Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism

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Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger And American Jewish Anti-Zionism By Jack Ross, Potomac Books, 2011, hardcover, 232 pp. List: $29.95; AET: $19.

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld

While many Americans may not know it, Jewish opposition to Zionism has a long history. Rabbi Elmer Berger was probably the best known Jewish anti-Zionist during most of his lifetime, particularly from World War II through the l967 Six Day War and its aftermath.

A Reform rabbi, Berger served throughout the period as executive director of the American Council for Judaism, a group founded by leading Reform rabbis emphasizing its belief that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, and that Americans of the Jewish faith are Americans by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Catholics, Protestants or Muslims.

In an important new biography of Rabbi Berger, 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.

According to Ross, the classical doctrine of Reform Judaism, which prevailed for the century of its existence until about the 1930s, "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 a Jewish state, or of the ancient sacrificial religion and priesthood."

The definitive statement of Reform Jewish belief was issued in 1885, reflecting the classical liberalism of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who founded the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. 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."

Elmer Berger, born in Cleveland in 1907, was ordained at Hebrew Union College, which upheld the Classical Reform philosophy. While Berger maintained these views throughout his life, Reform Judaism itself slowly abandoned them and embraced Zionism. Those Jews who maintained the Classical Reform ideas, notes Ross, were viewed by the organized Jewish community as mortal enemies: "the exorcism of the anti-Zionists from the Reform movement would undeniably be among the most vicious and merciless purge of heretics in the history of American religion, perhaps rivaled only by the suppression of Mormon polygamy. …