Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 2008, pages 55-56

In Memoriam

Alfred M. Lilienthal (1913-2008): A Prophetic Jewish Voice Is Stilled

By Allan C. Brownfeld

  • The late Alfred Lilienthal at his home in Washington, DC (Photo Lance Davidson).

ALFRED M. Lilienthal, an eloquent advocate of Judaism as a prophetic religion of universal values and a vigorous opponent of political Zionism, as well as a defender of the human rights of Palestinians, died Oct. 6 at the age of 94 in Washington, DC.

His biography is filled with notable achievements. A graduate of Cornell University and Columbia Law School, he served with the U.S. Department of State before and after his Army duty in the Middle East during World War II. He was a consultant to the U.S. delegation at the United Nations San Francisco conference in 1945 and was an early member of the American Council for Judaism, which rejected Jewish nationalism and advanced, instead, the philosophy that Judaism was a religion, not a nationality, and that Americans of the Jewish faith were Americans in precisely the same sense as their fellow citizens who were Presbyterians, Methodists or Catholics.

He was the author of many important books, among them What Price Israel? (1954), There Goes The Middle East (1957), Studies In Twentieth Century Diplomacy (1959) and The Zionist Connection (1978). Over the years he wrote several articles for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and edited the journal Middle East Perspective.

“In 1949,” he wrote, “I grew tired of self-appointed spokesmen who purported to speak for me. I did not feel that a yen for Jewish Statehood was a necessary component of either my Jewish faith or my compassion for Hitler’s victims. And I sincerely resented the Zionist propaganda which wanted to make my Christian fellow-citizens believe that all American Jews, in a fictitious ”˜unity,’ desire a political separation of ”˜the Jewish people.’ I wrote an article to express my attitude (which I felt must be that of innumerable other Americans of the Jewish faith) and sent it to The Saturday Evening Post.”

That publication returned Lilienthal’s manuscript with these remarks: “Let us promptly conclude that this is a good and eloquent article, but it is not one we can use. The pity is that, if all Jews were as broad-minded as this author, there would be no Zionist problem.”

The article was later rejected, with similar explanations, by other national magazines until it reached The Readers Digest, whose editors wanted it. “The Digest, with its colossal circulation, could run the risk of publishing a controversial article,” Lilienthal noted, “because the magazine’s U.S. edition carries no advertising. But even the Digest had to protect itself. Though the Jewish nationalist story had appeared in print a thousand times, the Digest editors decided to present the two opposing views in the same issue. So Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s ”˜The Case For Zionism’ appeared in the Sept. 1949 issue with my ”˜Israel’s Flag Is Not Mine.’”

The attacks upon Lilienthal were brutal. Denver’s Intermountain Jewish News called on the Anti-Defamation League to recognize that “Jews can be anti-Semitic and crack down on those who carp about dual loyalty in the public press.” In Lilienthal’s opinion, “What hurt and enraged these critics particularly was that the huge Christian readership of the Digest was for the first time informed that ”˜Jewish unity’ (whatever that is) was fictitious.” The National Jewish Post of Indianapolis and the Detroit Jewish Chronicle called for a holy war and excommunication of the American Council for Judaism for distributing free reprints of the Digest article.

“The Digest article,” wrote Lilienthal, “had centered on the serious issue whether the new State had created ”˜a collective Jewish nation with its center in Israel,’ to which all members of the Jewish faith owe obligations...For months thereafter, some members of my family would not talk to me...Ten months later when I visited Hartford...some old friends would still have no part of me. A few sidled over to me and whispered that they shared my views, but they only whispered.”

Late one night, Lilienthal received a phone call “and a voice with a slightly foreign accent said: ”˜Are you the rat who wrote that letter to the Post which appeared this morning?’ ”˜Who is this?’ ”˜This is Joseph Halutz of the Haganah. If you don’t stop, we will have you killed because you are undoing everything that we have been struggling for...’”

Lilienthal cited the many leading Jewish voices who had rejected the Zionist idea. Albert Einstein, for example, declared that, “The State idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-mindedness and economic obstacles. I believe it is bad. I have always been against it.” He described the Jewish Commonwealth concept as “an imitation of Europe, the end of which was brought about by nationalism.”

In 1949, Einstein publicly and wholeheartedly supported the views of Dr. Judah Magnes, the president of Hebrew University, who favored the establishment of an Arab-Jewish binational state in Palestine and attacked Zionist terrorism and violence. Lilienthal met with Einstein, who told him that he had never been a Zionist and had never favored the creation of the State of Israel. “Also,” wrote Lilienthal, “he told me of a significant conversation with Chaim Weizmann. Einstein had asked him: ”˜What about the Arabs if Palestine were given to the Jews?’ and Weizmann said, ”˜What Arabs? They are hardly of any consequence.’”

It was Lilienthal’s view that political Zionism had corrupted Judaism and that its allegiance to the State of Israel represented a form of idolatry: “The significance of all these manifestations is that...Yahweh, the God of Judaism, has been supplanted in the Jewish American life by nationalist-minded politicians. The Decalogue’s Second Commandment once committed the Jews: ”˜Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.’ In contemporary Judaism, the worship of the State of Israel is crowding out worship of God.”

Of particular concern to Lilienthal was the plight of Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel. “No nation has ever been under a greater moral obligation to alleviate the plight of refugees than the State of Israel,” he insisted. “Not only did Israel’s political acts create that plight for the Arabs of Palestine, but the international rationale for the very existence of Israel was the world’s desire to save refugees. Who, then, if not Israel must not fully honor the right of displaced persons to return home in peace? And just as clearly, full compensation must be granted to those Arab refugees whose return is not feasible.”

As an American patriot, Alfred Lilienthal was offended by Israel’s interference in the life of American Jews. When David Ben-Gurion visited the U.S. after his election as Israel’s leader, he said that whenever Jews speak of “our country” they mean Israel, and that whatever the Israeli ambassador says, they know he is representing them. Walter Eytan, Israel’s permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office, proclaimed, “It is a commonplace of our Foreign Service that every envoy plenipotentiary and minister plenipotentiary has a dual function: He is minister plenipotentiary to the country to which he is accredited and envoy extraordinary to its Jews.”

The views to which Alfred Lilienthal held fast were the traditional views of American Reform Judaism, which rejected the confusion of religion and nationality. He liked to quote the declaration made at the dedication of Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina in 1841 by Dr. Gustavus Posnanski: “This synagogue is our Temple, this city is our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine.”

To speak out against political Zionism in the United States was no easy task in the days following the establishment of the State of Israel, inviting as it did charges of “anti-Semitism” if the critic was not Jewish, or of being a “self-hating Jew” if he was. Sadly, those who speak out on this subject today are often vilified in precisely the same way. Some say that it takes courage to be vocal on this subject. For Alfred Lilienthal, it was simply a matter of telling the truth as he saw it, defending his values as an American and his religion as a Jew.

This writer knew Alfred Lilienthal for many years. While we agreed on many things, and disagreed on some, there was no doubt that his was an idealistic voice dedicated to advancing the values he held dear. We must lament the fact that in our free and open society, as Ibsen noted in An Enemy of the People, it is still necessary to put on one’s “old clothes” when one wants to tell the world an unpopular truth. This Alfred Lilienthal did—and we are all the better for it. 


Allan C. Brownfeld writes the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,’s “Israel and Judaism” column.

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