtually messianic faith in the promise of America would define Reform Judaism for nearly a century to come. Within just two decades of the Charleston dedication, some version of the Reform doctrine was the dominant mode of Jewish practice in America.”
Elmer Berger was born in Cleveland in 1908. The family lived comfortably, with his father Samuel enjoying life-long employment with the Pennsylvania Railroad, first as a locomotive fireman, then as an engineer, and ultimately as a junior executive. Elmer attended the Sunday School at Cleveland’s Reform Euclid Avenue Temple and was confirmed there, though, as he recalled generations later, “without the hoopla that you sometimes get with Bar Mitzvahs nowadays.”
The rabbi at Euclid Avenue Temple, who would have a strong influence on Berger’s thinking, was Louis Wolsey, who would emerge as a leading voice of Classical Reform Judaism. Wolsey, the son of Russian immigrants in Michigan, would study directly under Isaac Mayer Wise and was a member of the last class that Wise would live to see ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1899. Long before he would issue the call that ultimately led to the founding of the ACJ, Wolsey entered the fray as an opponent of Zionism immediately as the issue first reared its head on the American scene at the close of World War I, engaging in extensive correspondence with like-minded rabbis against the congres-sional resolution in support of Zionism in 1922.
“It would become clear,” writes Ross, “in the most active years of the ACJ, those who identified with it did so primarily for religious and not political reasons. In other words, far from being ‘self-hating Jews’ of the Zionist imagination, most of the resistance to the Zionist encroachment of the Reform movement came from those who were deeply committed to their own understanding of Judaism and their Jewish identity … Elmer Berger was clearly set on a path toward the rabbinate by his earnest commitment to an idea of Judaism that was clearly beginning to be challenged at the time of the initial commitment.”
The idea central to Classical Reform theology, notes Ross, “is 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 polemic against arbitrary 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.”
Judaism of the Prophets
The founders of Reform, argues Ross, “sought to return to the ideal represented by the pre-Hasmonean Judaism of the Prophets, just as Protestants sought to restore an idealized early church of the Roman era … This narrative would be most directly expressed and argued by Berger in his 1951 book A Partisan History of Judaism. He would argue that the bulk of historical events chronicled in the Old Testament reflected little more than a long saga of tribal warfare through the Iron and Bronze Ages, which may not even have been subject to as much fundamental continuity as widely believed, and that fundamentally the Jewish religion is not the tribal religion of this history but the faith of the prophets who proclaimed the possibility of a more just and righteous way of life.”
In 1935, the Zionists began their major assault upon the official anti-Zionist position of the Reform movement. In 1937, the Pittsburgh Platform was abandoned and a document was adopted by a single vote, which was called “The Columbus Platform: The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism.” In somewhat muted language as to be acceptable to the non-Zionists, the platform declared: “In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of a new life as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life …”
Ross declares that, “However ambiguously the platform stated its hopes for Palestine, the relevant clause concluded by stating flatly that ‘this is our messianic goal.’” He also reports that, “… the publication of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous comments on the plight of the Jews of Europe, in which he prophesied that Jewish nationalism was going to corrupt the people who were historically ‘the untouchables of Europe,’ possibly to a degree beyond conceiving.”
The Columbus Platform was widely criticized by those who maintained the universalist, prophetic philosophy of Classical Reform. In a sermon he gave on May 28, 1939, Rabbi Samuel H. Goldenson of 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 advocated by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and his new World Jewish Congress, “is an indirect acceptance of 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 the 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.”
And on the dire ultimate consequences of such a reconstruction of Jewish identity, Goldenson declared: “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.”
Rabbi Irving Reichert of San Francisco 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 Mount 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.”
Zionism and Fascism
Not hesitating either to call out the totalitarian nature of Zionism, as Goldenson would two years later, Reichert continued: “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 European dictatorships. Some types of propaganda may prove too tragically successful for our comfort. If we succeed in teaching America that Zionism is the only instrument of our political salvation, we may live to regret it. Last summer, an American rabbi declared before the World Zionist Congress, ‘We are not asking the world, we are telling it. We are not inviting decisions by the nations, we are apprising the nations of our decisions.’ No swashbuckling, saber-rattling German Nazi or Japanese jingo ever used more provocative language than that.”
