A remarkable event took place on Dec. 8, 2011, at the National Press Club in downtown Washington. It was a Jewish-Gentile forum on Israel, Palestine, Zionism, anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and the imminent threat of war.
At the heart was presentation of a new book, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, written by Jack Ross and published by Potomac Books. Ross, of Brooklyn, N.Y., graduated from National Labor College in 2006. Since 2005, he has been writing for Antiwar.com, The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and The American Conservative.
As the book’s caption says, dramatic changes have been taking place in the attitudes of American Jews toward Israel and Zionism. At no time since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 has there been such disenchantment with Israel and Zionism. The role the Israel lobby played in the Iraq War and the “global war on terror,” as well as Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and Gaza, made large swaths of the American Jewish community question Israel’s foreign policy and its Zionist ideology.
The history of Jewish anti-Zionism in America predates the founding of Israel. Ross’s hero is Elmer Berger, a Reform Jewish rabbi (1908 –1996) who was one of the founders and first director of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), which took a strongly anti-Zionist stance at its founding in 1942. Berger resigned from the ACJ in 1968, but he continued to fight via American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism, an organization he led until he died in 1996.
Ross says his own discovery of the anti-Zionist heritage of America was “a revelation.” He praises Berger’s mentor, the father of American Reform Judaism, Isaac Mayer Wise, who in 1900 denounced the nascent Zionist movement as “a prostitution of Israel’s holy cause to a madman’s dance of unsound politicians.”
The forum’s panel included Ambassador Andrew Killgore, publisher of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs; Allan Brownfeld, a former member of President Ronald Reagan’s transition team who now writes for The American Council on Judaism (ACJ); Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation; and Jon Utley, associate publisher of The American Conservative magazine.
Killgore recalled his friendship with the rabbi. “Elmer and I were in agreement,” he said, that “Hitler’s persecution of European Jewry was being cynically exploited by the Zionists to further their own cause.” In the 1960s, said Killgore, the rabbi was tireless in explaining to U.S. diplomats dealing with the Middle East that “Judaism’s basic values could not be reconciled with disregard for the rights of the Palestinians upon whose lands the new Jewish state had been created.”
The forum was sponsored by the Freda Utley Foundation and Fran Griffin, founder of the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, which hosts a number of conservative authors, including several Jews. FGF’s mission is to educate leaders and the public on the need to preserve Western civilization.
Speaker after speaker praised Ross’s book as an act of scholarly perseverance and civic courage. The book also won the praise of such scholars as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, co-author of the 2006 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Though he was not present at the forum, Professor Mearsheimer sent his comments, calling the work an “important book for anyone interested in understanding the complex history of how American Jews have related to the State of Israel.”
Actually, anti-Zionism in the United States has a long history. Among the several Reform rabbis who founded the American Council for Judaism, Berger is the best-known because he dedicated his whole life to the struggle to free U.S. foreign policy from the grip of Zionists. Whereas Berger’s anti-Zionism was rooted in Reform Judaism, his modern followers are not the only American Jews who oppose Zionist Israel. There are the radical pro-socialist leftists who want to make Israel a binational Jewish-Arab state. And there is the Neturei Karta movement of Orthodox Haredi Jews who call for a peaceful dismantling of Israel because, in their view, Jews are commanded not to have their own state until the coming of the Messiah.
Zionists, on the other hand, either reject or don’t care for the spiritual, eschatological, and metaphysical dimensions of Judaism. Theirs is a quasi-religious ideology that aims at purely political, materialist, territorial, and economic goals. As Brownfeld pointed out, true “Judaism is centered on the worship of God, not the idolatry or worshiping of any political entity.” He agreed with Ross that “the essence of Judaism is not in the ‘national narrative’ … but rather in … the prophets, who spoke out against the kings and priests who corrupted the nation and the people.”
Josh Ruebner noted that the more Israel oppresses Palestinians, the more young American Jews question the Israel lobby and the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Desperate to ensure support for Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) pays for “birthright Israel” trips for Americans. But the majority of young Jews enjoy their American birthright, as they abhor the fact that since its inception Israel has relied on violence in pursuit of its goals in the Middle East.
“The façade of Jewish unanimity that AIPAC likes to project will not last forever,” said Ruebner. His organization is an umbrella for over 380 U.S. groups that aim to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They campaign for Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli interests in the U.S.
Though originally indifferent to religion, Zionist political ideology now likes to dress up Israel’s territorial ambitions in religious garb. This hypocrisy, however, backfired as it inspired the struggle of Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, against dispossession, discrimination, and humiliation inside and outside of Israel.
In fact, some observers have described Israel as an apartheid state. Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for helping negotiate peace between Israel and Egypt, spelled out the stark choice Israel now faces in his book Palestine: Peace or Apartheid.
