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Commemorating 75 Years of Advancing Prophetic Judaism, Free of Nationalism and Politicization

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2017

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the American Council for Judaism.  
Since 1942, the Council has advanced the philosophy of Judaism as a religion  
of universal values, not a nationality, and has maintained that Americans of  
Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion — just as  
other Americans are Protestants, Catholics or Muslims. It has challenged the  
Zionist philosophy which holds that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews,  
and that Jews living outside of Israel are in “exile.” In doing so, it has  
contended that its philosophy represents the thinking of the majority of  
American Jews, a largely silent — but in recent days, increasingly vocal —  
majority, which is not represented by the organizations which presume to  
speak in their name. Clearly, the homeland of American Jews is the United  
The Council’s philosophy is much older than the 75 years in which the  
organization has been in existence. In 1841, at the dedication of Temple  
Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared:  
“This country is our Palestine, this city is our Jerusalem, this house of  
God our temple.”  
In November 1885, a group of Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and wrote an  
eight-point platform that one participant called “the most succinct  
expression of the theology of the Reform movement that had ever been  
published in the world.” The platform emphasized that Reform Judaism  
rejected the idea of Jewish “peoplehood” and nationalism in any variety. It  
stated: “We recognize in the era of universal culture of heart and  
intellect, the approaching realization of Israel’s Messianic hope for the  
establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. We  
consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community, and  
therefore expect neither a return to Palestine nor a sacrificial worship  
under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning  
the Jewish state.”  
Critical Response to Zionism  
When Theodor Herzl called for the creation of a Jewish state at the First  
Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in August, 1897, the response of  
Jewish leaders in both Europe and the U.S. was sharply critical. The chief  
rabbi of Vienna, Moritz Gudemann, denounced the mirage of Jewish  
nationalism. Belief in One God was the unifying factor for Jews, he  
declared, and Zionism was incompatible with Judaism’s teachings. The Jewish  
Chronicle of London judged the Zionist scheme’s lack of religious  
perspective to render it “cold and comparatively uninviting.” The executive  
of the association of German rabbis denounced the “efforts of the so-called  
Zionists to create a Jewish National State in Palestine” as contrary to the  
“prophetic message of Judaism and the duty of every Jew to belong without  
reservation to the fatherland in which he lives.”  
Adolf Jellinek, who became known as the greatest Jewish preacher of his age  
and a standard bearer of Jewish liberalism from his position as rabbi at the  
Leopoldstadt Temple in Vienna, deplored the creation of what he called a  
“small state like Serbia or Romania outside Europe, which would most likely  
become the plaything of one Great Power against another, and whose future  
would be very uncertain.”  
For Reform Jews, the idea of Zionism contradicted almost completely their  
belief in a universal Judaism. The first Reform prayer book eliminated  
references to Jews being in exile and to a Messiah who would miraculously  
restore Jews throughout the world to the historic land of Israel and who  
would rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. The prayerbook removed all prayers  
for a return to Zion.  
The most articulate spokesman for the German Reform movement, the  
distinguished rabbi and author Abraham Geiger, argued that Judaism developed  
through an evolutionary process that had begun with God’s revelation to the  
Hebrew prophets. That revelation was progressive; new truth became available  
to every generation. The underlying and unchangeable essence of Judaism was  
its morality. The core of Judaism was ethical monotheism. The Jewish people  
were a religious community destined to carry on the mission to “serve as a  
light to the nations,” to bear witness to God and His moral law. The  
dispersion of the Jews was not a punishment for their sins, but part of  
God’s plan whereby they were to disseminate the universal message of ethical  
“America Is Our Zion”  
In 1897, the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution  
disapproving of any attempt to establish a Jewish state. The resolution  
stated: “Zion was a precious possession of the past … as such it is a holy  
memory, but it is not our hope for the future. America is our Zion.” In  
1904, The American Israelite, edited by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the leader  
of American Reform Judaism in the 19th century, declared: “There is not one  
solitary prominent native Jewish American who is an advocate of Zionism.”  
In 1919, in response to Britain’s Balfour Declaration calling for a “Jewish  
homeland” in Palestine, a petition was presented to President Woodrow Wilson  
entitled “A Statement to the Peace Conference.” It reflected the dominant  
American Jewish view on Zionism and Palestine. The petition criticized  
Zionist efforts to segregate Jews “as a political unit … in Palestine or  
elsewhere,” and underlined the principle of equal rights for all citizens of  
any state “irrespective of creed or ethnic descent.” It rejected Jewish  
nationalism as a general concept and held against the founding of any state  
upon the basis of religion and/or race. The petition asserted that the  
“overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America, England, France, Italy, Holland,  
Switzerland and the other lands of freedom have no thought whatever of  
surrendering their citizenship in those lands in order to resort to a  
‘Jewish homeland in Palestine.’”  
Among those signing this petition were Rep. Julius Khan of California, Henry  
Morganthau, Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Simon W. Rosendale,  
former Attorney General of New York, Mayor L.H. Kempner of Galveston, Texas,  
E.M. Baker, president of the New York Stock Exchange, Jesse L. Straus of  
Macy’s, and New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs  
Orthodox Jewish Rejection of Zionism  
It was not just Reform Jews who opposed Zionism, but Orthodox Jews as well.  
