Alternative Loyalty and the American Council for Judaism

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By Steven Trebach, Research Intern

I am a Research Intern at the Center for Jewish History
(CJH) and a recent graduate of Haverford College. My original goal was to
research dual loyalty, which led me to documents concerning the American
Council for Judaism
(ACJ) within the Center’s Partner’s collections,
particularly the American Jewish Historical Society. In the mid-20th century, the
ACJ accused Zionist Jews of not being loyal to America.

This blog post intends to explore the nature of the ACJ’s
claims using archival and supplementary materials. In this piece, I will
introduce the ideas of dual and alternative loyalty, the ACJ, illustrate the
nature of ACJ’s alternative loyalty charges, and try to understand how these
charges fit into larger patterns of alternative loyalty. The specific AJHS
archival materials in question are a series of correspondences from and about
the ACJ.

First, my research revealed several kinds of alternative
loyalty charges that have developed with regard to Jews throughout the world.
The most relevant to the ACJ’s accusations is what can be referred to as polity
conflict. Jewish polity conflict is the accusation that Jews are loyal to
another geopolitical entity, especially one whose interests can interfere with
those of the polity in which said Jews live. When the charge acknowledges a Jew’s
loyalty to their place of residence alongside the conflicting foreign body, the
allegation is dual loyalty. For
example, the Iraqi fear that Iraqi Jews supported British consolidation of
power in Iraqi, leading to a pogrom, Al-Farhud.
(Moreh & Yehuda, 2011, p.12). The second major kind of alternative loyalty is
ideological disloyalty, based on the idea that Jews hold allegiance to a
foreign philosophical movement conflicting with society’s values and safety. An
American example of this is the disproportionate targeting of Jews for
anti-communist loyalty tests by the Postal service during the late 1940s
(Spiegler, November 4, 1948).

These kinds of allegations have precursors in anti-Semitic
conspiracies, such as blood libel, and events, such as the Dreyfus affair. The
modern phenomenon, into which the ACJ’s allegations fit, arose with the
establishment of revolutionary resistance politics within Jewish communities,
such as Zionism, Bundism, and multiple forms of socialism in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. Though these movements were largely
concentrated in Eastern European Jewry and their American progeny, alternative loyalty claims related to
these revolutionary resistance movements occurred from Argentina to Hashemite
Iraq. That these indictments were leveled against diverse, loosely related
communities might suggest they arise not from a community’s behavior but rather
from a source within the accusing society.


Image: Judah Magnus Museum via FoundSF

The ACJ is a Jewish organization that was founded in
opposition to Zionism. The group has many of its organizational and ideological
roots in the 1942 Atlantic City conference, a meeting of 36 rabbis concerning
the growth of Zionism, which revealed a schism between supporters of
“nationalism versus religion” and vice versa, in which the ACJ took a firm
stance against Jewish nationalism (Kolsky, 1990, pp.49, 54).[1] The
ACJ’s position, according to correspondences by one of its leading figures Elmer
Burger, was that Jews were not “not a minority group of Americans identified by
a separate ‘Jewish’ nationality” but rather a religion; the ACJ’s ultimate
desire was secular integration for Jews in America (Berger, April 21, 1950, pp.
2,8) Thus, the ACJ rejected any Zionism or nationalism that contradicted that
sentiment. As such, the ACJ was “the only American Jewish organization ever
formed for the specific purpose of fighting Zionism” (Kolsky, 1990, p.ix). This
distinction placed the ACJ outside of mainstream Jewish life.

It is in this context that the ACJ seems to make two kinds
of common alternative loyalty charges. The charges are framed as concern for
the wellbeing of the Jewish community rather than fear of Israeli desires
contradicting American ones. Their dual loyalty claim, the charge that one had
divided one’s loyalties between two polities, is well illustrated in Norman
Thomas’ “Letter to Maurice Spector.”  Thomas
argues that the American Council puts forward “the charge that certain
statements by Zionist leaders here and in Israel opened the way to the
development of dual loyalty, and to exaggerated charges of dual loyalty by
actual or potential anti-Semites” (Thomas, February 3 1950).  Just as Iraqis during Al-Farhud may have seen hypothetical
Jewish allegiance to the British as a potential danger to Iraq’s sovereignty,
the ACJ saw Zionist loyalty to Israel as a potentially dangerous conflict with
their American citizenship.

