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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 1997, pgs. 24, 84

A Tribute to Rabbi Elmer Berger

A Jewish Thinker in the Tradition of Humanistic Universalism

by Dr. Naseer Aruri

One of the great moral leaders of our time has departed, leaving a broad legacy which spans six decades. Rabbi Elmer Berger, who died on Oct. 6, 1996 in his home at Long Boat Key in Florida at the age of 88, was an intellectual who authored a half-dozen books and scores of articles in popular magazines and specialized journals. He was an activist, lecturer, philosopher and theologian. He graduated from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Dr. Berger’s legacy comprises two major themes: first, Judaism is a religion of universal values which does not assume a nationality; second, equality for every single human being in Palestine/Israel irrespective of whether that person is Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. Together, these themes constituted the message which characterized his professional life and long career, first as founder, executive director and executive vice president of the American Council for Judaism (1943-1967), and after 1968 as founder and president of the American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.

The message was that peace in the Middle East requires the application of Judaism’s commitment to truth and justice and the repudiation of Zionism’s commitment to Palestinian dispossession, dispersion, and disenfranchisement. He rejected categorically the claim by Zionism and the state of Israel that all who profess Judaism as their faith belong automatically to a national entity called the “Jewish people.” Under Israeli law, all constituents of this “Jewish People” national entity are Israeli citizens with rights and obligations. This is the meaning of the claim that Israel is “the sovereign state of the Jewish people”a claim which confers upon Israel an extraterritorial jurisdiction over Jews wherever they may be, a claim which resulted in the establishment of the society in which “Jews, to use Orwell’s phrase, would be more equal than others.”

For Elmer Berger, who was ordained in 1932 and who served congregations in Pontiac and Flint, Michigan, early in his career, religion was “a private, individual matter of conscience,” particularly in open, democratic societies. But when religion becomes a “determinant of rights, responsibilities and status, the resultant society is no longer democratic...Then territorial disputes are no longer negotiable by the simple adjustment of boundaries.”

The fusion of religion and politics in Israel made co-existence impossible.

Zionism’s exclusion of non-Jews created a zero-sum situation which made an historic compromise rather elusive. The “peacemakers,” all the way up to Oslo, can only pretend, for genuine peace was unattainable without addressing the fusion of religion and politics in Israel, which made co-existence impossible. Hence ethnic cleansing and colonization have been endemic to the Zionist movement throughout Israel’s existence, no matter who was in power. He wrote:

“The unarguable, political fact is that between Begin, the so-called ”˜extremist,’ and [Chaim] Weizmann, the suave, deliberately ambiguous ”˜moderate,’ the difference was one of only method or tactic; as indeed today [1984] the difference between a Kahane [the late Meir] and a Shamir or even a Peres, is one of only radicalism or gradualism.”

Dr. Berger spent a lifetime fighting against the Zionist conception of Jews, and he was able, together with another great humanitarian and brilliant legal scholar, Professor W.T. Mallison, formerly of George Washington University, to obtain from the U.S. Department of State in 1964 an official rejection of this “Jewish people” nationality claim in international law. Dr. Berger’s opposition to this concept was very significant and it has far-reaching consequences. It is consistent with the humanitarian programs which were the hallmark of his career and the essence of the movement which he led. It is an affirmation of the right of Americans identified as Jews to reject Israel’s claim of extraterritoriality. Rabbi Berger had consistently reminded the U.S. government that its acquiescence in this extraterritoriality claim would seriously infringe upon the U.S. Constitution, because membership in this so-called “Jewish people” national entity, as defined by Israeli law, is determined by either religious or racial criteria.

The Epitome of Scholarship

This lifetime endeavor by Dr. Berger should not be mistaken for an esoteric, intellectual, jurisprudential exercise. It was, in fact, the epitome of committed scholarship, which is rooted in the concepts of pluralist existence and common humanity. These concepts have the attributes of integration, equality for every human being, and democracy for everybody—not only for a select body of citizens. Dr. Berger defended these concepts in countless speeches, debates, newsletters and treatises. His committed scholarship offered Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews a way out of the morbid Hobbesian existence in which they found themselves. It challenged the Israeli objective of segregating American Jews and retarding their integration into American society; it also demonstrated that the distinction between Judaism and Zionism is a prerequisite for achieving true democracy in Israel. Only if Israel were to be de-Zionized would it be able to trade a genuine democracy for the present Herrenvolk democracy.

Rabbi Berger’s scholarship also vindicates the democratic, secular, unitary solution proposed by the Palestinian national movement in 1968. He was not discouraged by those who abandoned that vision, condemning it as an impractical solution, utterly unsuitable for our imperfect world. He was not deterred by the emasculation of that vision and by its removal from the diplomatic agenda of the Middle East. For him, it was the only long-term alternative to the current system, which Dr. Israel Shahak described, and the Oslo process has effectively confirmed, as apartheid.

This system makes its Jewish citizens and potential citizens, who have never even lived in the state, more equal than those who have a recognized claim to Palestinian nationality. In that sense, Dr. Berger perceived Zionist legislation as more grotesque than apartheid in South Africa. In a speech to the African National Congress and the November 29th Committee on April 5, 1986, Rabbi Berger said:

“I have often wondered why Americans, from the presidents to the most common citizens, have given the back of our hand to the original PLO proposition for a democratic secular unitary state. Surely in any other troubled place in the world, we would give our blessings to an insurgency with such commitment. It may be too late for now to realize a unitary state in Palestine... But we, free citizens, can still exercise our freedom to influence aid to Israel upon a reformation of its Zionist, separatist system of equality practiced against its non-Jewish citizens.”

