Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Tribute to Rabbi Elmer Berger: A Jewish Thinker in the Tradition of Humanistic Universalism

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Tribute to Rabbi Elmer Berger: A Jewish Thinker in the Tradition of Humanistic Universalism

Article excerpt

A Tribute to Rabbi Elmer Berger: A Jewish Thinker in the Tradition of Humanistic Universalism

One of the great moral leaders of our time has departed, leaving a broad legacy which spans six decades. Rabbi Elmer Berger, who died on Oct. 6, 1996 in his home at Long Boat Key in Florida at the age of 88, was an intellectual who authored a half-dozen books and scores of articles in popular magazines and specialized journals. He was an activist, lecturer, philosopher and theologian. He graduated from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Dr. Berger's legacy comprises two major themes: first, Judaism is a religion of universal values which does not assume a nationality; second, equality for every single human being in Palestine/Israel irrespective of whether that person is Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. Together, these themes constituted the message which characterized his professional life and long career, first as founder, executive director and executive vice president of the American Council for Judaism (1943-1967), and after 1968 as founder and president of the American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.

The message was that peace in the Middle East requires the application of Judaism's commitment to truth and justice and the repudiation of Zionism's commitment to Palestinian dispossession, dispersion, and disenfranchisement. He rejected categorically the claim by Zionism and the state of Israel that all who profess Judaism as their faith belong automatically to a national entity called the "Jewish people." Under Israeli law, all constituents of this "Jewish People" national entity are Israeli citizens with rights and obligations. This is the meaning of the claim that Israel is "the sovereign state of the Jewish people" -- a claim which confers upon Israel an extraterritorial jurisdiction over Jews wherever they may be, a claim which resulted in the establishment of the society in which "Jews. to use Orwell's phrase, would be more equal than others."

For Elmer Berger, who was ordained in 1932 and who served congregations in Pontiac and Flint, Michigan, early in his career. religion was "a private, individual matter of conscience." particularly in open, democratic societies. But when religion becomes a "determinant of rights, responsibilities and status, the resultant society is no longer democratic...Then territorial disputes are no longer negotiable by the simple adjustment of boundaries."

The fusion of religion and politics in Israel made co-existence impossible.

Zionism's exclusion of non-Jews created a zero-sum situation which made an historic compromise rather elusive. The "peacemakers." all the way up to Oslo, can only pretend, for genuine peace was unattainable without addressing the fusion of religion and politics in Israel, which made co-existence impossible. Hence ethnic cleansing and colonization have been endemic to the Zionist movement throughout Israel's existence, no matter who was in power. He wrote:

"The unarguable, political fact is that between Begin, the so-called `extremist,' and [Chaim] Weizmann. the suave, deliberately ambiguous `moderate,' the difference was one of only method or tactic: as indeed today [1984] the difference between a Kahane [the late Meir] and a Shamir or even a Peres, is one of only radicalism or gradualism."

Dr. Berger spent a lifetime fighting against the Zionist conception of Jews, and he was able, together with another great humanitarian and brilliant legal scholar, Professor W.T. Mallison, formerly of George Washington University, to obtain from the U.S. Department of State in 1964 an official rejection of this "Jewish people" nationality claim in international law. Dr. Berger's opposition to this concept was very significant and it has far-reaching consequences. It is consistent with the humanitarian programs which were the hallmark of his career and the essence of the movement which he led. …

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