Zionist claims on Jerusalem as an exclusive capital of Israel have inflamed anti-Israeli and anti-American passions in all Muslim countries. It has helped the fanatical jihadists win the hearts and minds of millions of Muslims who came to mistrust their moderate and secular politicians for their failure to defend Muslim rights to Jerusalem, or Al-Quds, as sacred to their cultural tradition.
As an exclusive capital of Israel, Jerusalem is an abomination to Muslims and Christians alike. It is also abhorrent to those religious and secular Jews who are proud that Judaism set high ethical standards for its Christian and Islamic offshoots. Now divided and sectored, Jerusalem ought to be a universal monument to religious tolerance and brotherhood under the auspices of the United Nations. Only then could it fulfill its prophesied role as a source of unity for mankind.
A hotbed of hatred, mistrust, and war in the Middle East, Israel also sets a bad example for right-wing demagogues in Europe and the United States who clamor for getting tough on Muslim and other immigrants, just as the Israelis were in their Operation Cast Lead against the Gaza Strip. It is noteworthy that the Labor Party youth group that the Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik attacked on July 22, 2011, expressed support for the BDS campaign against Israel.
Albert Rosenblatt, a poet and journalist who came to the forum from New York, suggested it’s not enough for American Jews to be “anti,” be it anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, or anti–American Empire. “Don’t we need to say what we are FOR?” Several people responded that they do not necessarily question Israel’s right to exist, but they want to have its policy revised in such a way that it would become not “a Jewish state,” but a normal country.
Since Jon Utley mentioned my role in finding the grave of his Jewish father, Arkady Berdichevsky, who was executed in the USSR during mass purges of the “Trotskyites,” I felt I had to speak too. Referring to Jon’s article published in 2005 in The Freeman and later turned into a film, Return to the Gulag: Jon Utley’s Search for His Father, I thanked him for introducing me to the story of Rabbi Berger as a fellow dissident, just as Jon and I have been.
In my own comments, I noted that when I came to the United States in 1966 on an invitation from the University of Chicago, I didn’t find many Zionists on or off campus. My main concern was that too many of my colleagues and students were either pro-Soviet or soft on Communism. With all respect due to Rabbi Berger, I take exception to his illusions about the USSR as the land of liberty for the Jews. Communism was good neither for Jews nor Muslims nor Russians, especially the religious ones. As a totalitarian ideology, Communism was hostile to all free spirits, even the atheists who were not of the Marxist-Leninist stripe.
Zionism was not in vogue then in the United States. The predominant concern was not with the fate of Israel but with making sure we didn’t irritate the USSR in Vietnam and elsewhere, lest a nuclear war be unleashed. Sometimes, I felt I was just about the only Zionist in Chicago, and I’m a Gentile to boot. I knew Soviet propaganda manipulated Palestinians for geopolitical advantage.
The main significance of this forum is that we let the world know that there are many courageous and righteous Jews who are not Zionists. By honoring the memory of Rabbi Berger we inflict a blow not only to Zionists, but also to those who lump all Jews into one homogeneous group that rushes from one extreme to another, from Communist internationalism, which cares for neither religion nor nationality, to Zionist nationalism. Israel’s leaders profess to care for one religion and one nationality. In fact, they have but one self-serving goal: to perpetuate their own power at any cost, even at great risk to the rest of humanity.
We broke for refreshments and fresh efforts to figure out, face to face, what’s going on in Israel, the United States, and the world. The foremost topic was: Will Israel attack Iran? Will the United States allow it to happen? Will we facilitate the attack?
Nobody knew the answer, but the concern itself showed how far the Zionist regime was ready to take the whole world for the sake of its own survival.
Lately, this concern has spiked. I have already posted a report about Russian troops in the Caucasus being put on high alert in case an Israeli attack triggers warfare along Iran’s borders with Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
It was also reported, or rather, underreported, that on Dec. 16 President Barack Obama met behind closed doors with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The meeting was held in the outskirts of Washington, D.C., at the Gaylord Hotel, National Harbor, Maryland. It focused on the issue of a U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran.
Since Obama has already said he takes “no options off the table,” one might suspect, as Michel Chossudovsky of Global Research does, that the attack on Iran could include the use of tactical bunker-buster nuclear weapons that only the United States has and that Israel may request to make the attack effective. These bunker busters have an explosive capacity between one third and six times that of the Hiroshima bomb.
Most fittingly, at least, in the popular psyche, 2012 is the year of Armageddon. Fiat justitia, pereat mundus, “let justice be done even if the world shall perish”: this was one of the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s maxims. Whether this Latin motto stems from ancient Rome or Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564), its grave implications are no longer philosophical. Nor are they metaphorical.
Whatever pretext Israel and the United States (for consistency) might find for the war they threaten, at stake is the existence of the world as we know it. Even a triumph of their justitia may turn utterly hollow, for there might be no people to celebrate it. So the real question that Jews and non-Jews alike face today is: Is the world for Israel or are Jews for the world? We know how Rabbi Berger would have answered.