Indeed, prior to the mid-20th century, the overwhelming majority of all Jews  
rejected the philosophy of Jewish nationalism. In 1929, Orthodox Rabbi Aaron  
Samuel Tamarat wrote that the very notion of a sovereign Jewish state as a  
spiritual center was “a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.” He  
noted that, “Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which may  
be localized or situated in a single territory. Neither is Judaism a  
‘nationality,’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the  
three-foldedness of ‘homeland, army and heroic songs.’ No, Judaism is Torah,  
ethics and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot  
be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture  
said of Torah, ‘Its measure is greater than the earth.’”  
In his book, What Is Modern Israel?, Professor Yakov Rabkin of the  
University of Montreal, an Orthodox Jew, shows that Zionism was conceived as  
a clear break with Judaism and the Jewish religious tradition. In his view,  
it must be seen in the context of European ethnic nationalism, colonial  
expansion and geopolitical interests rather than as an incarnation of  
Biblical prophecies or a culmination of Jewish history. The religious idea  
of a Jewish return to Palestine had nothing to do with the political  
enterprise of Zionism. “Jewish tradition,” writes Rabkin, “holds that the  
idea of return must be part of a messianic project rather than the human  
initiative of migration to the Holy Land. …There was little room for Jewish  
tradition in the Zionist scheme … It is not the physical geography of the  
Biblical land of Israel which is essential for Jews but the obligation to  
follow the commandments of the Torah.”  
To the question of whether Jews constitute “a people,” Yeshayahua Leibowitz,  
the Orthodox Jewish thinker and Hebrew University professor, provides this  
assessment: “The historical Jewish people was defined neither as a race, nor  
a people of this country or that, nor as a people that speaks the same  
language, but as the people of Torah Judaism and its commandments … The  
words spoken by Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942) more than a thousand years ago:  
‘Our nation exists only within the Torah’ have not only a normative but also  
an empirical meaning. They testified to a historical reality whose power  
could be felt up until the 19th century. It was then that the fracture,  
which has not ceased to widen with time, first occurred: the fissure between  
Jewishness and Judaism.”  
Turning Away from Jewish Tradition  
The early Zionists not only turned away from the Jewish religious tradition  
but, in their regard for the indigenous population of Palestine, Jewish  
moral and ethical values as well. In his book, Israel: A Colonial-Settler  
State, the French Jewish historian Maxime Rodinson writes that, “Wanting to  
create a purely Jewish or predominantly Jewish state in Arab Palestine in  
the 20th century could not help but lead to a colonial-type situation and  
the development of a racist state of mind, and in the final analysis, to a  
military confrontation.” Theodor Herzl was himself an atheist. The state he  
proposed, he wrote, “should there (the Middle East) form a part of a wall of  
defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”  
Embracing 19th century European colonialism as a model, Max Nordau, who  
became Herzl’s second in command, declared: “We will endeavor to do for the  
Near East what the English did in India. It is our intention to come to  
Palestine as the representatives of culture and to take the moral borders of  
Europe to the Euphrates.”  
The immediate difficulty for the Zionists in the late 19th century was the  
“Arab problem” in Palestine, with an indigenous population 92 per cent Arab.  
Israeli historian Benny Morris shows that the early Zionists understood that  
the establishment of a Jewish state would require the removal of these  
Palestinian Arabs. The idea of removal, he writes, “goes back to the fathers  
of modern Zionism.” In his diaries in 1895, Herzl wrote of the need to  
“spirit the penniless (Arab) population” across the border to Arab  
countries. According to Morris, the Zionist settlers referred to  
Palestinians as “mules” and “behaved like lords and masters, some apparently  
resorting to the whip at the slightest provocation …” The Russian Jewish  
writer and philosopher Ahad Ha’am wrote in 1891 that the settlers “behaved  
toward the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their  
boundaries, beat them shamefully without reason and brag about it.” Ha’am  
surmised that aggressive settler attitudes stemmed from anger “toward those  
who reminded them that there is still another people in the land of Israel  
that have been living there and don’t intend to leave.” Moshe Sharett, a  
future prime minister, acknowledged that, “We have come to conquer a country  
from a people inhabiting it … the land must be ours alone.”  
Ahad Ha’am was hardly alone in voicing misgivings about the emerging Zionist  
enterprise. In an article published in Ha-Shiloah in 1907, Yitzhak Epstein,  
a Russian-born teacher who had settled in Palestine in 1886, voiced an  
anxiety that was brushed aside by Zionist contemporaries but came back to  
haunt. He wrote: “Among the questions raised by the concept of our people’s  
renaissance on its own soil, there is one which is more weighty than all the  
others put together. This is the question of our relations with the Arabs.  
This question, on the correct solution of which our national aspirations  
depend, must not be forgotten. Rather, it has remained completely hidden  
from the Zionists, and its true form found almost no mention in the  
literature of our movement. While we harbor fierce sentiments towards the  
land, we forget that the nation now living there is also endowed with a  
sensitive heart and a loving soul. The Arab, like all other men, is strongly  
attached to his homeland.”  
