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Jews Against Israel
Rabbi Elmer Berger's long struggle against the Zionist movement
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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.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: Israel 
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  1. I suspect that the Jewish loyalty to Israel is no more, no less of a problem than Catholic loyalty to the Vatican. In fact, judging by the way things have worked out, the Catholics have been the bigger problem. Many of them seem to think they can force their beliefs into the legal sphere. I find this problematic.

    Concerning a Jew who is against Israel, this is not too surprising. Israel is a place with a government, a specific type of government, and those who do not like the way that government is designed (the system within which each government must operate) would find themselves in opposition to it.

    Israel is known for the Kibbutz. In the 60s the vast majority of its’ leaders spent time on the kibbutz. A kibbutz is a communist form of government. Everyone shares everything, and everyone is assigned their work for the day. This is the mindset that carried with them into the government. Sadly we do not think MORE along this line. I would not want to live in a communist system, but I would love to live in a nice community. Ok, I do. I live in Montreal. But things are different here than in New York, where I used to live.

    I think we need to divide up which areas of our society are subject to the profit motive, and which are not. Not everything should be. Free Market capitalism is fine for those areas delineated as subject to the profit motive, but things like childcare and education and healthcare should not be amonst them. After all, do you want medical corporations trying to cure diseases (one-shot, little profit) or manage them (constant revenue stream)? Because capitalism clearly leads down the path that brings in the most money, which is to treat diseases, not cure them.

  2. Clint says:

    ” By 1940-41, the “Stern Gang,” among them Yitzhak Shamir, later Prime Minister of Israel, presented the Nazis with the “Fundamental Features of the Proposal of the National Military Organization in Palestine (Irgun Zvai Leumi) Concerning the Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe and the Participation of the NMO in the War on the Side of Germany.”

    Avraham Stern and his followers announced that

    “The NMO, which is well-acquainted with the goodwill of the German Reich government and its authorities towards Zionist activity inside Germany and towards Zionist emigration plans, is of the opinion that:

    1. Common interests could exist between the establishment of a new order in Europe in conformity with the German concept, and the true national aspirations of the Jewish people as they are embodied by the NMO. 2. Cooperation between the new Germany and a renewed folkish-national Hebraium would be possible and, 3. The establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich, would be in the interest of a maintained and strengthened future German position of power in the Near East.

    Proceeding from these considerations, the NMO in Palestine, under the condition the above-mentioned national aspirations of the Israeli freedom movement are recognized on the side of the German Reich, offers to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side.”

  3. “…no less of a problem than Catholic loyalty to the Vatican.”

    Interesting. I was not aware that there was any considerable lobbying effort with the aim of assisting the Vatican to regain political control of the Papal States.

  4. Clint says:

    And I suspect that The Catholic Church doesn’t get $ 3 Billion in U.S. Foreign Aid each year.

  5. Simon says:

    I’m sorry is this magazine about US politics or about Israel/Palestine?

  6. Vickie says:

    And it sure seems secularists have used the legal system to impose their view in the legal sphere: ie Climate change and the meaning of marriage.

  7. Clint says:

    Is using American taxpayers’ force confiscated money about U.S.politics or about Israel/Palestine?

  8. Andy says:

    Simaion,when it gets dull an article about Israel/Palestine juices it up a bit.Particulary as they have a signifigant readership in the US Jewish community and some following in Israel,so it’s an interest beyond the political influence which is substantial in Congress which does merge with Us politics.
    What many folks , Jews included don’t understand is that being part of the Jewish people is like being part of a family.If one has a Jewish mother or is converted by an Orthodox Jewish court then even a sabbath desecrating atheist is [while for certain living in errorsin in Hebrew means mistake] just as much a Jew as any Orthodox Rabbi. There is no obligation for a Jew to believe in Zionism. The Reform historically were afraid of the dual loyalty charge [which according to Jewsih law would be a sin as Jews are obligated to be loyal to the country where they live as long as they can follow their religion]and as stated in the article in the past were often anti Zionist.The majority of pre world war 2 Orthodox Jewish leaders were anti Zionist because it was a largely secular movement seeking to replace Judaism with nationalism. After the holacaust the majority of all Jews realized the overpowering need for a Jewish State so today there is only differing opinions as to what are the best policies. Only the extreme fringes of the Jewsih people oppose having a State, and leaving the Jews as vulnerable as they were in the past. Opposing Israel as a Jewsih State today makes little more sense then advocating giving the USA to the Indians who do seem to me to have a more legitimate claim to it, than ant Arabs do to Palestine, which was given under certain conditions [keeping the commandments]to the Jews and again some of the land was given by the UN.May the redemption come speedily in our days when Israel will be recogniozed by all and the righteous of all nations will livein peace and harmony.Until then some sort of truce where there flare ups and periodic but limited blooodshed may be the best we can realisticly expect.

  9. Simon,

    Did you notice that Rabbi Berger was an American?

  10. Markus says:

    i don’t understand why conservatives are against any sort of nationalism, jewish and palestinian arab included. judaism is not primarily a religion, it is an identity, a state of belonging to a certain people. Not every people can demand their own state, as a practical matter, but those who want one and can secure it without oppressing or threatening other peoples have a moral right to a nation of their own. Thus, Israel within the 1949 borders is legitimate, “eretz israel” is not, and Rhodesia and pre-1994 South Africa were not legitimate either. conservatives ought to be able to call for an america-first foreign policy without idealizing anti-nationalists like Berger. many conservatives and traditionalists also fail to realize the potential upside of the palestinian conflict. for one, greater jewish support for the idea that europe ought to remain european.

  11. The purpose of my essay, beside discussing Jack Ross’s engrossing biography,was to explain why Rabbi Berger could not prevail with his universalist message. His failure,as I try to show, was due to his misconstruction of Judaism as an ethnically-based religion as well as to the political forces he was arrayed against.I didn’t know, pace Markus, that I’d set out to “idealize anti-nationalism.” That has never been a project that interests me.

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “His failure…”

    How fail? I’m reading him today, a man I’ve never heard about, and agreeing with him.

  13. Ben says:

    “How fail? I’m reading him today, a man I’ve never heard about, and agreeing with him.”

    The fact that his views have no real world traction and resonate only with Internet warriors like yourself (nice handle, BTW) is “how fail”. Or, “how HE failed”, if you want to use proper English.

  14. Gary says:

    Not that it is germaine to this article, but while the Catholic church may not get foreign aid fom the US, it does receive enormous tax breaks from local, state, and the federal governments. The property taxes alone the church does not pay probably exceeds three billion dollars annually.

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