Recently finished Jack Ross’ fine biography, “Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism.” Highly recommended, especially for those unaware of the American Jewish community’s complex historical relationship to Zionism and the Zionist movement.
Rabbi Elmer Berger is not a commonly known figure in American Jewish history, but as the Executive Director of the American Council for Judaism, he played an important role in promoting alternatives to political Jewish nationalism from before World War II through and after the 1967 Six Day War. Today Zionism – and the Zionist narrative of Jewish history – occupies an indelible place in the American Jewish communal psyche. But not long ago it was a point of lively debate in our community.
Rabbi Berger himself came from a classical Reform mileau that thoroughly rejected Jewish political nationalism on religious grounds. This ethic was made official Reform movement policy when, under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, Reform rabbis passed the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform which declared, among other things:
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.
Even for those familiar with classical Reform’s opposition to Zionism, it is startling to read that anti-Zionism was actually fairly widespread throughout American Jewish communal life at large. I had not realized, for example, that the American Jewish Committee – today among the Jewish community’s leading Israel-advocacy organizations – considered itself “non-Zionist” even after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
I was also rather startled (actually troubled) to learn how deeply the Zionist movement has influenced the evolution of American Jewish communal life. Ross points out, for instance, that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, considered by many to be the most powerful American Jewish organization today, was originally formed in 1943 as “The Committee on Unity for Palestine” – an effort mobilized specifically to quell dissent over Zionism in the American Jewish community.
Although Zionism would eventually become sine qua non for the Reform movement and the American Jewish community at large, Rabbi Berger’s leadership through the American Council for Judaism continued to provide an important dissenting voice in our community until his death in 1996. As the the American Jewish community grows increasingly ambivalent to its relationship to Israel and Zionism – and as we witness more and more the sorrows wrought by a Judaism that puts its faith in nation-statism, militarism and land-acquisition, Berger’s vision and leadership feels more relevant than ever. (Jack Ross thoughtfully discusses these implications in depth in his Epilogue.)
Jack packs an enormous amount of material into a relatively short book – and those who are not somewhat versed in the history might find its density challenging. But his book is an important one and is well worth the effort. Click above to hear Jack speaking about his book during a recent appearance at the National Press Club. Pay attention carefully – like his writing style, he often strings his ideas together in something of a mad rush. But they are critical and pertinent ideas indeed – and deeply deserving of our attention.