Forgetting There Were Arabs in the Country  
Yosef Luria, a Romanian-born journalist and teacher who settled in Palestine  
in 1907, wrote in Ha-Olem in 1911: “During all the years of our labor in  
Palestine we completely forget that there were Arabs in the country. The  
Arabs have been ‘discovered’ only during the past few years. We regarded all  
European nations as opponents of our settlement, but failed to pay heed to  
one people — the people residing in this country and attached to it.”  
In the wake of growing anti-Semitism in Russia and Eastern Europe at the end  
of the 19th century and the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the nineteen  
thirties, many Jews began to look positively upon the idea of creating a  
Jewish state in Palestine as a refuge for those being persecuted. Jewish  
organizations in the U.S. which had always opposed Zionism, slowly began to  
view it more favorably. In February 1942, a resolution was adopted by the  
Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform rabbinical group,  
which reversed Reform Jewish philosophy by calling for a “Jewish army” in  
Palestine, a direct violation of its 1935 resolution calling for  
“neutrality” when it came to the question of Zionism and Palestine. This was  
viewed by those who maintained the traditional position of Reform Judaism as  
an endorsement of Zionism and a rejection of its commitment to universal  
prophetic Judaism and its replacement by nationalism.  
The American Council for Judaism was created in 1942 to maintain the  
philosophy of a universal Judaism free of nationalism and politicization. In  
his keynote address to the June 1942 meeting in Atlantic City, Rabbi David  
Philipson declared that Reform Judaism and Zionism were incompatible:  
“Reform Judaism is spiritual, Zionism is political. The outlook of Reform  
Judaism is the world. The outlook of Zionism is a corner of Eastern Asia.”  
The first pledge of major financial backing was made by Aaron Strauss, a  
nephew and heir of Levi Strauss of blue jeans fame.  
Zionist Nationalism Similar to Other Forms of Nationalism  
An early leader of the Council, Rabbi Morris Lazaron, who served from 1915  
to 1946 as rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, was originally a  
supporter of cultural Zionism, but later altered his views. Slowly, he  
discovered that Zionist nationalism was not different from other forms of  
nationalism: “The Jewish nationalist philosophy of separateness as a people  
who would always and inevitably be rejected because they were Jews boldly  
asserted itself. The idea seems to have been to break down the self-  
confidence and opposition to Jewish political nationalism … Behind the mask  
of Jewish sentiment, one can see the specter of the foul thing which moves  
Germany and Italy. Behind the camouflage of its unquestioned appeal to  
Jewish feeling, one can hear a chorus of ‘Heil.’ This is not for Jews —  
Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.”  
Speaking at the January 1937 annual meeting of the Union of American Hebrew  
Congregations in New Orleans, Lazaron declared: “Judaism cannot accept as  
the instrument of its salvation the very philosophy of nationalism which is  
leading the world to destruction. Shall we condemn it as Italian or German,  
but accept it as Jewish?”  
Rabbis who joined the Council led some of the nation’s leading  
congregations. Among them were Samuel Goldenson of New York, Irving Reichart  
of San Francisco, David Marx of Atlanta, Edward Calisch of Richmond, Henry  
Cohen of Galveston, Samuel Koch of Seattle, and Julian Feibelman of New  
Orleans. The Council also recruited many nationally prominent laypersons,  
including Judge Marcus Sloss of the California Supreme Court, Herbert and  
Stanley Marcus of the Nieman-Marcus Company in Dallas, Admiral Lewis L.  
Strauss and Alfred M. Cohen, president of B’nai B’rith. The first president  
of the Council was Lessing J. Rosenwald, who had retired as chairman of  
Sears Roebuck and Co., which was founded by his father, the respected  
philanthropist Julian Rosenwald who, among many other things, worked with  
Booker T. Washington to build schools for black children in the South after  
the Civil War.  
Rabbi Reichart made his first significant declaration of his opposition to  
Zionism in a January 1936 sermon: “If my reading of Jewish history is  
correct, Israel took upon itself the yoke of the Law not in Palestine, but  
in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai and by far the greater part of its deathless  
and distinguished contribution to world culture was produced not in  
Palestine but in Babylon and the lands of the Dispersion. Jewish states may  
rise and fall, as they have risen and fallen in the past, but the people of  
Israel will continue to minister at the altar of the Most High God in all  
the lands in which they dwell … There is too dangerous a parallel between  
the insistence of some Zionist spokesmen upon nationality and race and  
blood, and similar pronouncements by Fascist leaders in Europe.”  
The Racial Philosophy of Hitler  
In a sermon he gave on May 28, 1939, Rabbi Goldenson on New York’s Temple  
Emanu-El declared that the establishment of a single organization to promote  
Zionist aims in the name of all Jews, as was advocated by Rabbi Stephen S.  
Wise and his new World Jewish Congress, “is an indirect acceptance to the  
racial philosophy of the Hitler regime. It seems to give notice to the rest  
of the world that in the promotion of our interests and in defense of our  
rights, we as American citizens cannot be effective enough through availing  
ourselves of the agencies of our government, but that we must have our own  
national organization so that our leaders may speak for us as a single unit.  