On the eve of World War II, Ross writes, “Elmer Berger became unalterably convinced that this subordination of all charitable and civic functions of the Jewish community to the service of an armed Jewish nationalist movement amounted to exactly the sort of malevolent folly that had been the constant target of righteous hatred by his venerated Prophets.”
In 1941, a debate took place in Flint, Michigan between Elmer Berger, who held a Reform pulpit in that city, and Eric Friedland, who succeeded Berger at his previous congregation in Pontiac, Michigan. The text of Berger’s speech in the debate was published in the form of a pamphlet titled Why I Am A Non-Zionist. This speech, notes Ross, was “in many ways … an extended essay that would eventually be expanded into his book The Jewish Dilemma. The speech anchored Berger’s analysis in forthright declarative statements of the forces that were afflicting American Jewish life … He rapidly became the face of Jewish anti-Zionism. Among those who sent letters to Berger praising the pamphlet were Joseph Proskauer and Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College.”
One of the central Zionist demands as World War II began was for a “Jewish army.” The Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution by a vote of 64-38 in support of such an army. Ross notes that, “Not only was such a resolution by the CCAR endorsing this scheme a direct violation of the 1935 neutrality resolution, which technically remained in effect, but in the circumstances of wartime, and the clear implication that such an army was intended toward the establishment of a state after the war, this amounted to a wholesale, if backdoor, endorsement of Zionism by the Reform movement.”
At the suggestion of Lewis L. Strauss, a U.S. Navy captain and active member of the American Jewish Committee who was then serving as president of Temple Emanu-El, Rabbi Samuel Goldenson wrote an open letter just days later. This would be signed by 63 rabbis and telegrammed to the British War Office, expressing Jewish dissent on the army question. On April l3, 1942, an invitation was sent out with the signatures of Rabbis Louis Wolsey, William, Fineshriber, Samuel Goldenson and Jonah Wise for a two-day conference in Atlantic City, described as “a meeting of non-Zionist Reform rabbis to discuss the problems that confront Judaism and Jews in the world emergency.”
From the outset, they received the support of such rabbis as Morris Lazaron of Baltimore, Abraham Cronbach of Cincinnati, Louis Binstock of Chicago, David Marx of Atlanta, David Lefkowitz of Dallas, Samuel Koch of Seattle, Julian Feibelman of New Orleans, Edward Calisch of Richmond, Henry Cohen of Galveston and a number of others.
Loyalty to Universalism
An exuberant David Philipson wrote from Cincinnati: “My heart is so full of happiness that it is difficult for me to express myself adequately. You and your colleagues who are calling this meeting are doing a deed of great loyalty to the high significance of our universalistic Judaism.” Rabbi Wolsey wrote to Philipson: “The Zionists have definitely overreached themselves and have completely Nazified their movement. Their hatred of freedom of opinion and expression, their totalitarianism in the name of a specious unity … are a bubble that might be pricked …”
In the meantime, from May 9-11, 1942, the American Zionist Emergency Council convened a public conference at the Hotel Biltmore in New York. With representatives from l7 countries and the attendance of Jewish Agency leaders Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion and Nahum Goldman, the gathering was, writes Ross, “for all practical purposes, an official Zionist congress … Zionists finally began to openly state their aims: free Jewish immigration into Palestine and the establishment therein of a ‘Jewish commonwealth’ … No longer would there be any question of the goal of statehood.”
At the May 20 Atlantic City meeting, Rabbi Morris Lazaron presented a paper on Jewish Postwar Problems which stated: “We agree that, if large scale emigration is necessary immediately after the war, Palestine would be able to receive considerable numbers. There the administrative machinery for receiving immigrants already exists, and for many Jews the spiritual attraction will undoubtedly play a large part in making settlement more successful than it would be in other countries. For such settlements to be possible, it is not necessary to urge the creation of a Jewish state. To found a state based on race or creed is fundamentally wrong and indeed is the antithesis of one of the principles for which this war is being fought. We cannot imagine any basis for a Jewish state which is not wholly inconsistent with the principles of the Atlantic Charter.
