A Passion forFREEDOM -
my encounters with extraordinary people
Leonard R. Sussman
Religion, the Middle East, and Freedom House
Harry D. Gideonse was a founder of Freedom House, its moving spirit, and president for several terms while also serving for twenty-six years as president of Brooklyn College. He was a distinguished economist and political scientist who gained national prominence appearing regularly on a national radio panel from the University of Chicago. In October 1948, shortly after the creation of the state of Israel, Dr. Gideonse addressed the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), an anti-Zionist organization that holds that religion and nationalism should be kept apart. Dr. Gideonse voiced support for that belief and rejected the growing demand that American Jews consider themselves in “exile” until they “return” to the land of Israel—a forceful Zionist and Israeli governmental objective. It was a position the New York Times strongly opposed, and so the paper featured Gideonse’s remarks.1 There was an immediate attack on Gideonse from prominent Zionists, coupled with a successful effort to remove Gideonse as president of Freedom House. The effort was sparked by a Freedom House board member who had a Zionist organization as a public relations client.2 Gideonse was replaced by Robert J. Patterson, former U.S. secretary of war. Three months later, I became an executive of the American Council for Judaism; eighteen years later, executive director of Freedom House. By then, Dr. Gideonse had.twice been returned as president of Freedom House. He interviewed me for the FH post after Leo Cherne, an PH leader, proposed me. Cherne and I had collaborated when I created the ACJ’s Philanthropic Fund, which brought Jewish refugees to their new homeland in the United States.
Not until 1973 did I discover in the Freedom House files Dr. Gideonse’s controversial speech and this story. Both served to underscore the following moral: the midway in politics is harder to traverse than the streets of midtown New York. More difficult still is the middle way in religion, especially in Judaism, with its bitter clash between the politics of Israeli nationalism and the diverse theology of the Jewish religion. Where politics and religion meet, the victim can be not only the human spirit but the physical well-being, even the life of the believer or the dissenter. Holy wars, Inquisitions, and unspeakable brutality conducted in the name of religion or religious nationalism continue in the Middle East (a “middle” that is often at an extreme).
I grew up in the non-Zionist (non-nationalist) tradition of Reform Judaism. That middle way of Judaism blended religious practice with one’s civil life in a democratic society. Various degrees of religious orthodoxy or religious conservatism retained many separatist practices developed in earlier times and more restrictive places. Jewish opposition to Zionism originated in Western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century and was widely converted into a politicoreligious code by Orthodox-born Jews who became Socialists or Bundists in Eastern Europe. In 1885, opposition to Zionism was formally adopted by the American Reform rabbinate as the Pittsburgh Platform. The organization of Reform rabbis declared two years later, “Zion was a precious possession of the past... . [A]s such it is a holy memory, but it is not our hope of the future. America is our Zion.” The Reform tradition modernized some religious rituals and emphasized the prophetic books of the Old Testament, rather than the nationalistic aspects of Judaism. This was Judaism’s middle way—integration of the religion into the new democracies rather than assimilation out of Judaism.
Other branches of Judaism as well as secular Jews, who considered themselves Jewish only by virtue of their family history or culture, broadly shared the view that America was their home and not galut (exile in a diaspora) and that they did not need to “return” to Palestine. That land was, indeed, a place to house refugees or those Jews whose practice of Judaism encouraged settlement in the Holy Land. This view of America was shared by an offshoot of the conservative wing of Judaism, the Reconstructionists, who strongly opposed Orthodoxy, the third major branch of Judaism. These non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jews believed that Judaism was flourishing in America despite the fringe attacks of anti-Semites and even “Jewish quotas” in colleges, banking, and corporations.
I absorbed this form of Judaism when I attended the religious school of Congregation Emanu-El, New York, the “cathedral” of world Reform Judaism. At ten I conducted a service and at twelve delivered a sermon and thought of becoming a rabbi. Rabbi Samuel H. Goldenson, one of Reform’s leading American rabbis, confirmed me and Fran, my first wife. Several years later, he was to help form the American Council for Judaism, the anti-Zionist organization I headed for many years. In 1934, my confirmation year, I played the role of “chairman” of an organization raising funds to help Jews threatened with death in Nazi Germany. Before six thousand people, I spoke from the stage of the Roxy Theatre, then New York’s largest. Afterward, I drew a picture of my impression. In the blackness viewed from the spotlighted stage, I could see only diminishing channels of aisle lights stretching toward the distant exits. My stage appeal for German Jews was made at the very moment my wife-to-be Marianne and her family were fleeing Germany ahead of Hitler’s fury. It would be fifteen years before I would face the dilemma of helping Jewish victims without supporting Jewish nationalism. It would be twenty-four years before I would meet Marianne and we would marry.
