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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 1996, page 25

In Memoriam

Rabbi Elmer Berger, 1908-1996

by Norton Mezvinsky

As an advocate of the universal prophetic and classical Reform traditions in Judaism, Rabbi Elmer Berger for over 60 years, until his death on Oct. 6, 1996, was a consistent, outspoken, courageous opponent of Jewish nationalism in general and Zionism in particular. In learned and literary, as well as polemical writings and speeches, he challenged and refuted on humanitarian and Judaic grounds the essential nature of the Zionist movement and its advocacy of the need for an exclusivist, Jewish state.

He opposed the concept of the existence of “the Jewish people” and Zionism’s basic premise that Jews would be persecuted in all nation-states wherein they are a minority, thus necessitating a Jewish state in which Jews would begin as and remain the majority. From the time of Israel’s creation of a nation-state in 1948 until his death, moreover, he unremittingly and publicly criticized Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

Elmer Berger was a political activist as well as a scholar-advocate and polemicist. He tried to convince American Jews to oppose the take-over by Zionists and their backers of Jewish organizations in the United States. He preached to Jews and non-Jews alike that a Jewish, monolithic position on Zionism and the state of Israel should not and/or did not exist. He openly allied himself at times with Palestinians and other Arabs even though, when he deemed it necessary, he criticized some of those with whom he worked. He did not flinch when Zionist opponents, who mostly refused to discuss issues he raised substantively, labeled him a self-hating Jew merely because he opposed Zionism and certain policies of the state of Israel.

Elmer Berger was born in Cleveland on May 27, 1908. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1930 with Phi Beta Kappa distinction. He then attended and completed the required course of study at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and was ordained a Reform rabbi in 1932. He thereafter served for several years as the spiritual leader of congregations at Temple Beth-Jacob in Pontiac and Temple Beth-El in Flint, Michigan. He soon received nationwide attention when he began to challenge in speeches and sermons the influence of Jewish nationalism and to urge Jews to identify themselves with the life of the country of their citizenship. Arguing that the liberal, democratic idea offered Jews the best opportunity to gain equality and maintain stability in the nations in which they lived, he directly refuted the essence of Zionism.

In 1942 Rabbi Berger wrote an essay, “Why I am a Non-Zionist,” in which he combined the liberal Reform tradition with specifications of the political, territorial and demographic problems of Palestine. The publication and widespread circulation of this essay as a pamphlet led to a redirection of Berger’s career. Judge Joseph Proskauer, a leader of the American Jewish Committee, was one of a number of prestigious American Jews who congratulated Rabbi Berger for his essay. Having already denounced Zionism as damaging to American Jews, Proskauer predicted that either the American Jewish Committee would have to adopt a position opposed to Zionism or another Jewish organization would do so. Soon thereafter a group of prominent Reform rabbis formed the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), an organization that espoused opposition to Zionism based upon the Classical Reform tradition.

In 1942 Elmer Berger was appointed the executive director of the ACJ, a post he held until he became executive vice president in 1955. For over 25 years Elmer Berger was the major ideologue and spokesperson for the ACJ. Shortly after the Six-Day War in June 1967, during an internal, organizational dispute, Elmer Berger left the ACJ. With a host of former ACJ members and backers he established a new organization in 1969, named American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism (AJAZ). Working with and through AJAZ, Elmer Berger continued his writing and speaking until shortly before his death.

Elmer Berger’s major writings include the following books: The Jewish Dilemma (1945), A Partisan History of Judaism (1951), Who Knows Better Must Say So (1955), Judaism or Jewish Nationalism (1957), A Just Peace in the Middle East (1971), Letters and Non-Letters: The White House, Zionism and Israel (1972), Memoirs of an Anti-Zionist Jew (1976), Judaism or Zionism: What Difference for the Middle East? (1986), and Peace for Palestine: First Lost Opportunity (l993). In addition, he contributed numerous articles and book reviews to academic journals and general publications in the United States and abroad. A book of essays by specialists in various fields, titled Anti-Zionism: Analytical Reflections, was dedicated to Rabbi Berger in 1988.

Elmer Berger’s last book, Peace for Palestine: First Lost Opportunity, published by the University Press of Florida, was clearly his most scholarly work in terms of original research. In this work he analyzed declassified documents from Israeli and Zionist archives that cover the 1948-49 armistice negotiations between Israel and the then-belligerent Arab states. He included references to and comments upon relevant United Nations resolutions, United States government attitudes and policies cited from the volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States 1948-1949, and previously published works on the subject by other scholars. Berger demonstrated that the negotiating strategies of the main players produced a “near rigidity” that defeated all efforts to achieve peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this work Elmer Berger showed that he was capable of doing rigorous scholarship and dealing with controversial issues with insight and a high degree of objectivity.

In numerous other writings, especially those that focused upon Jewish nationality and legal claims, Elmer Berger contributed by providing in-depth scholarly research. He, nevertheless, may have made his most enduring contributions and exerted his greatest influence upon others with his more polemical and critical writings in which he contrasted the prophetic version of Judaism with Jewish nationalism and in which he attacked Zionism specifically on Judaic and humanitarian grounds. In a recent letter to his good friend Leonard Sussman, Elmer Berger, in referring to his first book, The Jewish Dilemma (1945), wrote: “I never veered from my enthusiasm for the transcendent and universal principles of the Judaism of the great literary Prophets of the Old Testament. Yet the widespread public debate over the political destiny of Palestine, the unwarranted and basically fallacious Zionist claim to represent something called ”˜the Jewish people’ (a euphemism for all Jews), the deliberate omission of any political justice for the indigenous Arab inhabitants of Palestine all led me to intensify my study and understanding of the conflict in Palestine at a time when increasing numbers throughout the Western world were becoming concerned with postwar plans for peace.”

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.