Statement of Principles
The conference approved a statement of principles, which read in part: “We declare our unwavering faith in the humane and righteous principles that underlie the democratic way of life, principles first envisaged by the Prophets of Israel and embodied in our American Bill of Rights … We cannot but believe that Jewish nationalism tends to confuse our fellow men about our place and function in society and also diverts our attention from our historic role to live as a religious community wherever we may dwell.”
With 36 attending the Atlantic City conference, the statement of principles was ultimately endorsed by 104 rabbis. The conference also established a Committee on Lay-Rabbinic Cooperation, whose first order of business was to publish a pamphlet with the statement of principles and Elmer Berger’s address. By autumn, lay groups were organized in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Dallas. The first pledges of major financial backing were made by Aaron Strauss, a nephew and heir of Levi Strauss of blue jeans fame, who was a prominent member of Rabbi Lazaron’s congregation in Baltimore. By November, everything was set for the formation of a national organization.
The ACJ was incorporated on Dec. 7, 1942 in a meeting at the Hotel New Yorker and Elmer Berger was named executive director. Judah Magnes, the respected Chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote to Lazaron endorsing the ACJ statement: “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.”
God and the Moral Law
The Council released its platform, the full text of which 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 rights and sharing 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.”
The assault on the ACJ was swift in coming and, in Ross’s view, “… the exorcism of the anti-Zionists from the Reform movement would undeniably be among the most vicious and merciless purges of heretics in the history of American religion, perhaps rivaled only by the suppression of Mormon polygamy.”
Signatures were gathered from 757 rabbis for an open letter asserting that “anti-Zionism, not Zionism, is the departure from the Jewish religion.” The student body at Hebrew Union College endorsed this statement by a vote of 42-9. The American Jewish Conference passed a resolution denouncing the ACJ in what Ross describes as “shockingly totalitarian language” for “attempting to sabotage the collective Jewish will to achieve a united program.” The Conference also authorized the formulation of the “Committee on Unity for Palestine” to combat the ACJ in the media and elsewhere. It would in the 1950s become known as the National Community Relations Advisory Council, and by the 1960s would change its name once more to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Jews Are Not a 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 for his entire career to come: “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 even the Biblical records. 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.”
Around this time, Berger, and philanthropist Lessing J. Rosenwald, the son of Julius Rosenwald, who headed Sears Roebuck and Company, the newly elected president of the Council, made a personal appeal to David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and icon of the Jewish Labor movement in America. Dubinsky, writes Ross, “confided his sympathy with the Council but feared a backlash from his membership. Probably the most prominent figure in the Jewish Socialist milieu to become active with the ACJ was Jack Altman, who excitedly wrote to Berger that he could ‘use my name in any way you see fit’ and served on the national board of the Council … .”
The ACJ had its first national conference in Philadelphia in January 1945. Among the speakers was Hans Kohn, a one-time German Zionist associated with the University in Exile n New York who would remain a close friend of the Council. Kohn declared: “The Jewish nationalist philosophy has developed entirely under German influence, the German romantic nationalism with its 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 mystical body, the source of civiliza-tion.”
Public Face of Anti-Zionism
Ross declares that, “For Berger, the conference and year would mark his unambiguous arrival as the public face of American Jewish anti-Zionism, for in 1945 he would publish what would remain the definitive statement of his — and the Council’s — abiding doctrine of emancipated Jewish existence, ‘The Jewish Dilemma.’”
On Dec. 4, 1945, hours after the first meeting with Chaim Weizmann, President Harry S. Truman received Lessing Rosenwald in the Oval Office. Stressing that he could speak only for the 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.”