At Emanu-El I was president of several youth groups and after the war became adult programmer for them. As a youth, I helped write and produce plays to raise funds for charities. These plays attracted young Jews with theatrical aspirations. Betty Perske was there briefly—before changing her name to Lauren Bacall and marrying Humphrey Bogart. Alexander H. Cohen—later responsible for 101 Broadway and London productions by the most distinguished playwrights, including Arthur Miller—started with us at Emanu-El. He later created the Tony Awards for television. As teenagers, Alex and I wrote the book for Ball and Chain, a musical. That summer, Alex rented the Locust Valley playhouse on Long Island. Fran played some roles, and I managed publicity.
That fall of 1941, Alex bankrolled his first Broadway production. Several nights before opening, a mutual friend told me that Alex needed five hundred dollars to raise the curtain. I was leaving the next day for a newspaper job in Puerto Rico and couldn’t spare the money, yet Alex found it anyway. On schedule, he opened Angel Street. It drew instant acclaim and is still one of the longest-run mystery plays (and, renamed Gaslight, is one of the longest-running films as well). The residual income from that $500 investment could probably have put my children through college. On Alex’s death in 2000 the New York Times devoted a half-page obituary, with a six-column head, to “one of the last old-time independent theatrical producers.”
At Emanu-El there was no support for the nationalistic campaigns of Zionism, though members practiced Judaism and contributed liberally to appeals for Jewish refugees. The congregation included influential leaders in business, politics, and journalism. On High Holy Days, I would see Herbert H. Lehman, then governor of New York, walk down the center aisle to the first row. He was joined by brother Arthur, an eminent jurist, along with the Sulzbergers of the New York Times and the Newbergers and Loebs of Wall Street.
I had an unpleasant memory of Newberger, then president of Emanu-El and head of the brokerage firm that bore his name. My parents regularly waited outside the religious school to drive me home for Sunday lunch. That day, my mother greeted Newberger saying, “I understand we are distantly related through families in Frankfurt, Germany.” Newberger replied, “Oh, poor relatives!” It wasn’t clear who he meant: the Frankfurters or the Sussmans.
Years later, Rabbi Elmer Berger asked me to run the New York chapter of the American Council for Judaism. The post was bound to be controversial; Israel had just been created. The “for Judaism” organization would oppose the rising tide of politically oriented “for Israel” groups among American Jews. The ACJ had become an embattled organization even before its formal birth. Hitler’s campaign to murder Jews as well as Judaism aroused emotions that silenced rational discussions of alternatives to Jewish nationalism. Council members were called “traitors,” “self-haters,” or “Jewish anti-Semites.” Before he was murdered by a Jew, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, managing an Arab-Israel peace process, saw automobile bumper stickers reading, Rabin boged—Hebrew for “Rabin is a traitor.” His assassin was a product of the best religious-Zionist schools in Israel.
Lessing J. Rosenwald, then chairman of Sears Roebuck, was the first president and a contributor to the ACJ but never a great benefactor. He was modest but patriarchal and rejected those who flattered him or Edith, his wife. Quietly he provided philanthropic support for refugees while arguing publicly against the political implications of Jewish nationalism. His brother Edward was a mainstay of Zionist fundraising in the United States. Some Jews would regard them as the bad and the good brothers. Lessing was a significant collector of rare books and lithographs. At his home in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, he showed me through his collection designated for the National Gallery in Washington, where it may now be seen.
At the ACJ, a staff of a dozen executives labored long hours against the growing emotional and political pressures generated by Zionist and increasingly “non-Zionist” groups; the latter, mainly the American Jewish Committee, which swerved toward the Zionist position under the great emotionalism of the day. The hottest place in Elmer Berger’s hell was reserved for the American Jewish Committee, and I suppose they regarded the American Council for Judaism with the same disdain—particularly since we attracted to the ACJ some of their prominent members. Under such strains, Elmer directed the Council with a short rein and a fiery temper, mixed with quixotic humor. He wrote, spoke, and planned tactics after only brief clearance with Lessing Rosenwald and few others. He cajoled, even browbeat the staff into performing as effectively as a group twice its size. Elmer had no regard for personal amenities. He created humorous but denigrating nicknames for executives and then insisted they join him daily for lunch at Schrafft’s. After looking at the same menu led by frail tea sandwiches he would begin with something like, “Well, what are you geniuses up to today?” Whatever the reply, it would not please him. After awhile, I made other lunchtime appointments. Elmer was suspicious of this, particularly when he knew I sensed among board members their growing opposition to his personnel practices. I tried with little success to serve as mediator.