This endeavor separates us at one stroke from the rest of the population on  
the single ground that we are Jews … As long as the Jew feels he has a  
heritage worth cherishing, a heritage informed with the spirit of his  
lawgivers, prophets, psalmists and sages, and that through this heritage he  
can realize the best in himself and make significant contributions to the  
moral and spiritual life of mankind, he can feel personally justified to  
carry on and can claim the right to remain a Jew in any society. The moment  
he gives up these convictions, he abandons his special reason for existence  
and his warrant to survive as a member of a separate group. Thereafter,  
every claim that he makes in behalf of Jewish life and Jewish identity  
becomes less and less intelligible to others and loses force in their  
The Council was incorporated in December 1942 and Rabbi Elmer Berger was  
named executive director. Judah Magnes, chancellor of the Hebrew University  
of Jerusalem, wrote a letter endorsing the Council’s statement of  
principles: “It is true that Jewish nationalism tends to confuse people not  
because it is secular and not religious, but because this nationalism is  
unhappily chauvinistic and narrow and terroristic in the best style of  
Eastern European nationalism.”  
The full text of the Council’s statement of principles was included in a  
feature article in The New York Times. It read, in part: “… the Prophets  
placed God and the moral law above land, race, nation, royal prerogatives  
and political arrangements. Now, as then, we cherish the same religious  
values which emphasize the dignity of man and the obligations to deal justly  
with man no matter what his status. Palestine is part of Israel’s religious  
heritage, as it is part of the heritage of two other religions of the world.  
We look forward to the ultimate establishment of a democratic, autonomous  
government in Palestine, wherein Jews, Muslims and Christians shall be  
justly represented, every man enjoying equal responsibilities, a democratic  
government in which our fellow Jews shall be free Palestinians whose  
religion is Judaism, even as we are Americans whose religion is Judaism.”  
“We Have Belonged to Every Nation”  
In 1943, Elmer Berger participated in a public debate in Richmond, Virginia  
with Maurice Samuel, who had published an article attacking the Council at  
its formation. Berger stated the fundamental position he would champion  
throughout his life: “I oppose Zionism because I deny that Jews are a  
nation. We were a nation for perhaps 200 years in a history of four thousand  
years. Before that we were a group of Semitic tribes whose only tenuous bond  
of unity was a national deity — a religious unity. After Solomon, we were  
never better than two nations, frequently at war with one another,  
disappearing at different times, leaving discernibly different cultures and  
even religions recorded in the Biblical record. Certainly, since the  
Dispersion, we have not been a nation. We have belonged to every nation in  
the world. We have mixed our blood with all peoples. Jewish nationalism is a  
fabrication woven from the thinnest kinds of threads and strengthened only  
in those eras of human history in which reaction has been dominant and anti-  
Semitism in full cry.”  
On Dec. 4, 1945, hours after the first meeting with Zionist leader Chaim  
Weizmann, President Harry S. Truman received Lessing Rosenwald in the Oval  
Office. Stressing that he could speak only for members of the ACJ, and that  
no one could speak for all American Jews, Rosenwald asked the president for  
the opportunity for members of the Council to testify before the Anglo-  
American Committee of Inquiry and called for the admission of both Jewish  
and non-Jewish displaced persons to Palestine. He urged that, “Palestine  
shall not be a Muslim, Christian or a Jewish state but a country in which  
people of all faiths can play their full and equal part,” and that the U.S.  
take the lead in coordinating with the U.N. a cooperative policy of many  
nations in absorbing Jewish refugees.  
Rosenwald testified before the Committee of Inquiry on Jan. 10, 1946 and  
urged that large numbers of Jews be admitted into Palestine on the condition  
that “the claim that Jews possess unlimited national rights to the land, and  
that the country shall take the form of a racial or theocratic state, were  
renounced once and for all.”  
From 1943 to 1948, the Council conducted a public campaign against Zionism.  
One of the speakers at its 1945 conference was Hans Kohn, a one-time German  
Zionist associated with the University in Exile in New York. He declared:  
“The Jewish nationalist philosophy has developed entirely under German  
influence, the German romantic nationalism with the emphasis on blood, race,  
and descent as the most determining factor in human life, its historicizing  
attempt to connect with a legendary past 2,000 or so years ago, its emphasis  
on folk as a mythical body, the source of civilization.”  
Resist Zionist Efforts to Dominate Jewish Life  
In the face of the 1947 partition of Palestine, the Council wished the new  
state well and declared its determination to resist Zionist efforts to  
dominate Jewish life in America. Rabbi Berger published an extended essay  
that outlined “the challenge to all Americans who are Jews by religion  
presented by Zionist plans to foster an ‘Israel-centered’ Jewish life in the  
U.S.” He wrote: “The creation of a sovereign state embodying the principles  
of Zionism far from relieving American Jews of the urgency of making that  
choice, makes it more compelling.”  
Many non-Jewish leaders found the Council’s views compelling and worked  
together with Council leaders to advance them. Among these were Barnard  
College President Virginia Gildersleeve, journalist Dorothy Thompson, a  
fierce opponent of Nazism who exposed Hitler early in his career, the Rev.  
Harry Emerson Fosdick, and socialist leader Norman Thomas. Thomas praised  
the ACJ as early as 1949 in a syndicated column on the Arab refugee crisis  
and spoke frequently at Council functions. Many years later, after Thomas’s  
death, Elmer Berger would recall, “I needed him, for our basic agreement  
about the Middle East and Palestine reassured me in the many moments of  
self-doubt, not of our fundamental principles, but of my continuing ability  
to see those principles in the broad vision of a world which we hoped,  
somehow, to leave a little better than we found it.”  