During this period, Ross writes, “The ACJ was growing increasingly close to the State Department, having won the grateful friendship of Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Loy Henderson, a veteran of the Foreign Service who had been a protégé of George Kennan in the Soviet Embassy. The Council’s major link to the State Department was George Levison, a member of the Foreign Service from a leading family of the San Francisco aristocracy. Levison served in Cairo during the war, answering directly to Dean Acheson, then assistant secretary for economic development. When Acheson was promoted to undersecretary of state after the war, Levison had not only his and Henderson’s ears but also that of his old roommate in Cairo, Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and an architect of the Office of Strategic Services and its successor, the CIA.”
Violation of Balfour Declaration
Elmer Berger sent a letter to Dean Acheson stating that a Jewish state would in fact be a violation of the Balfour Declaration, which expressly safeguarded “the rights and status enjoyed by Jews in any country other than Palestine,” as well as those of its non-Jewish inhabitants. The letter protested that the Jewish Agency had “no right to speak for Jews who are not supporters of the Jewish nationalist philosophy of Zionism.”
Berger was able to outline his vision for the Council in the increasingly likely event of Jewish statehood. “Zionists will continue to seek control of the lives and institutions of Americans of Jewish faith,” he warned. “They will attempt to solidify support for their principle that Jews are members of that ‘nationality’ and that the homeland of members of that nationality is in their ‘Jewish state.’ Against this certain, continued drive of Jewish nationalism, in our opinion, the work of the Council will be of even greater importance and necessity than in the past.”
At the Council’s fourth annual conference in St. Louis in Jan. 1947 — in the face of partition and the declaration of Jewish statehood — the group declared that it wished the new state well and adopted the following statement of principles which would define its purpose with the existence of a Zionist state: “1. Nationality and religion are separate and distinct. Our nationality is American. Our religion is Judaism. Our homeland is the United States of America. We reject any concept that Jews are at home only in Palestine. 2. The U.N. Assembly has recommended partition of Palestine. We hope that it will bring peace to that long troubled land and that each of the proposed states will be a peace loving, democratic nation. The nationalism of the proposed Zionist state must be confined to the boundaries of that state. Its spokesmen, representatives, agencies and instrumentalities in no way represent us. 3. We are dedicated to extend the fullest philanthropic aid to our coreligionists and to suffering humanity everywhere. 4. No Jew or group of Jews can speak for, or represent, all the Jews of America.”
“Israel-Centered” Jewish Life
In a special edition of Council News (Aug. 1947), 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.” Setting the tone for his work for the next 20 years, Berger 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 arguments compelling and worked closely with Elmer Berger. Among these were Barnard College President Virginia Gildersleeve, journalist Dorothy Thompson, 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, 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.”
Late in 1952, President Truman appointed a new assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, Henry Byroade. A West Point graduate who after World War II joined the Foreign Service in order to run the Office of German Reconstruction and thus became a key implement of the Marshall Plan. Ross notes that, “Byroade would prove to be the best friend the ACJ ever had in the U.S. Government … .Berger was naturally pessimistic about any future impact of the Council on U.S. foreign policy … But when word got out that Eisenhower planned to keep Byroade on … the Council’s mood turned to optimism. In the earliest days of 1953, Berger, Levison and Rosenwald were closely collaborating on a memorandum to be presented to the new administration …”
White House Meeting
President Eisenhower received Rosenwald and Levison at the White House and accepted their memorandum which discussed the “confusion of Judaism with the nationalism of Israel” as it impacted matters of international law, 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, partly at Byroade’s urging, 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 commu-nity” and warned that “the Arabs fear expansionist Zionism more than they do Communism.” The Council immediately praised the speech, in particular that Dulles stated “the need for the U.S. to allay the deep resentment against it that has resulted from the creation of Israel.”