Eventually, Elmer was asked to step down as executive director, and I was named in his place. That was based partly on my performance for several years as the creator of the Council’s religious education program. I took seriously “for Judaism” in the organization’s title. Indeed, we had often been criticized for being only “negative”—anti-Zionist. I recognized that many families wanted to enroll their children in religious schools that emphasized Reform Judaism, not Jewish nationalism. Elmer gave me a free hand to develop this program. Indeed, despite his reputation of being involved only in Middle East issues and especially eager to advance Jewish-Arab contacts, he took special interest in the religious education program. He led me through many of Judaism’s original sources and appropriate commentaries.
I developed a complete religious school curriculum for kindergarten through twelfth grade, with weekly classroom themes and supporting texts for each grade for the entire school year.3 I traveled the country establishing schools in thirteen cities. Teachers in almost all cases were parents who wanted this kind of religious education for their own children. I provided preparatory sessions for parent-teachers. The schools grew into complete congregations in Denver and Highland Park, Illinois, housed now in their own temples. Historian Thomas A. Kolsky, recently describing the influence of the American Council for Judaism, said that this religious education program was the organization’s most successful undertaking.4 While gratifying, I do not accept this as a true evaluation of the ACJ and Elmer Berger’s role in it. His analyses and prescience may be rediscovered long after the names of many Zionist heroes are forgotten. His life is a major clue to the changes, for better or worse, in American Judaism during his lifetime and perhaps beyond. Elmer died at the age of eighty-eight in 1996.
Elmer, then executive vice president, was very gracious when I retired from the ACJ. He listed requirements of the council director, but the description fit him far better than it fit me:
To do the job, the patience and discipline of the scholar is needed. But there is afforded little if any of the freedom from pressure which most scholars today enjoy. The passion of the crusader is needed, but it must be constantly understated, restrained, curbed because in trying to effectuate the corrective, the council’s hard documented facts appear as fantasy . . . to the innocents, the brainwashed, to those who prefer to evade or avoid the facts. There are dreams to be dreamed by those who work in the council’s vineyard: essentially the dream of a new emancipation for American Jews who are not only accepted as individuals in America, but who are willing, as individuals, to accept America; or to labor for its evolution and change in the voluntary caste-free patterns which are the classics of our democracy.
I said of Elmer,
I have seen [him] in all of his public and many of his private moods. I shall miss his pungency. . . and his perception. Like Judaism, which mingles harshness and love, Elmer is most stern in defense of that which moves him most—in response to threats to individual freedom or to the free spirit of Judaism; he is most impatient with those closest to him who do less than is possible; most harsh on those who compromise with truth or freedom—sometimes, all too many of our coreligionists fit both categories—and sometimes, in quiet ways virtually unknown to anyone except [his wife,] Ruth, in the truest spirit of Judaism, Elmer reflects the deepest philanthropy and thereby the purest humanity. Outwardly, he is still the troubler of Judaism and, as we know best, Judaism needs one now no less than two thousand years ago. It is sometimes difficult to share the same office with a troubler—he and I would agree. But this country, its Jews, the council needs one... . I am sorry I cannot become the Boswell of this troubler.
I did, however, define my understanding of Judaism.
After the Holocaust, the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the creation of the state of Israel, my early religious instincts led me to interpret Judaism and the continuity of the Jewish experience as something far more than a struggle for survival in a largely unfriendly world. Indeed, I came to see the End of Judaism (to borrow a popular political science formula) as largely in the hands of Jews themselves. In democratic countries with viable civil societies, it was now up to each religious group to assure its own survival. For Jews, given their history of oppression, this was a relatively new opportunity; but I believe it is an opportunity being squandered out of fear and misunderstanding generated by Jews themselves.
Not only intermarriage reduces the number of practicing Jews. Too many others restrict their “Jewishness” solely to providing financial or political aid to the state of Israel and weighing their personal acceptances as Jews by the scale of America’s momentary support for Israel’s geopolitics. Clearly, the Holocaust happened. Millions of Jews (and others) died. Worldwide, more Jews survived than perished. That is hardly a satisfying observation; but neither is it utterly pessimistic, as the growing mythology suggests. Jews survived Egyptian slavery, Roman desecration, and Spanish autos-da-fé, as well as the German Holocaust. Jews did not survive in order to suffer again or even to survive without purpose. They survived as Jews because they carried with them a certain hope for a better future, not only for Jews but for everyone. That hope, generated and sustained by faith, is an ethic, a way of living, not of dying; doing so both as an individual and as part of a historic religious people. In different ages, in different places, the symbols and practices of Judaism have changed. No one is capable of practicing all forms of Judaism that are part of this tradition. It remains, then, for each Jew to respond to the religious imperative in what, for each individual, is an appropriate way within Judaism.
