Commentary Magazine

Judaism or Jewish Nationalism: The Alternative to Zionism, by Elmer Berger

Jewish Survival and the American Council for Judaism1


Rabbi Elmer Berger, ideologue and chief architect of the American Council for Judaism, has written an apologia for the Council’s views and activities. The book is singularly defensive, setting out to refute charges that the Council misrepresents Jews and Judaism, that it is anti-Israel and pro-Arab, that it accuses other Jews of dual loyalty, that it provides aid and comfort to anti-Semites, that it is “assimilationist.” In his defense of the Council Rabbi Berger discourses on the evils not only of Zionism and Jewish nationalism, but also of “non-Zionism,” which, in his eyes, shares responsibility with Zionism for the sad decline of American Judaism.

Rabbi Berger’s universe is peopled with “Americans of Jewish faith” (all Council members) who are engaged in a perpetual holy war against a host of demons fighting under the colors of Jewish nationalism. These Americans of Jewish faith are the direct descendants of the Biblical prophets who, in his words, “conceived a Judaism elevated above tribal or nationalistic horizons.” The demons are the progeny of Theodor Herzl who introduced the concept of the “Jewish people,” which Rabbi Berger claims “is a political fabrication.” Futhermore, “it has no validity in Judaism. It does not exist in any of the sacred writings of Jews. It is a perversion and vulgarization of the phrase ‘people of Israel.’”2

By claiming direct lineage from the prophets for his Americans of Jewish faith, Rabbi Berger has in effect erased the two-thousand-year history of the Jews in the Diaspora. Not unlike the present-day Canaanite group in Israel, he has expunged from the record the period during which Jews sought to preserve their collective identity without a homeland. By twisting some of Professor Ezekiel Kaufmann’s ideas about the religious history of the Jews, he has made an artificial distinction between the universal religion of Judaism and the national faith of the people of Israel. Thus Rabbi Berger has managed to convince himself that Judaism has been the vehicle of Jewish un-peoplehood.

From this it follows, in Rabbi Berger’s demonology, that anyone claiming that Jews constitute a people is a traducer and hoaxer, and any philosophy of Jewish life based on Jewish collectivity is a scheme to subvert Judaism.

How is it possible that a Rabbi, himself a leader among Jews, should so distort Jewish history? The true facts of that history are not obscure. Every child who has learned his lesson knows that from the destruction of the Second Temple until the Emancipation, Judaism was the channel for the national survival of the Jews. With the Emancipation, the spread of secularism, and the rise of an industrial society, Jews began to seek new modes of Jewish continuity. Zionism, Bundism, national cultural autonomy, territorialism were all offered to meet the new challenge. Rival ideologies though they were, all had the common purpose of seeking to insure the survival of the ethnic-national collective known as the Jewish people.

This elementary lesson has escaped Rabbi Berger because, I suspect, it points to a conclusion that is offensive to him. He will not have any palaver about Jewish survival. At best, he cares about “the survival of Judaism in America,” by which he seems to mean only the survival of the synagogues.

But Jewish survival means more than the continued existence of religious institutions and even more than the security of individual Jews. It is the unbroken continuity of Jewish group life—tradition, religion, culture, ethos—throughout the world. In this sense, Jewish survival is a concept alien to Rabbi Berger and the American Council for Judaism. Hence, neither he nor his organization can provide any clarification of the problems arising from Israel’s relation with Jews outside Israel, problems lying at the very heart of his book, Judaism or Jewish Nationalism.



Since its founding in 1943, the Council has vigorously opposed both Zionism (meaning the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine) and Jewish “nationalism” (meaning the desire for Jewish survival) and has equated one with the other. For example, Rabbi Berger writes that Zionism has “two changeless purposes,” one of which is “to increase or foster a separatist ‘Jewish national’ consciousness among all Jews.” If we omit from this phrase the inverted commas and remove the gratuitous epithet “separatist,” what remains is a statement describing Zionism as a program for Jewish survival. This indeed has been a declared purpose of Zionism; it is odd that an arch anti-Zionist should totally surrender the monopoly in fostering Jewish survivalist values to the Zionists. But I think we can fairly conclude that Rabbi Berger’s basic abhorrence is not directed primarily to Zionism but rather to the desire for Jewish survival itself—“nationalism.”

Elsewhere in his book, however, Rabbi Berger describes Zionism more accurately; he says that Zionists believe that a “ ‘full Jewish life’ can be lived only in ‘the Jewish State,’” that to the Zionists “Israel is ‘the Jewish homeland’” and that some Zionists believe Jews living outside Israel are in “Exile.” These views surely represent classical Zionism. Just as surely their rejection by most Jews in the world, including most Zionists, should be adequate proof to Rabbi Berger and the American Council for Judaism that the anti-Diaspora bias of classical Zionism is no longer a potent force in Jewish life anywhere.