In 1954, Ross writes, “The Council hoped that a corollary speech could be given to clarify the general principles that had been outlined by Dulles, and Berger went to work persuading Byroade, who increasingly looked upon him as his unofficial adviser on Jewish affairs … After inviting Byroade to address the annual conference of the Council, Berger agreed that the speech would be given on neutral territory, and thus it was given to a foreign policy association in Dayton, Ohio … Byroade called on the Arabs to ‘accept the state of Israel as an accomplished fact’ and also on Israelis to ‘drop your conqueror attitude and see your future as a Middle Eastern state and not as a headquarters of worldwide groupings of people of a particular religious faith who must have special rights within and obligations to the Israeli state.’”
The Council also became deeply involved in transmitting to young people its philosophy of universal prophetic Judaism. Clarence Coleman, Jr., later to become president of the Council, founded the first of what became known as “Schools for Judaism” in 1952 in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois. The following year there were two more schools in White Plains, New York and Milwaukee and by 1955 there were as many as ten schools across the country. The ACJ appointed a full-time director of religious and synagogue activities, Samuel Halevi Baron, a native of Austria ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1927.
The Council published what Ross calls “an impressive array of textbooks.” Among these were Samuel Baron’s “Children’s Devotions,” Abraham Cronbach’s “Judaism For Today,” a primer on the fundamentals of Jewish belief, “Tell Me Why” by Dorothy Bobrow, and “Not By Power,” by Allan Tarshish, a close friend and Hebrew Union College classmate of Berger who held the pulpit at the founding Reform congregation of America in Charleston, South Carolina. David Goldberg, the Council’s research director, 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 executive director of Freedom House.
The Council, under Berger’s leadership, also established a philanthropic fund. One of its key goals was to assist Jewish refugees anyplace in the world in a search for options other than Israel, to which they were often directed by established Jewish groups.
Largely in response to the implications of the case of Adolph Eichmann, in which Israel justified its capture and trial of Eichmann in behalf of “the Jewish people,” writes Ross, “Berger felt that it was necessary to seek a formal declaration from the U.S. Government as to whether or not it accepted the claims that Israel made” and for the U.S. to declare “whether or not it recognized the existence of ‘the Jewish people’ as a matter of international law. In taking this on, Berger decided to seek out a respected scholar of international law to prepare a formal brief to be presented to the State Depart-ment.. The man … who took on the project was William Thomas Mallison, Jr., the product of a Navy family who held chairs at both George Washington University and the Naval War College.”
In 1962, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, began to issue subpoenas to various leaders of the Jewish Agency, the United Jewish Appeal and the American Zionist Council to verify their compliance with the Treasury Department’s findings that had led to their reorganization and to determine if formal registration as a foreign agent was necessary. By the end of 1962, the Justice Department formally opened an investigation and announced that it would require the American Zionist Council to register as a foreign agent. Sen. Fulbright addressed the Council’s annual conference on this subject, which led to a bitter response against the Council by Philip Bernstein, addressing an AIPAC gathering.
Attack on Council
Bernstein claimed that, “I have maintained through the years that the ACJ is of no consequence” and that he was speaking of it “only because the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chooses its convention as a platform for a policy statement.” Rather than confronting any of the real issues involved, he continued: “Therefore, I must say this is a handful of sick Jews … They are self-hating Jewish anti-Semites.” Clearly, any Jewish opposition to Zionist policies could not be tolerated.
In the end, although the American Zionist Council received formal notification from the Justice Department to register as a foreign agent, the case essentially died with the assassination of President Kennedy. The U.S. section of the Jewish Agency would eventually fold into the U.S. section of the World Zionist Organization, which registered as a foreign agent in 1971. The American Zionist Council would disband by this time as well, leaving AIPAC behind.
In 1964, Thomas Mallison had completed his brief that would be known as “The Jewish People Study” and would have it published in the George Washington University Law Review. “After a lengthy preliminary correspondence between Berger and Assistant Secretary of State Philips Talbot,” notes Ross, “a 41-page draft of Mallison’s article was sent to him … On April 20, 1964, Talbot formally replied in what Berger would … interpret as the victory he had been after for the last 20 years …” 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 therewith. 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.”
