Elmer Berger (rabbi)

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Elmer Berger (May 27, 1908 – October 5, 1996) was a Jewish Reform rabbi widely known for his anti-Zionism. He was the executive director of the American Council for Judaism from its founding in 1942 until 1955. After this time, he served as a consultant until he was forced to resign in 1968, when he founded American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.

Family background[edit]

Berger was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a Hungarian-born railroad engineer and a third generation German-American Jew born in Texas. As a boy his family attended the Euclid Avenue Temple (Anshe Chesed Congregation)[1] where he was encouraged to study for the rabbinate by Rabbi Louis Wolsey. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Cincinnati, he was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1932. He began his brief career in the ministry in Pontiac, Michigan before serving in Flint, Michigan from 1936 to 1942. Berger married Seville Schwartz, the sister of a classmate at Hebrew Union College on September 3, 1931. They divorced in 1946, and shortly thereafter he remarried to Ruth Winegarden, the daughter of a prominent furniture manufacturer who belonged to the Flint congregation. They were married until Ruth's death in 1979.

Political activism[edit]

From the beginning, Elmer Berger was squarely in the camp of those Reform rabbis who opposed the Columbus Platform[2] of 1937 which moderated[3] the movement's original anti-Zionism and rejection of traditional ritual. It was Berger's mentor, Louis Wolsey, who would in June 1942 issue a call to convene the American Council for Judaism, and who hired Berger as its first executive director. In the organization's struggle against the Zionist program adopted at the Biltmore Conference in May 1942, Berger increasingly became the movement's public face, particularly with the publication of his book The Jewish Dilemma in 1945, which argued that Zionism was a surrender to the racial myths about the Jews and that assimilationism was still the best path for the Jews in the modern world.

Controversies[edit]

In his book The Jewish Dilemma, he also expressed support of the Soviet Union and ignored the realities of the lack of freedom and persecution of Jews and many others under Stalin. He wrote "..the Jews of the Soviet have enjoyed equality of status and opportunity for only about a quarter of a century. They are the most recently emancipated Jews in the world... Freedom and integration and emancipation flow now through the veins of the Jews."[4] and that "We have seen Jews free and equal under democracy and communism."[5] In respect to Zionism he wrote, "At a single stroke, the Revolution emancipated those very Jews for whom, previously, no solution other than Zionism would be efficacious, according to Zionist spokesmen. Soviet Jews no longer had need of Palestine- or any other refuge. The level of suffering of Russian Jewry... was gone".[6]

Louis Wolsey resigned from the ACJ in 1945,[7] but this did little to slow the activities of Berger and the ACJ, who felt that their chief purpose was to combat the influence of Zionism in the religious life of American Jews. Murray Polner, a historian of Judaism in the USA, has written of the ACJ: By 1948, with the establishment of an independent Israel, the council had earned the enmity of the vast majority of American Jewry, who viewed the group as indifferent, if not hostile, to Jews who had lived through the Holocaust and had nowhere to go. The ACJ is said to have had about 14,000 members in 1948.[8]

Ostracism[edit]

Beyond 1948, Elmer Berger continued to write and lecture on behalf of the ACJ, becoming its Executive Vice President. In this position he became increasingly well known and widely despised by the Zionist camp in American Judaism, particularly after he toured the broader Middle East in 1955 and his views became increasingly identified by opponents with Arab and Palestinian causes.

After the Six Day War in 1967, an event which swept what had previously been an arguably ambivalent American Jewish community with a massive pro-Israel fervor, Berger was widely pilloried, including by other members of the American Council for Judaism, for declaring Israel to be the principal aggressor in the conflict. This ultimately led to Berger's resignation from the Council the following year.

Later life[edit]

In 1968 he founded, with the support of some loyal friends, American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism (AJAZ), which was intended to serve only as his personal vehicle for writing and lecturing. This, he continued to do actively, although in a state of semi-retirement, splitting his time between New York and Sarasota, Florida.