Early in 1953, Berger and Rosenwald met at the White House with President  
Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president accepted their memorandum, which  
discussed the “confusion of Judaism with the nationalism of Israel,” such as  
Israel’s “Law of Return,” enacted in 1951, which could be interpreted as  
granting de facto Israeli citizenship to all the world’s Jews. The new  
Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, took the memorandum with him on his  
first trip to the Middle East and echoed many of its points in a radio  
address at the end of the trip. Dulles urged that Israel “become part of the  
Near East community and cease to look upon itself as alien to that  
Religious Schools for Children  
The Council ran religious schools, published children’s textbooks and  
established a philanthropic fund. Among the books it published were Samuel  
Baron’s Children’s Devotions, Abraham Cronbach’s Judaism for Today, and Not  
by Power, by Allan Tarshish, who was rabbi at the first Reform congregation  
in America in Charleston, South Carolina. Rabbi David Goldberg, who served  
as the first Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Navy during World War l, was the  
Council’s research director. He wrote three books, Meet the Prophets,  
Stories About Judaism, and Holidays for American Judaism. For a number of  
years, the Council published a children’s magazine called Growing Up. The  
curriculum was designed by Leonard R, Sussman, who served for many years as  
the Council’s executive director and later distinguished himself as the  
executive director of Freedom House.  
While it opposed the creation of a Jewish state, the Council called for  
Jewish immigration to Palestine under the British Mandate to ease the post-  
World War ll refugee crisis in Europe. When the State of Israel was  
established, the Council made clear that, “Nationality and religion are  
separate and distinct. Our nationality is American. Our religion is Judaism.  
Our homeland is the United States of America.”  
In his important biography of Rabbi Elmer Berger, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer  
Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, Jack Ross shows how Berger worked  
closely with U.S. Government officials to oppose any idea that Israel could  
speak in the name of the “Jewish people,” rather than its own citizens. He  
also worked with, among others, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR), chairman  
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to have Zionist groups register  
as foreign agents of Israel. He wrote and spoke frequently about the plight  
of Palestinian refugees.  
Rejecting Legal Status of “the Jewish People”  
One of Berger’s goals was for the U.S. Government to issue a formal  
declaration as to whether it accepted the claim of Israel to represent an  
entity called “the Jewish People.” When it captured Adolph Eichmann in  
Argentina, Israel had claimed to be acting in the name of “the Jewish  
people.” On April 20, 1964, Assistant Secretary of State Philips Talbot  
formally replied in what Berger considered as a victory for the Council’s  
position. Talbot wrote: “The Department of State recognizes the State of  
Israel as a sovereign state and citizenship in the State of Israel. It  
recognizes no other sovereignty or citizenship in connection there with. It  
does not recognize a legal-political relationship based upon the religious  
identification of American citizens. It does not in any way discriminate  
among American citizens upon the basis of their religion. Accordingly, it  
should be clear that the Department of State does not regard the ‘Jewish  
people’ concept as a concept of international law.”  
Rabbi Berger believed in Classical Reform Judaism which Ross explains as  
involving, “The centrality of the biblical prophets. That is that the  
essence of Judaism is not in the ‘national narrative’ that ostensibly  
constitutes the Old Testament but rather in the example of those, namely the  
prophets, who spoke out against the Kings and priests who corrupted the  
nation and the people. It has been said by many that there is no greater  
power in all of human literature than the warning of the Prophet Samuel  
against the Israelites’ desire for a king. Implicit in all of this is the  
overarching premise that the downfall of Biblical Israel was its eagerness  
to define itself as a temporal kingdom — in other words, a state, with all  
its trappings of power.”  
In today’s America, in Ross’s view, the majority of American Jews really  
share the philosophy enunciated by Berger and the Council: “… the majority  
of American Jews today would be completely baffled by the suggestion that  
they were anything but completely emancipated and integrated Americans whose  
Judaism is primarily if not solely a matter of confession … Berger … must be  
given credit for recognizing the underlying essential sociological truth of  
American Jewish life — that regardless of the theological and even  
sociological merits of the question of Jewish peoplehood, the concept could  
not withstand the reality of U.S. society.”  
