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Elmer Berger: I Remember Him Well

Leonard R. Sussman
Fall 1996

Elmer was a hard taskmaster. I worked beside him for 18 years, and became the Council’s second executive director, taking over from Elmer mainly because of his infinitely demanding management style. He left the staff flailing in his wake. Even board members felt victimized. But Elmer was hardest on himself — right up to his last years. Else how could he have written — and a university press published — in his 85th year a scholarly researched analysis of complex diplomacy 50 years earlier in the Middle East?  

Elmer’s demanding personal standard for all aspects of his life was perhaps summed up in the title he placed on letters he wrote from the Middle East to Clarence L. Coleman, Lessing Rosenwald and me. The letters were published as a book titled, Who Knows Better Must Say So. To some, this may seem arrogant. The title was actually taken from an old Danish saying. It implies quite the opposite of arrogance. It commits the knower, as a matter of integrity and responsibility, to share what he knows. Elmer, all his life, regarded himself as a rabbi, a teacher, sharing what he believed he knew, and must share.  

This commitment to "say so," no matter the consequence drove Elmer for 50 years as the most prominent American anti-Zionist. What he "knew better" would make him the most controversial rabbi in America. I believe that if he had still been an active player two years ago the assassins of Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin would have murdered Elmer Berger as well.  

Zionist-Free Judaism  

Elmer’s commitment to a Zionist-free Judaism demanded from him ever-deepening analyses of the origins of the movement and its highly complex implications for Judaism today. As he moved through the intricate maze of Zionist organizations, activities and diplomacies Elmer was constantly drawn further into conflict with many establishments. Those conflicts, in turn, demanded his still broader forays into the politics, the sociology and the theologies of the Middle East, and the roles played by the major nations with interests there.  

I suggest, then, that Elmer did not start by asking what role he should play in the politics and diplomacy of the Middle East. Rather, I believe, he was drawn into such activism by his early, rather profound commitment to Judaism. In the years I served as director of the Council’s religious education program Elmer was my constant source of guidance, even inspiration. We could not have produced our K-12 curriculum, written and published a score of textbooks and a children’s magazine, let alone created 13 religious schools around the country (with a slim staff and parent-volunteer teachers) if I had not had extensive discussions, sometimes sermonic expositions by Elmer — quite unlike the public image of the man, even inside the Council.  

Commitment to Judaism  

Perhaps these excerpts from Elmer’s letters to me during the past two years reveal that side of him:  

In preparation for his first debate on Zionist issues, well before the Council was created, Elmer wrote me, "I needed a proper and efficacious combination of my own tradition of liberal Judaism and a more specific inventory of the political problems involved in the territorial and demographic problems of Palestine/the Middle East." He thus discovered what he later called "the Jewish Dilemma," the title of his first book (1945). In order to separate the religion of Judaism from the political nationalism of Zionism it was necessary to discuss the geopolitics — not only the theology — of the Middle East. He wrote me:  

"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’ (a euphemism for all Jews), the deliberate omission of any political justice for the indigenous Arab inhabitants of Palestine — 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."  

Opponents of non-Zionism or anti-Zionism or the Council chose as a matter of effective strategy to ignore or even denigrate Elmer Berger’s (or anti-Zionism’s) convictions about Judaism, and focus solely on political argumentation. They mounted malicious assaults on opponents of the Zionist movement. Such attacks inevitably were woven into Elmer’s obituaries in the mass media.  

But I remember as well his often private exposition of a Judaism for all seasons, and all places.

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