The ACJ’s criticisms also seem to contain an element of
ideological treason, the accusation that one is committed to ideas deleterious
to one’s polity. Elmer Burger, a rabbi and ACJ leader, “considered Zionism the
last attempt to maintain any traces of ghetto control over the lives of
individual Jews” (Kolsky, 1990, p.109). This critique of Zionist Jews does not
posit Zionism as an allegiance to another polity but rather as an ideology that
acts negatively upon Jews. I believe this is comparable to the Argentine fears
of Jewish communism and the Soviet fears of Jewish anti-communism.

There are two key differences between most alternative
loyalty charges and those of the ACJ that must be addressed. All of the other rhetoric
originated in a source external to
the Jewish community and arguably entailed hostility towards it. The ACJ’s ideas
arose within the Jewish community and
suggest concern for it. Even the direct accusation of dual loyalty is meant to
mitigate potential anti-Semitism.

The clearer of the two is the internal-external division. Though
on the surface, this may seem major, it is easily resolvable with regards to
the dual loyalty case. The ACJ followed the premise that “we are Americans”;
therefore, they charged dual loyalty not as Jews but as Americans (Berger,
April 21, 1950, p.1). Thus, they saw themselves as holding no special communal
attachment to the Zionists on the plane of nationalism outside of an
Americanism they shared with gentiles. Therefore, from the ACJ’s perspective,
the accusation was against a different community.

Demographic concerns bolster the above claims. “Council
members were differentiated from the rest of American Jewry on religious,
social and economic as well as ideological grounds” being primarily
upper-class, Reform, German Jews as opposed to poorer, more religious Eastern
European Jews (Halperin, 1961, p.454). These two populations inherited two very
different relationships with Judaism and nationalism. “German Jews… were barely
distinguishable from other German immigrants” and “were proud of their German
heritage…and retained their German nationalism even after becoming American
citizens,” a mentality that likely informed their “the opinion that Judaism is
primarily a religion” (Kolsky, 1990, p.18) (Thomas, February 3 1950). Accepting
Jewish nationalism would intrude upon this treasured German heritage.
Conversely, Eastern European Jews “had lived in Jewish enclaves in Eastern
Europe and … considered themselves an ethnic group” (Kolsky, 1990, p.22). Thus,
strains of Zionism positing Jews as a separate people would be more attractive
to them than to members of the ACJ. Thus, as they had strong social and
cultural differences, the ACJ may have felt themselves part of a completely
different community than these other Jews.

The above explanation does not account for the ACJ’s intended
benevolence. Why would an organization attempting to protect the Jewish
community use rhetoric reminiscent of more hostile groups? One hypothesis is
that ACJ members such as Norman Thomas can be taken at face value: they fear
anti-Semitism being visited upon Jews for their dual loyalty. By providing the
same rhetoric devoid of violence, perhaps they could extinguish alternative
loyalties before they draw the ire of more hostile groups. Zionist
counterpropaganda, however, had a different explanation. They argued via the
ideas of Kurt Lewin that “the person seeking to enter a higher status group has
to be especially careful to disown any connection with the ideas of the group
to which he once belonged” (Halperin, 1961, pp. 456-457). As ACJ members mostly
of or striving for higher social status than Zionist Jews, Lewin’s idea seems
applicable. One could therefore argue that although the ACJ claimed
benevolence, their true motivations were an internalized hostility towards association
with Jews of lower social and economic status.

Ultimately, the case of the ACJ provides a clear but complicated
example of alternative loyalty charges that demonstrates the intellectual
complexities surrounding the topic. The libraries and AJHS archives within the
CJH contain sufficient archival and supplementary data for the future in-depth evaluation
this topic deserves.

Works Cited:

Archival Materials:

American Council for Judaism. (1947). American
Council for Judaism Collection, undated, 1943-1991
American Jewish Historical Society. Call Number: I-344.

April 21, 1950

February 3, 1950

I-172: Committees- Committee on Overt Anti-Semitism- Loyalty Test – Postal
Employees- 1948-1951-1&2. American Jewish Historical Society.

          Spiegler, November 4, 1948 

Published Books:

Halperin, S. (1985). The Political World of American Zionism.
Silver Spring, MD: Information Dynamics Inc.

Kolsky, T. A. (1990). Jews Against Zionism: The American Council
for Judaism
. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[1] It should be noted that the
Atlantic City conference took place after the aforementioned Farhud in Iraq,
but it is not clear whether or not the participants were influenced or aware of
said events, given the overwhelming cacophony of the contemporaneous World War

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