Although the unitary, multi-ethnic model was Berger’s preferred solution, he nevertheless endorsed the two-state formula on pragmatic grounds. “It would be impossible to go from where we are today to a unitary state...Palestinians must have a state to exercise their inalienable self-determination,” he said in 1986.

Not only did Dr. Berger speak with a voice of conviction and authority on the issue of Zionism and its implications for Jews and Arabs, but he also exhibited a profound knowledge of the scriptures. In his numerous speeches and debates, he often quoted from the scriptures with tremendous ease and confidence, often making his opponents uncomfortable and bewildered. Frequently they would resort to name-calling, labeling him “a self-hating Jew.” But he would cling tenaciously to his conception of Judaism as a religion of universal values, as a covenant religion. To those “religious Zionists” who invoked the biblical promise in defense of Israel’s creation and conquests, he said:

“The people were promised the land only if specified moral obligations were strictly fulfilled. In the biblical texts containing references to the return to Zion, no ”˜free lunch’ is promised.”

He defended his rejection of political Zionism as being consistent with the vision of Jeremiah and Isaiah. The latter described “the authentically restored Zion as one of which God would say, ”˜My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’” (Isaiah LVI, 7)

Berger would also quote the Dean of Religion at Bar Ilan University in Israel, Professor Uri Simon, in defense of the spiritual, non-political, non-territorial Zionism:

“The land of Israel has been promised to the children of Israel...only if they fulfilled the command to become a light unto other nations and not to oppress them.”

Thus, the biblical promise required a distinction for Elmer Berger between a “divine reward of exemplary human conduct and an illegal annexation of which the meeting hall of a contentious Knesset or parliament is the symbol supreme.”

Elmer Berger’s philosophy is rooted in the humanistic universalism which had a deep antipathy to chauvinistic nationalism. Jewish anti-Zionist thinkers who fell into this category were imbued with the spirit of openness. Their world outlook was decidedly universalist and integrationist, in the broad sense of the term, where common aspirations and common destinies preceded particularistic concerns and tribalistic sentiments. To most of them, the Jewish people constituted a community but not a Jewish nation. “I recognize the sense of community among Jews; I reject the ethnic basis of Jewish life,” wrote Morris Lazaron in the Atlantic Monthly in 1944. There was a strong indictment of this nationalism with German rather than French antecedents in their writings. They shunned ghettoism and recognized the kinship between Zionism and its presumed protagonist, anti-Semitism. The alternative to a world full of these regressive, reactionary, and dehumanizing instruments of retardation was an open society in Palestine or elsewhere, based on the ideal of freedom, of civil and political liberty, the free flow of ideas as well as the unrestricted movement of people and mixture of races.

Other Jewish thinkers in the same tradition include Rabbi Isaac Wise (1819-1900) and Professor Morris Cohen (1880-1947), both of whom regarded Zionism as a nationalist philosophy inherently dangerous to liberalism and whose end result is ghettoism. In fact, Cohen like Berger had anticipated the U.N. condemnation of Zionism as “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” For both, Zionism fundamentally accepted the racial ideology of the anti-Semites. The conception of the Jews as a separate national entity is itself anti-Semitic.

Others in the same tradition also included Judah Magnes, the eminent historian Hans Kohn, the renowned philosopher Hannah Arendt, Moshe Menuhin, Maxime Rodinson, I.F. Stone and Israel Shahak, among others who perceived Zionism as exclusivism, isolationism and narcissistic ethnocentrism. They were all disturbed by the adverse effect of that narrow nationalism on Jewish values, by the moral dilemma with which Israel confronted world Jewry.

I. F. Stone exemplified that concern when he wrote: “Israel is creating a kind of moral schizophrenia in world Jewry. In the outside world, the welfare of Jewry depends on the maintenance of secular, non-racial, pluralistic societies. In Israel, Jewry finds itself defending a society in which mixed marriages cannot be legalized, in which the ideal is racist and exclusionist...That is what necessitated a re-examination of Zionist ideology.” Such re-examination, for the sake of a just and durable peace in the Middle East, for the sake of Jews everywhere, and for the sake of co-existence and a common humanity, was the essence of Jewish humanistic universalism. It was the major concern of anti-Zionist Jewish thinkers, and it is also Elmer Berger’s legacy.

settlers to move to the West Bank and Gaza. He said he could not imagine Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud moving in a greater number in the coming four years. He hypothesized that the settler population would average an annual 8 percent increase.

Aronson said that the question is not whether the settlements are an obstacle to peace, but what kind of peace can be established without the removal of the settlements?

The NGOs present concluded the conference with a statement and four workshop reports on settlements, refugees, Jerusalem and the creation of the Palestinian state, all designed to reach out and activate their membership. The U.N. Committee and Division for Palestinian Rights pledged its continued cooperation with NGOs to increase international awareness of the issues and to promote the implementation of U.N. resolutions calling for a genuine peace rooted in Palestinian self-determination.

One of the conference panelists captured the spirit of the NGO participants when he commented that “this intractable situation, known on U.N. agendas for decades as the question of Palestine, has always been about control and freedom, about security and self-determination, about independence vs. ”˜creating facts on the ground.’ Given these challenges before us, we NGOs must continue our work and do it in revitalized cooperation with the United Nations. The Palestinian people and our own inborn sense of right demand no less from us. We must never allow the world to forget that these seemingly complex issues impact real people: generations of men, women, children, students, professionals and farmers, and extended families. In the name of those who have struggled for so long and for those not yet born, we must resolve never, never to be silent.”