American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism

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by Ilana Rossoff, Reference Services Research Intern, Center for Jewish History

This post is part of the Jews and Social Justice Series. To view all posts in the series, click here.

Since Israel’s emergence as an independent Jewish state, there have been few organizations to come out of Jewish communities in the United States that openly challenge Zionism or modern-day Jewish nationalism. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews, such as those belonging to the organization Neturei Karta, have rejected Israel as a Jewish nation on the basis of their belief that since the Messiah has not yet come to Earth, the Jewish nation should not exist in the historical Holy Land. Otherwise, few groups have come together under a non-Orthodox banner to express strong opposition to the Jewish state.

One group that did was the American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism, a small organization based out of Washington D.C. Between 1969 and 1988, it strongly criticized Israel’s actions with regard to Palestinians and explicitly rejected Zionism, in part on the basis of its presumption of global Jewry in the concept of the “Jewish nation.” American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism was founded by Elmer Berger, a rabbi once part of the Reform organization American Council for Judaism, which was the last remnant of anti-nationalism in American Reform Judaism.

The American Council for Judaism was formed by a group of Reform rabbis who split off from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in 1942. Their contention was that the CCAR, and Reform Judaism more broadly, was founded on the separation between national and religious identities, and the CCAR’s growth in support for Jewish nationalism and the formation of para-state Jewish agencies was a violation of this definitive principle of Reform Judaism. The American Council for Judaism firmly believed that American Jews were Jewish by religion, and American by nationality, and the two should not be confused.

Elmer Berg was still a young rabbi when he was one of the founders of the ACJ. He played a critical role in the organization as its first Executive Director. During his time in the organization, Berger underwent a different political evolution than his colleagues did. Even as he remained committed to opposing Zionism’s encroachment upon the American identification of Jews in the U.S., he also became increasingly concerned with Israel’s military actions and the plight of the Palestinians Arabs, particularly after the 1967 war.

As Jack Ross recounts in Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, after great contention within the organization over Berger’s outspoken criticism of Israel’s actions during the war, Berger was voted out of the American Council for Judaism in 1968. The Council affirmed its position as concerned primarily with the impact of Zionism on “Americans of Jewish faith,” and not with events in the Middle East [1].

At the behest of the ACJ rabbis who had stood in Berger’s defense, Berger and others founded the new Jewish Alternatives to Zionism to serve as a vehicle for further writing and activism. Soon renamed American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism, the group was “established for religious and educational purposes” which would in part “giv[e] wider circulation to some of the views of others”—such as such as dissident Jewish-Israeli writers as well as some Arab and American writers—“who agree with our basic premises that enduring peace can be created in the Middle East only by the application of justice and equity” [2]. The header of its second and all further reports summarizes its political beliefs at the founding of the organization:

[AJAZ’s] educational program applies Judaism’s values of justice and common humanity to the Arab/Zionist/Israeli conflict in the Middle East. In the United State we advocate a one-to-one human relationship between Jews and all Americans. In both areas of our concern we reject Zionism/Israel’s “Jewish people” nationality attachment of all Jews to the State of Israel. These political-nationality claims distort constructive humanitarian programs. They are inconsistent with American Constitutional concepts of individual citizenship and separation of church and state. They are also a principle obstacle to Middle East peace. Our program, we believe, helps advance peace in the Middle East. It also prevents Zionist/Israel from successfully achieving its legislated objective of reversing the integration of American Jews by “capturing the Jewish community” for its self-segregating “Jewish people” nationality attachment of Jews to the State of Israel  [3].

For more on the history of this organization, check back for part 2 next Monday.

Notes:

[1] Jack Ross, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011.As quoted on page 147.

[2] Report #1, 1969, Page 3. Folder: Report #1-11. American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism archival collection, American Jewish Historical Society. The Electronic Finding Aid to the archival collection can be found here.

[3] Report #2, undated. Folder: Report #1-11. American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism archival collection, American Jewish Historical Society. The Electronic Finding Aid to the archival collection can be found here.

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