Keeping Faith with Prophetic Judaism  
During a dark period, Ross believes, Berger and his colleagues kept faith  
with a prophetic Judaism of universal moral and ethical values. He writes  
that, “When we consider the fallen nature of mankind, the record of the Jews  
remains by far among the better in existence for persistently serving as an  
example of justice and righteousness. Under the same appalling circumstances  
of the 20th century, it is indeed difficult to imagine any other group  
producing such extraordinary men of conscience as Elmer Berger, Lessing  
Rosenwald, Uri Avnery … to name but a few. Like the Prophets of old, their  
example remains for the time when the world finally begins to retreat from  
barbarism and looks to those who warned against the madness in seeking how  
it might do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”  
In his history of the early years of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ),  
Jews Against Zionism (Temple University Press), Professor Thomas A. Kolsky  
pointed to the fact that the Council was maintaining the tradition of Reform  
Judaism’s founders. The warnings which the ACJ expressed during its early  
years, he concluded, have been prophetic: “… many of its predictions about  
the establishment of a Jewish state did come true. As the ACJ had foreseen,  
the birth of the state created numerous problems — problems the Zionists had  
minimized. For example, Israel became highly dependent on support from  
American Jews. Moreover, the creation of the state directly contributed to  
undermining Jewish communities in Arab countries and to precipitating a  
protracted conflict between Israel and the Arabs. Indeed, as the Council had  
often warned and contrary to Zionist expectations, Israel did not become a  
normal state. Nor did it become a light to the nations. Ironically, created  
presumably to free Jews from anti-Semitism and ghetto-like existence as well  
as to provide them with abiding peace, Israel became, in effect, a garrison  
state, a nation resembling a large territorial ghetto besieged by hostile  
neighbors … The ominous predictions of the ACJ are still haunting the  
Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University historian and author of the book  
American Judaism, says that, “Everything they (the American Council for  
Judaism) prophesied — dual loyalty, nationalism being evil — has come to  
pass.” He states that, “It’s certainly the case that if the Holocaust  
underscored the problems of Jewish life in the Diaspora, recent years have  
highlighted the point that Zionism is no panacea.”  
Samuel Freedman devoted his “On Religion” column in The New York Times (June  
26, 2010) to the ACJ. He notes that, “While the establishment of Israel and  
its centrality to American Jews consigned the Council to irrelevancy for  
decades, the intense criticism of Israel now growing among a number of  
American Jews has made..(the) group look significant, even prophetic … The  
arguments that the Council has levied against Zionism and Israel have shot  
back into prominence … The rejection of Zionism … goes back to the Torah  
itself. Until Theoror Herzl created the modern Zionist movement … the  
Biblical injunction to return to Israel was widely understood as a  
theological construct rather than a pragmatic instruction … The Reform  
movement maintained that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality.”  
Corrupted and Politicized  
It has become increasingly clear that Judaism as a religion has become  
increasingly corrupted and politicized. Jewish religious bodies, ranging  
from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform have embraced the notion that the  
State of Israel — not God — is, somehow, central to Judaism. In its 1999  
Statement of Principles, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the  
Union for Reform Judaism) went so far as to declare that, “We affirm the  
unique qualities of living in the land of Israel and we encourage aliyah  
(immigration to Israel).”  
From Israeli flags in synagogues to “Birthright Israel” trips sending young  
people on free visits to Israel to a host of Jewish organizations focused on  
influencing U.S. Middle East policy — the center of attention within the  
organized American Jewish community has not been the traditional commitment  
to God but something far different. This has become a form of idolatry,  
making Israel a virtual object of worship, much like the golden calf in the  
Bible. It should be no surprise that more and more American Jews,  
particularly young people, are increasingly alienated from this enterprise.  
A study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen found that among  
American Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the  
one before. Among American Jews born after 1980, only 54% feel “comfortable  
with the idea of a Jewish state.” The reason, Cohen explained, is an  
aversion to “hard group boundaries” and to the notion that “there is a  
distinction between Jews and everybody else.” Other polls show that among  
younger non-Orthodox Jews, only 30% think that “caring about Israel is  
essential to being Jewish.”  
In his book Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel,  
Professor Dov Waxman of Northeastern University reports that “A historic  
change has been taking place in the American Jewish relationship with  
Israel. The age of unquestioning and unstinting support for Israel is over.  
The pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jews is eroding, and  
Israel is fast becoming a source of division rather than unity for American  
Jewry … A new era of American Jewish conflict over Israel is replacing the  
old era of solidarity … Israel used to bring American Jews together, now it  
is driving them apart.”  
Division about Zionism Is Nothing New  
Division about Zionism in the American Jewish community, Waxman points out,  
is nothing new. The current debate, he notes, “… echoes earlier debates  
about Zionism that occurred before 1948. Then, as now, there were fierce  
disagreements among American Jews and the American Jewish establishment … It  
was only after Israel’s founding that the communal consensus came to  
dominate American Jewish politics. Thus, from a historical perspective, the  
pro-Israel consensus that once reigned within the American Jewish community  
is the aberration, rather than the rule. Jewish division on Israel is  
historically the norm.”  
In the years after Israel’s creation in 1948, the organized American Jewish  
community embraced it, with dissenters largely ostracized. But, Dov Waxman  
points out, the overwhelming majority of American Jews, while supporting  
Israel and wishing it well, were never really Zionists. He writes that,  
“Classical Zionism … has never had much relevance or appeal to American  
Jewry. Indeed, the vast majority of American Jews reject the basic elements  
of classical Zionism — that Diaspora Jews live in exile, that Jewish life in  
Israel is superior to life in the Diaspora, and that Diaspora Jewish life is  
doomed to eventually disappear. American Jews do not think that they live in  
exile and they do not regard Israel as their homeland … For many American  
Jews, America is more than just home; it is itself a kind of Zion, an  
‘almost promised land.’ Zionism has never succeeded in winning over the  
majority of American Jews.”  
By the 1980s, a host of liberal Jewish groups emerged such as New Jewish  
Agenda, Americans for Peace Now, Project Nishma and the Jewish Peace Lobby.  