Elmer Berger died in Sarasota of lung cancer at the age of 88. Among his direct legacies were his close involvement with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and his mentorship of Middle East scholar Norton Mezvinsky, who wrote a detailed obituary for him[9] concluding:

"Throughout his adult life Elmer Berger’s definition of Judaism did not vary. In the introduction to his book A Partisan History of Judaism he wrote: “There are those who see Judaism as ‘the religion of the Jewish People.’ This book will not please them. For it indicates, unmistakably, that the origins of Judaism were not in ‘the Jewish people’ and that the best and finest of Judaism today transcends the Jewish people.” At the end of this same book, Elmer Berger succinctly gave his definition: “Judaism is to do justice and to have mercy and to walk humbly with God; and all the rest is commentary and of secondary importance.” It was from this perspective that Elmer Berger carefully and specifically documented his case against Zionism and against the oppressive character of the Zionist state. He called upon the state of Israel to de-Zionize, i.e. to cease being an exclusivist Jewish state granting by law rights and privileges to Jews not granted to non-Jews. He beseeched the state of Israel to develop as a truly democratic state, to be just and merciful to all people and thus to walk humbly with God.
Elmer Berger was a Jewish patriot".

In 2011 a biography of Berger was published, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism by Jack Ross.[10][11] According to the American Council for Judaism the book places liberal Jewish anti-Zionism in historical perspective.[12] Ross' book was criticized by Lawrence Grossman, the editor of the American Jewish Year Book.[13]

Bibliography (partial)[edit]

  • Elmer Berger: The Jewish Dilemma : The Case Against Zionist Nationalism, Devin-Adair, New York, 1945
  • Elmer Berger: A Partisan History of Judaism : The Jewish Case Against Zionism, Devin-Adair, New York, 1951
  • Elmer Berger: Who Knows Better Must Say So! American Council for Judaism, New York, 1955
  • Elmer Berger: Judaism or Jewish Nationalism: The Alternative to Zionism, Bookman Associates, 1957
  • Elmer Berger: Israel's Threat to Judaism: A speech delivered to the Irish Arab Society, Dublin, 5 February 1970
  • Elmer Berger: Letters and Non-Letters: The White House, Zionism and Israel, Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut, 1972.
  • Elmer Berger: Memoirs of an Anti-Zionist Jew. Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut, 1978.
  • Deane A. Tack, Elmer Berger: Thorns of Resistance, Destra Publishers, 1993 ISBN 0-9635982-0-1
  • Elmer Berger: Peace for Palestine: First Lost Opportunity, University Press of Florida Gainesville, FL 1993 ISBN 0-8130-1207-4

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Cleveland Jewish History - Anshe Chesed (Euclid Avenue Temple)". Retrieved 21 September 2014. 
  2. ^ "The Columbus Platform (1937) - Jewish Virtual Library". Retrieved 21 September 2014. 
  3. ^ "Zionism-Israel Information Center Historical Source Documents - Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 - Declaration of Principles - Columbus Platform 1937 - Reform Judaism and Zionism". Retrieved 21 September 2014. 
  4. ^ Berger, Elmer. The Jewish Dilemma. 1945. Pages 13-17.
  5. ^ Ibid., Page 19
  6. ^ Ibid., Page 138-139
  7. ^ Louis Wolsey Papers

    Beginning in the fall of 1944, however, Wolsey began to experience a sense of alienation from the anti-Zionist movement. He felt that Berger and Wallach ran the ACJ in an "undemocratic fashion" and that they overemphasized ACJ's anti-Zionist aspects rather than its Reform principles. As a result, Wolsey resigned as vice-president in December 1945 and thereafter became totally inactive in the ACJ. In 1948, upon the creation of the State of Israel, Wolsey formally withdrew as a member of the American Council for Judaism. In a statement released to the press, he called for the dissolution of the Council and pleaded for an effort to heal all wounds in order to strengthen Israel by creating a united spiritual front of American Jews. Wolsey's recognition of the realities of the situation and his willingness to state his changed position in public won him much acclaim.

  8. ^ "Obituary on "Elmer Berger 88, a Foe of Zionism as well as Israel". New York Times. October 9, 1996. 
  9. ^ Mezvinsky, Norton (November–December 1996). "Rabbi Elmer Berger 1908-1996". Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. p. 25. 
  10. ^ Jack Ross, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, Potomac Books, Inc., 2011, ISBN 1-59797-697-0, ISBN 978-1-59797-697-8
  11. ^ Philip Weiss, ‘Rabbi outcast,’ a biography of visionary anti-Zionist Elmer Berger, is coming to bookstores soon, Mondoweiss, November 25, 2010.
  12. ^ Allan C. Brownfeld, Elmer Berger’s Anti-Zionism: Keeping the Humane Jewish Tradition Alive, American Council for Judaism website, Fall 2011.
  13. ^ Lawrence Grossman (30 August 2011). "Jews against Zionism". Jewish Ideas Daily. 

References[edit]