In Ross’s view, “Berger’s collaboration with Mallison had not been merely an exercise in legal crankery. Israel had indeed claimed the force of law in the name of the ‘Jewish people’ in the Eichmann case, and with the Talbot letter the State Department would effectively draw the lines along which the Israel lobby could operate in the years ahead. In so doing, the State Department … would formally reject the premise of a legal Jewish ‘nationhood’ underlying both the Balfour Declaration and the 1947 partition.”
As time went by, some in the Council felt that Berger was involving himself too closely in Middle East politics and rather than stressing the universal and prophetic ethical tradition of Classical Reform Judaism, and the manner in which it was contradicted by Jewish nationalism, he had been injecting himself and the Council in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result, Berger resigned from the Council in 1968.
In 1969, Berger established a group called American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism. During this period, Ross writes, “Probably the most notable of Berger’s gentile friends … was Christopher Mayhew, the Labour member of Parliament who seized on the issue of justice for the Palestinians to honor the legacy of his beloved mentor, Ernest Bevin … Mayhew optimistically wrote to Berger that ‘within our lifetime we shall see the Jewish people recognize in you someone who stood between them and disaster.’”
In 1989, Berger was contacted by a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College who was interested in writing his dissertation about him. Mark Glickman began predisposed to a negative view of Berger. He accepted Berger’s invitation to spend a weekend with him in Florida and, Ross reports, “Berger revealed in his interviews with Glickman a remarkable moderation in where his views on the Middle East had evolved — he now favored a two-state solution … along lines of mutual cooperation envisioned by the original U.N. partition … This prompted Glickman to remark with shock in the middle of the interview that ‘you are not an extremist,’ and he ultimately concluded his dissertation by declaring that, after much soul searching, he was now in favor of an eventually ‘de-Zionized’ Israel.’”
Berger was confident, as the end of his life approached, that the days were numbered for his greatest adversary, the “official” American Jewish community organized in the Conference of Presidents. In a letter acknowledging his 86th birthday, Berger declared confidently that “although events in the Middle East are messy as ever, Zionism operates as only a diminishing vestigial force in the U.S. among culturally lagging politicians … and some unknown number of … Jewish bureaucrats running a tangle of Zionist-controlled bureaucracies.”
In the late winter of 1995, Berger’s health began to sharply decline. In a memorandum he prepared for obituary editors, Leonard Sussman quoted a sort of final testament that Berger had recently confided to him: “I never veered from my enthusiasm for the transcendent and universal principles of the Judaism of the great literary prophets of the Old Testament. Yet the widespread public debate over the political destiny of Palestine, the unwarranted and basically fallacious Zionist claim to represent something called ‘the Jewish people,’ the deliberate omission of any political justice for the indigenous Arab inhabitants of Palestine — all led me to intensify my study and understanding of the conflict in Palestine at a time when increasing numbers throughout the western world were becoming concerned with postwar plans for peace.”
Elmer Berger died the evening of Oct. 5, 1996 in his home in Long Boat Key, Florida. Jack Ross concludes that the predictions of Elmer Berger and the Council about the Zionist takeover of essentially all American Jewish organizational life “proved to have an absolutely deadly accuracy … Israeli patriotism, if not hardcore doctrinaire Zionism became the religion of American Jewry. An ecumenical bureaucracy … having remarkably little other purpose than to advocate on behalf of the State of Israel and to enforce loyalty to it among its constituents, was freely vested with this authority by all three branches of American Judaism … This … would indoctrinate to its constituency … first principles of nationalism and collectivism that in virtually any other context would be rightly met with abhorrence by the American people …”
In today’s America, a silent majority of American Jews, Ross believes, embrace the philosophy enunciated by Elmer 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 ultimately could not withstand the reality of U.S. society.”
Keeping the Faith
In this thoughtful biography, Jack Ross argues that during a dark period, Elmer Berger and his colleagues kept the Classical Reform Jewish faith to which they were committed. In this sense, they were indeed prophetic: “… 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 as Elmer Berger, Lessing Rosenwald … 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 but do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”