More recently, groups such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) have  
emerged, and have attracted much support. Established in 2008, J Street, by  
2013, had around 180,000 registered supporters, 20,000 donors and over 45  
local chapters. Jewish Voice for Peace was established in Berkeley,  
California in 1996. Expressing the view of established organizations which  
were slowly seeing themselves displaced, the Anti-Defamation League publicly  
listed JVP as one of “ten most influential anti-Israel groups in the U.S.”  
For many years the journal Tikkun edited by Rabbi Michael Lerner, has been  
important advocate for Judaism’s commitment to universal moral and ethical  
Jewish Establishment Is Not Representative  
It is Waxman’s view that the American Jewish establishment “only represents  
a small segment of American Jewry, which is more right-wing and religious  
than the majority of American Jews. Most American Jews, especially younger  
ones, are largely, if not entirely, disconnected from the American Jewish  
establishment, and thus effectively disenfranchised … Social, cultural  
economic and technological changes within the Jewish community and the U.S.  
in general … threaten the very survival of the American Jewish  
establishment, and by extension, its ability to represent and collectively  
mobilize the Jewish community.”  
How unrepresentative the organized Jewish community has become can be seen  
in the response to the U.N. Security Council’s resolution in December  
criticizing Israel’s policy of settlement building in the occupied West Bank  
and East Jerusalem, and the decision by the Obama administration not to veto  
this resolution which was, in fact, a re-statement of longstanding  
bipartisan U.S. policy. The U.N. Resolution was followed by an address in  
which Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Israeli government was  
undermining any hope of a two-state solution. “The status quo is leading  
toward one state and perpetual occupation,” said Kerry. “Some seem to  
believe that U.S. friendship means the U.S. must accept any policy,  
regardless of our own interests, our own positions, our own words, our own  
principles — even after urging again and again that the policy must change.  
Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendship requires  
equal respect.”  
Groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and  
the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations  
immediately expressed outrage at both the U.N. Resolution, the U.S. decision  
not to veto it, and Secretary Kerry’s speech. Some went even further, Mortin  
Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, declared, “Obama  
has made it clear that he is a Jew-hating anti-Semite.” David Friedman,  
President Donald Trump’s recently named ambassador to Israel, compared J  
Street and other Jewish critics of Israel to “kapos,” Jews who assisted the  
Nazis at concentration camps during World War II.  
Right Wing’s Loud Voice  
In expressing such views and in embracing Israel’s policy of occupation and  
settlement building, such groups were hardly representing the thinking of  
most American Jews. Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College  
specializing in Jewish life, said that, “These days the right-wing has a  
louder voice in Israel, and, in some ways, it also has a louder voice in  
America, because the people who are most actively and publicly Jewish,  
sectarian Jewish, share the right-wing point of view, and are very pro-  
settlement. But it’s not the mainstream point of view.” Steven M. Cohen, a  
research professor at Hebrew Union College and a consultant to the recent  
Pew study of American Jews, said that Secretary Kerry’s speech represented  
the thinking of most American Jews: “On survey after survey, American Jews  
are opposed to Jewish settlement expansion. They tend to favor a two-state  
solution and their political orientations are liberal and moderate.”  
Cohen reports that “serious donors” to Jewish organizations have started to  
balk at giving money to Israel. He cites his work with Jewish Federations,  
the largest Jewish charity organizations: “The issue of Israel is and will  
continue to be a major source of polarization and friction. I was having  
questions — what pulls our community apart? Is it Orthodox, secular, Reform,  
Haredim? And people say, that’s the number two issue. What’s number one?  
Number one is Israel. Recently, we’re seeing a lot of tension on Israel, we  
really have a hard time managing the Israel conversation. It’s like our  
donors are telling me, I’ll give you money as I have before … But not if  
you’re going to give it to Israel.”  
The evidence of widespread disagreement with the positions taken by  
established Jewish organizations is overwhelming. Rabbi Henry Siegman, a  
former leader of the American Jewish Congress, declared: “Netanyahu’s  
‘J’accuse’ against Obama is a concoction of lies and deceptions.” Rabbi John  
L. Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, California, chairman of the  
Association of Reform Zionists of America, applauded Secretary Kerry’s  
speech and said that many American Jews were broadly supportive of the Obama  
administration’s position. “I felt Kerry was exactly right. The people who  
will criticize him and will take a leap and say he’s anti-Israel, just as  
some are saying Obama is an anti-Semite. This is ridiculous.” Rabbi Jill  
Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights  
organization, says, “There’s a very clear values clash going on. On the one  
hand, we have a small but vocal minority of American Jews who believe that  
supporting Israel means supporting the right-wing agenda, the current  
government. And on the other, there is a larger percentage of American Jews  
who are committed to Israel and committed to democracy and want to see it as  
a safe place that reflects our values.”  
A Lesser Evil Is Still Evil  
After Prime Minister Netanyahu sharply criticized the U.N. for challenging  
Israel’s violations of human rights more than those of other countries and  
chastised President Obama and Secretary Kerry for permitting the U.N.  
