An antiwar libertarian and a principled critic of Jewish nationalism, Jack Ross seems the ideal author to have undertaken a biography of Elmer Berger (1908-1996), 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 Lilienthal 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 Berger’s 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. (The Palestinians were peripheral to this decision; many Americans believed Palestine was largely unsettled before European Jews went there to live.)
But a far more critical explanation to which Ross’s book may lead the reader—although that is not necessarily the author’s intention—is social. The anti-Zionists were largely the upper-crust German Jews, while the Zionists were overwhelmingly the Ostjuden who arrived in the U.S. a few generations later and who seemed less clubbable. Some spokesmen for the anti-Zionists, like Wolsey and Reichert, were originally from Eastern Europe but worked hard to fit in. Berger, who grew up in an affluent home in Cleveland, was the son of a Hungarian Jewish railroad engineer, but his mother’s family were German and had lived for generations in Texas before Elmer’s mother, Selma Turk, moved to Ohio after her marriage. Elmer’s association with the tony Reform Temple on Euclid Avenue was a socially desirable connection, and his decision to study for the Reform Rabbinate, without knowing a word of Hebrew, may have been the Jewish equivalent of becoming an Episcopal minister, when such a career move still counted for something.
As the struggle went against Berger’s side, the American Council for Judaism had to look for new allies, most of whom would not have pleased its original membership. At first Berger’s efforts against the Zionist project attracted people of high standing, such as the conservative isolationist senator Karl Mundt, TR’s son Kermit Roosevelt, and the president of Union Theological Seminary, Henry Sloan Coffin. By the end of his life, however, Berger had to settle for radically leftist allies who shared, if nothing else, his negative attitude about Jewish nationalism. In the 1970s he built bridges to an ordained Conservative Rabbi, Everett Gendler, who combined disapproval of Israel with ties to the counterculture. Gendler was a close friend of both Abbie Hoffman and Todd Gitlin.
Despite recent attempts to treat Berger’s cause as a leftist one, it certainly did not begin as such. One notices reading Ross’s work how many of Berger’s early associates were linked to the Republican Party and in some cases the America First movement that opposed U.S. entry into World War II; they were located in places like Galveston, Texas; Shreveport, Louisiana; and San Francisco; that is, just about anywhere outside the Northeast. By contrast, one of the most prominent Zionists in America, the Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, combined Jewish nationalism with Communist fellow-traveling. At the same time Wise was defending Jewish political and ethnic identity, he was denouncing Churchill for daring to criticize Communist oppression in his “Iron Curtain” speech of 1946. The leading Yiddish newspaper Forward in New York upheld Zionism and socialism with equal zeal.
Generally, the German Jews were politically well to the right of their Eastern European coreligionists. But most of the Eastern Europeans with congregational affiliations were Orthodox, while the German Jews sounded and acted like liberal mainline Protestants. It was also the case that as the ethnic and social composition of Reform Judaism changed, so did its politics. It moved to the left in American affairs while becoming more emphatically Zionist.
Other factors worked to the advantage of the Zionists, beside superior numbers and sympathy from Christians reacting to the persecution of European Jewry. They had an informed understanding of the core Jewish tradition, as opposed to the imaginative reconstruction devised by 19th-century German or German-American Jews. Jewish ethnic nationalists could find a multitude of Biblical texts to support their position, many of which Evangelicals have also noticed and taken seriously. The Prophets, who were beloved to the authors of the Pittsburgh Platform, were not silent when it came to foretelling the restoration and enlargement of the Jewish kingdom. (See for example Ezekiel’s detailed sketch of the rebuilt Temple.) Perhaps the most famous medieval Jewish biblical commentator, the 11th-century French Rabbi Solomon the son of Isaac, insisted that the story of Creation comes at the beginning of Genesis to confirm the right of the Jewish nation to repossess its homeland. No less than the Creator of the Universe, according to this commentator, guaranteed the Jewish claim to their ancestral territory.
Listening to the present members of the ACJ explain that the “Jewish tradition” categorically excludes a Jewish national identity, one has to wonder on what planet these advocates are living. It is certainly possible to challenge Jewish nationalism from a different religious perspective, but it’s foolish to pretend that the Jewish tradition, about which the anti-Zionists usually seem to know little, rejects what it obviously and repeatedly affirms. The statement that Berger was fond of making that the Zionists were defending a form of Judaism “that is about fifty years old” is true only in a limited sense. Jews became modern nationalists only at the end of the 19th century. But it was a piece of cake for them to move from their traditional view of themselves as a “people” to modern political and ethnic nationalism.
Having offered these critical remarks about Berger’s cause and Ross’s valorous defense of the “Rabbi Outcast,” let me also express my irrepressible sympathy for those who rallied to the anti-Zionist side. They comported themselves with dignity in a fight in which they were invariably outnumbered—and in a struggle in which their loudmouthed, bullying opponents behaved with predictable boorishness. It is even hard to notice any effect that the American Council for Judaism had on America’s relations with Israel. The one time it exercised some clout, through its members in the State Department after World War II, the council seems to have advocated an anodyne policy of trying to maintain peace between Arabs and the growing Jewish settlement in Palestine. Even this policy, to whatever extent it was applied, had no effect on anything.
Ross cites the truly vicious attacks against Berger launched by his enemies when this aged gentleman was in no position to hurt AIPAC. Berger’s adversaries continued to assault him even when he was frail and beaten. One would expect no better from such graceless winners.
Paul Gottfried is a professor at Elizabethtown College.