Jews against Israel

By Gottfried, Paul | The American Conservative, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Jews against Israel

Gottfried, Paul, The American Conservative

Jews Against Israel Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, Jack Ross, Potomac Books, 232 pages

An antiwar libertarian and a principled critic of Jewish nationalism, Jack Ross seems the ideal author to have undertaken a biography of Elmer Berger (19081996), the Reform rabbi who pursued a rearguard action against the Zionist movement for more than 50 years. An increasingly marginalized figure after the birth of the Jewish state in 1948, Berger spent the remainder of his life fighting through various organizations - particularly the American Council of Judaism, which he cofounded in 1942 - against the inevitable victory of his enemies. It is now almost impossible to recall that there was a time when a large, influential body of Jewish leaders vehemently opposed the creation of a Jewish national state. Indeed, there was a time when most of the Reform Jewry took that stand, and when Berger's book The Jewish Dilemma would not have occasioned the widespread Jewish indignation that it did when it was published in 1945.

Berger's position in that work and in other polemical writings is clearly stated. If Jews insist on their ethnic uniqueness and define themselves as a separate people entitled to their own country, then they are admitting that their adversaries have been right all along: Jews cannot be citizens of the countries in which they live, except in a purely technical sense. They have their real country in the Middle East. Moreover, argued Berger, if the Zionist project succeeded, it would declare all Jews, no matter where they lived, to be first and foremost members of a purely Jewish state. The Zionists would therefore raise questions about the loyalty of Jewish citizens to the countries in which they lived, and the Zionists would do so in a way that would keep non-Israeli Jews permanently on the defensive.

Even more significantly for Berger, and for such other kindred spirits as State Department hands Alfred LiIienthal and George Levison, Rabbi Morris Lazaron of Baltimore, and Irving Reichert of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, Zionism was incompatible with a universalist understanding of Judaism based on prophetic ethics and not excluding the "Jewish" teachings of Jesus. Such ideas belonged to a Reform tradition that came from Germany in the mid- 19th century. Reform leaders such as the long-lived German-born Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, and such educational institutions as Hebrew Union College, founded in 1883, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, organized ten years earlier, showed the shaping influence of German Jews in the United States.

These formative ideas about universal ethics and social concern as the basis for religious practice were also reflected in the Pittsburgh Platform, which two of Wise's students, Kaufman Kohler and Emil Hirsch, drafted in 1885. This authoritative platform for Reform congregations for half a century was unequivocally anti-Zionist and regarded most established Jewish ritual practices as coming out of an age that was "under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present moral and spiritual state." What Jews were expected to draw from the "Mosaic law" - and by implication, its later Rabbinic glosses - was the "God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race."

One might wonder how the adherents of this platform, who for all intents and purposes were German Jewish Unitarians, remained united through their rhetoric about moral progress. The answer is social cohesion, good manners, and the habit of attending the same congregation week after week. There was also nothing in their creed that stood in the way of their assimilation into the WASP upper crust, save for non-acceptance on the part of those they were coming to resemble through conscious imitation.

It is usually argued that the victory of the Zionist cause came about because of the anti-Jewish persecutions of the Nazi period. Undoubtedly the growth and importance of such groups as the World Jewish Congress and the fact that longtime critics of Zionism such as Bergers mentor Rabbi Louis Wolsey (who was originally associated with the Euclid Avenue Temple in Cleveland) went over to the Zionists in 1945 may be attributed to historic pressures: after World War II and the Holocaust, the establishment of a Jewish state seemed both necessary and just. …

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