Resolution to proceed, Peter Beinart, contributing editor to The Forward  
(Jan. 13, 2017), provided this assessment: “The Israeli leader illustrated  
George Orwell’s famous insight: The abuse of human beings begins with the  
abuse of language … The test of whether Israeli settlement policy deserves  
international condemnation is whether Israeli settlement policy is morally  
wrong, not whether other governments deserve condemnation more … The UN’s  
action or inaction on Syria doesn’t excuse Israeli settlement policy. A  
lesser evil is still evil. … In the West Bank, Israel is not the ‘one true  
democracy in the Middle East.’ It’s not a democracy because Palestinians —  
who comprise the vast majority of the West Bank inhabitants cannot vote for  
the government that controls their lives … Netanyahu never offered a map of  
the kind of Palestinian state he could accept. What he offers instead is  
rhetoric: cutesy Americanisms like ‘Friends don’t take friends to the  
Security Council.’”  
Beinart concludes: “There are realities that public relations-lingo can’t  
obscure. By creating one law for Jewish settlers, who enjoy Israeli  
citizenship, free movement, due process and the right to vote for the  
government that controls their lives, and another for Palestinians, who live  
as non-citizens under military law, Israel in the West Bank has become a  
‘brutal occupation force’ that is making the lives of millions unbearable.’  
Those words come from Avraham Shalom and Carmi Gillon, two former heads of  
the Shin Bet. Their English isn’t as polished as Netanyahu’s. But as Orwell  
taught long ago, you don’t need fancy language when you’re speaking the  
In Israel itself support was expressed for Secretary Kerry’s speech and the  
U.S. abstention on the U.N. resolution. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz had  
the headline, “A very Zionist, pro-Israel speech.” Ehud Barak, the most  
decorated soldier in Israel’s history and a former prime minister, warned,  
“As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one  
political entity called Israel, it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-  
democratic. If the bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, this will  
be an apartheid state.” Just after the Kerry speech, Barak declared on  
Twitter, “Powerful, lucid … World and majority of Israelis think the same.”  
Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev pointed to a lack of gratitude on the part of  
the Israeli government toward the U.S., engaging in an attack upon President  
Obama shortly after the U.S. granted Israel $38 billion in military aid, an  
unprecedented sum. “The check barely even cleared,” said Shalev.  
“Ingratitude, Jewish sages teach us is the absolute worst of traits.  
‘Whoever rewards evil for good … Evil will not depart from his house,’ as  
Proverbs puts it.”  
Einstein Warned Against Narrow Nationalism  
In light of recent events, it is important to remember the long history of  
Jewish opposition to chauvinistic nationalism. In 1938, alluding to Nazism,  
Albert Einstein warned an audience of Zionist activists against the  
temptation to create a state imbued with “a narrow nationalism within our  
own ranks against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without  
a Jewish state.” Another world-renowned German Jew, the philosopher Martin  
Buber, spoke out in 1942 against the “aim of the minority to ‘conquer’  
territory by means of international maneuvers.” In the midst of hostilities  
that broke out after Israel unilaterally declared independence, Buber cited  
with despair, “This sort of ‘Zionism’ blasphemes the name of Zion; it is  
nothing more than one of the crude forms of nationalism.”  
While Reform Judaism moved away from its traditional opposition to Zionism,  
Professor Yakov Rabkin points out that this older tradition of universal  
prophetic Judaism was kept alive by the American Council for Judaism:  
“Reform rabbis focused on the priority of religious identity and deplored  
its transformation into a national, even a racial, concept … Principled  
anti-Zionism has survived mainly in the American Council for Judaism … For  
Reform Judaism, Zionism is as much a departure from tradition as it is for  
Orthodox Judaism.”  
As support for Zionism grew, its critics were treated harshly but, Rabkin  
argued, they have now come to be seen as prophetic: “Those who warned  
against the creation of a Zionist state saw their words treated with  
disdain, or at least with condescension. However, these same Jewish authors  
have proven to be prophetic in identifying early on the trends that have now  
appeared in Israeli society and in Jewish communities around the world. They  
had, in particular, foreseen the upsurge of chauvinism and xenophobia, the  
creeping militarization of society, and the growing popularity of fascist  
ideas. This is why their writings today warrant the most serious attention.”  
Council Kept Universal Faith Alive  
Recently, more and more voices have challenged the Zionist consensus which  
has emerged in organized American Jewish life. They have come to understand  
that the growing idolatry of the state of Israel has led to the distortion  
of a rich religious heritage. The founders of Reform Judaism rejected the  
notion of a God confined to a particular “holy” land, embracing instead a  
universal God, the father of all men and women, and a religion of universal  
values as relevant in New York, London or Paris as in Jerusalem. Many  
Conservative and Orthodox Jews also share this vision. One of the leading  
Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham  
Joshua Heschel, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for civil  
rights for all people, said, “Judaism is not a religion of space and does  
not worship the soil. So, too, the State of Israel is not the climax of  
Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the  
competence of Israel.” Early in the 20th century, Hermann Cohen, one of the  
foremost Jewish thinkers of modern times, understood the danger that Zionism  
would re-ignite an intoxication with land that would strangle Jewish  
For 75 years, the American Council for Judaism has never abandoned its  
vision of a universal faith of ethical values for men and women of every  
race and nation which the prophets preached and in which generations of Jews  
believed. The Council’s early leaders recognized how narrow nationalism  
would corrupt the humane Jewish tradition. For the past 75 years, the  
Council has kept that tradition alive. That more and more men and women,  
particularly in the younger generation, are returning to that faith at the  
present time is a vindication of their vision. •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.