That the Zionist movement is in grave decline, having lost its raison d’ être since Israel came into being, is commonly known, though little talked about. After all, one does not talk about a rope in the home of a hanged man. What are the facts? Less than half of one-tenth of one per cent of American Jews (what per cent of Zionists?) have emigrated to Israel. The chalutziut movement in America, never of statistical significance, has now dwindled to one small training farm with about twenty youngsters. Once Israel was established and the displaced persons camps emptied, UJA found itself raising less and less money for its overseas activities, while synagogues and Jewish centers were collecting huge amounts for their building funds and local Jewish institutions were receiving more financial support for their programs. (Soviet military aid to the Arabs has recently brought about an increase in UJA’s receipts.)

The membership of the Zionist Organization of America reached its peak during the 1947-48 period, a reputed quarter of a million. After Israel’s creation, the membership dropped to well below 100,000. These days the ZOA claims about 100,000 members; even if the claim is accurate, there is little reason to suppose that most of these are ideological Zionists rather than enthusiasts of Israel. Almost all American Zionists—Labor Zionists and Hadassah ladies alike—have disappointed and alienated veteran Zionists in Israel with their heretical claims that Jews in America are not in Exile, that Israel is not their homeland, that Jews in the United States can live securely as Jews and as Americans.

But Rabbi Berger is loath to admit these facts about the demise of Zionism; his view of Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life demands the hoax and the conspiracy, the unchallenged supremacy of the master manipulators. Admission of the enemy’s obvious disabilities would make the plot of the “Jewish nationalists” seem less sinister and dangerous. Nor can Rabbi Berger face the fact that it is Israel, not Zionism, that arouses Jewish compassion and attachment—not Israel as the Jewish homeland, but Israel as a place that offers hope of Jewish survival and continuity.

The intensity of Jewish feeling for Israel stems, I think, from a sense of failure and guilt that has afflicted most American Jews since the Catastrophe wiped out the East European sources of Jewish creativity. At the very time that American Jews were shattered by the Catastrophic, plagued by guilt for having failed to prevent it, and ashamed of their own comfort and safety, they had to face the challenge of having become the community on which Jewish survival would depend. This guilt and shame of American Jews, coupled with the fear that they could never match East European Jewish creativity, gave way to relief and pride when Israel came into being. Moreover, Israel’s successful war against the Arabs helped restore their assurance: not all Jews were marked for extinction. Israel had reclaimed the right of Jews to physical survival. Israel, the state in which Jewish culture would predominate, would also insure the survival of the Jewish ethos.

The decision by the great powers to establish a Jewish state would not have been possible without the Catastrophe; so, too, the unique Jewish attachment to Israel stems from the Catastrophe. This attachment is constantly renewed by Israel’s insecurity, for the survival of Israel as a state is—apparently inextricablytied up with the survival of Jews as a people. Not Zionism, but the impulse to survival (in Rabbi Berger’s terminology, “Jewish nationalism”) has shaped Jewish attachment to Israel.

Rabbi Berger’s philosophy of the Jewish universe does not admit the concept of Jewish community; there is no room in his scheme of things for the geography of birth, the possibility that had not my father or his come to America when they did, we too might have physically shared in the fate of European Jews. Since he does not grasp this obvious principle of Jewish existence, he must convince himself that Jewish attachment to Israel is artificially inspired and manipulated by the Zionists. According to him, the second “changeless” purpose of Zionism is “to relate that ‘Jewish national consciousness’ to, and exploit it for, Zionism’s soverign state of Israel in the Middle East.” In a sense, of course, he is right. The Zionist movement today exists only to strengthen support for Israel. But Rabbi Berger’s statement implies that the Zionists have somehow hoodwinked Jews into their attachment for Israel, that if only Jews grasped this monstrous Zionist plot, they would forswear their interest in Israel. After all, it is a foreign, sovereign state.



Rejecting the self-evident propositions of Jewish desire for survival and the interdependence of Jewish communities in different parts of the world, Rabbi Berger and the Council cannot shed light on the real problems arising from the unique relationship between the state of Israel and the Jews outside. This relation, between a community of almost two million Jews in a country of predominantly Jewish culture and five or six times that many Jews in the Diaspora over which Israel seeks to establish spiritual leadership, is admittedly awkward and ambiguous—composed of both love and rejection, tenuous yet unbreakable.

The ebb and flow of Jewish feeling toward Israel results, I think, from the interplay of what sometimes become opposing forces: the needs of the Israeli state and the demands of the traditional Jewish ethos. Jews look upon Israel not only as the embodiment of Jewish survival alter the Catastrophe; they see it also as a symbol of the indestructability of the Jewish ethos. When Israel pursues, as she sometimes does, a course incompatible with Jewish tradition or the interests of Jewish communities outside Israel, the tide of Jewish affection for Israel begins to recede. In such periods, Jews outside Israel face a dilemma similar to that which confronted the Diaspora in its relations with the Hasmonean rulers of Palestine.

