Crisis, Victims, Prophets: Evolving Concepts in Rabbi Elmer Berger’s Anti-Zionist Network

By Geoffrey Levin
Submitted to Session P4910 (Arab, Jewish, and Arab Jewish Critiques of Zionism, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East; Israel; North America;
Arab-Israeli Conflict; Zionism;
LCD Projector without Audio;
From 1942 onwards, Rabbi Elmer Berger served as one of America’s most vocal Jewish critics of Zionism, first as executive director of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) and later as leader of American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism (AJAZ). Berger and his colleagues in ACJ and AJAZ developed and expressed comprehensive ideological critiques of Zionism from an American Jewish perspective. A careful study of this Jewish anti-Zionist discourse reveals several recurring concepts relating to crisis, victimization, and prophesy. Yet over the course of decades, from the 1940s through the 1970s, the specific “crises” prophesied and “victims” cited varied and shifted in telling ways.

This paper uses these concepts to trace the evolution of Jewish anti-Zionist thought in America. Though Berger is at the center of the anti-Zionist network in question, this study also refers to the works of his Jewish colleagues such as Norton Mezvinsky, Moshe Menuhin, Alfred Lilienthal, Israel Shahak, Uri Davis and the Arab activists, writers, and officials who influenced their thought. The anti-Zionism of Berger and the ACJ initially stemmed from the Reform Jewish tradition, their understanding of Jewish and American identity, and their concerns about protecting Jews and Judaism. However, in large part due to exposure and intellectual engagement with Arabs in the Middle East and in the United States, American Jewish anti-Zionism evolved, emphasizing Zionism’s impact on Palestinians. While Jews – American and Israelis – were first posited as potential victims of Zionism, Berger and others increasingly emphasized Palestinians, Arabs, and to a lesser extent, “Arab Jews” as Zionism’s victims. The anti-Zionism of Berger and his allies also consistently expressed premonitions of coming “crisis” that would be caused by Zionist action. Specifics of the “crisis” changed over the years but in less linear ways, shifting in reaction to major events like wars and the 1973-1974 oil crisis, an event which appeared to vindicate their concerns. Lastly is the concept of “prophets” – while sometimes used to refer to Judaism’s moral callings, the term was also invoked to refer to Berger, Judah Magnes, and other Jewish figures who they believed aimed to prevent the crises and victimizations caused by Zionism.