To what degree does Israel take precedence over the Diaspora? When do the needs of the state transcend those of Jews outside the state? Does the survival of Israel entail the sacrifice of Jewish tradition? Will Israel really help guarantee Jewish survival throughout the world? When the turn of events raises these questions, it is rarely possible to give a dogmatic answer; nevertheless, Jewish feeling toward Israel varies from situation to situation. Diaspora reaction to events like Kibya or Kfar Kassim, for example, was uneasy, ambivalent, even hostile.

Rabbi Berger believes that the American Council for Judaism was probably the only organization to protest the massacre of the Arabs at Kibya, that Council members and their sympathizers were the only Jews to be disturbed by the Sinai invasion. That he thinks so is an indication of how out of touch he and his organization are with American Jews in general. At a meeting of the Zionist General Council in December 1953, Mrs. Rose Halprin, Hadassah leader and member of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, described her feeling about Kibya: “One fine day we opened the newspapers and read the story about Kibya. Now I want to tell you that there was hardly a Zionist, there was hardly a Jew, who was not morally shaken by Kibya. The reason that they felt so badly arose from good impulses. They believe that the sources of strength in Jewish life and the motivating force in the development of Israel are the ethical and moral traditions of the Jewish people, and the Kibya incident was inconsistent with the moral and ethical tenets of our tradition, of our Weltanschauung, of our hopes and dreams.”

Precisely because the fate of Jews the world over is so closely intertwined with Israel’s, the state’s domestic and foreign policies are subjected to continual moral searching throughout the Diaspora. What Israel expects from the Diaspora, as David Ben Gurion put it to a Zionist meeting in 1950, is . . . “a mother’s love for her child, which persists even though the child may be refractory at times.” In large measure, Israel has received this unconditional love—except at those times when her refractoriness has seemed to threaten the interests of the Diaspora. American Jews, including the Zionists among them, have told the Israelis that there are limits to the seemingly boundless affection they hold for Israel, and that the survival of Jews outside Israel is—or should be—as important as the survival of Israel. Dr. Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, answered Ben Gurion’s demand for “unconditional love”: “The interests of this State [Israel] must conflict with the interests of other states to which Jews are also bound. Jews live in various countries and are firmly attached to them. It is much more difficult today than ten years ago for a Jew to say: I identify myself spiritually and emotionally with the reality of the State of Israel.”

To these problems and dilemmas that face American Jews in their relations with Israel, Rabbi Berger has no sensitivity. Living in an unreal universe peopled by “Americans of Jewish faith” and “Jewish nationalists,” he has produced, in his book, a grotesque caricature of the attitudes of Jews toward themselves and Israel.



1 A review of Judaism or Jewish Nationalism: The Alternative to Zionism, by Elmer Berger, Bookman Associates, 207 pp., $3.00.

2 Rabbi Berger’s thesis that Jews are associated one with another only because they share a “universal” faith is, of course, a cornerstone of belief of the American Council for Judaism. The following exchange between Lessing J. Rosenwald, then president of the Council, and James G. McDonald, during hearings of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on the Palestine question in 1946, is a commentary on the Council’s view: “Mr. McDonald: . . . I suppose you and your associates have been close students of Jewish history, as I think all of us, Jews or non-Jews, ought to be, and would you suppose that among the Jewish historians the two greatest of Jewish historians were Graetz and Dubnov?

“Mr. Rosenwald: I wouldn’t be qualified to tell you that, sir.

“Mr. McDonald: Neither is a modern historian. Graetz, as I understand it, is the greatest of the Jewish historians, and his great six volumes were written about the middle of the last century, and Dubnov’s work perhaps the beginning of this century. The reason I asked the question was that during recent months I have had the thrilling experience of reading Graetz, one of the greatest experiences I have had. Graetz, of course, was not a Zionist, because Zionism in the modern form was not known then. Now I notice that Graetz uses the phrases ‘the Jewish people,’ ‘Jewish national,’ ‘Jewish folk,’ quite commonly, as if it were the accepted conclusion of this great historian that that use was justified. Now, I wondered whether Graetz was wrong and whether he should have spoken only of ‘Jews,’ or ‘people of Jewish faith.’ I ask you that because, as I understand it, the substance, what you might call the philosophical basis of the Council, is the contention that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, not a folk, not a people.

“Mr. Rosenwald: I would say this, sir: I am not going to attempt to say whether your historian is right or wrong. I am not qualified to do that. . . .”


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