One cannot fulfill even the minimalist interpretation of Judaism, I believe, without a commitment to the obligations of ethical practice and social justice that are inherent in the religion. That obligation goes beyond the family and the fellowship of Jews; it commits Jews to the uplifting of oppressed human beings, whatever their religious belief. This commitment impelled Jews in the civil rights movement to march in Alabama for the liberation of blacks. It calls on Jews to understand the travail of Palestinians as well as Israelis.
Such a commitment is imperiled by the tribalistic worship of false gods: the equating of the future of Judaism with the success or failure of the state of Israel, as well as the emphasis on Jewish survivalism—for its own sake—as the common objective of modern Jews. If one must draw sustenance from tragedy, suggests Rabbi Michael Goldberg, turn to the Exodus rather than the Holocaust. Exodus, he says, is the “master story”: God led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery in order to fulfill an eternal covenant, a linchpin in God’s redemption of the world—not survival for survival’s sake.5
We who never faced the Holocaust are not morally justified to speak critically of its victims. But we can examine what Goldberg calls the cult of Jews who, from a distance, acquiesced thereafter in linking the religious experience of Jews and the objectives of Jewish institutions to the survivalism inherent in making the state of Israel central to the future of Judaism. That “civic Judaism” is quite different from a civil society—the democratization of governance and the participation of all citizens in that polity.
Once Hitler targeted Jews for extermination, Jews in America were traumatized. For sixty years there was no public discussion of how to serve religious and humanitarian imperatives of Judaism without mortgaging them to the nationalism of the state of Israel. Some American Jews in the 1990s were beginning to recognize the dilemma; rabbinical scholar Rabbi Jacob J. Petuchowski declared, “Jews who so recently have been the victims of nationalist emotionalism run wild in Europe should be the last to wallow in an aura of nationalist self-satisfaction which permits of no rational analysis of the true state of affairs.” Ironically, the clearest advice to American and Israeli Jews for dissipating the dilemma came from an assistant secretary of state—after years of discussions with Elmer Berger.
The rabbi had already provided a detailed statement for John Foster Dulles’s visit to the Middle East in May 1953, the first U.S. secretary of state to go there. Dulles adopted the Berger position and declared, “Israel should become part of the Near East community and cease to look upon itself, or be looked upon by others, as alien to this community.” This, he added, “will require concessions on the part of both sides.” A few years later, Assistant Secretary of State Henry A. Byroade told an ACJ meeting that “Israel should see her own future in the context of a Middle Eastern state and not as headquarters of worldwide groupings of peoples of a particular religious faith who must have special rights within and obligations to the Israeli state.” He did acknowledge, though, “the natural feeling of affinity one feels for a brother of his own religious faith” and the desire to provide philanthropic support. On April 20, 1964, after extensive discussions among Rabbi Berger, Prof. W. T. Mallison of George Washington University, and the State Department, another assistant secretary, Phillips Talbot, issued this clarifying letter for publication in international journals: “[The Department of State] 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.”
This rejects the fundamental concept of Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, as operative in American or international law. Decades of pro-Zionist lobbying in Washington and fund-raising across the United States had been based on precisely the irrevocable linkage of Judaism and Israeli nationalism.
The State Department’s message brought increased attacks on the Council, Rabbi Berger, and the so-called Arabists of the State Department. Indeed, Elmer was particularly attacked for meeting with moderate Arabs and suggesting that other Jews open such dialogues. It was easy to demonize Elmer for associating with Middle Easterners who were not Jewish. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was bitterly denounced and then murdered for negotiating with Yasir Arafat. And Prime Minister Golda Meir probably would have been abused as Rabin was if it had been known that her associates met with Jordanians. She made it, however, onto an Israeli postage stamp.
Elmer’s “crime,” apparently, is that he was a premature negotiator in the complex Middle East power struggle in which the nature of Judaism—in America and elsewhere—was at stake. The rejection of Elmer Berger, the person, even as some of his ideas became acceptable in Jerusalem and Washington, and among Jews as well as others, was a source of bitter disappointment to him. His acerbic personality and his stringent ideas were certainly a factor in his wide rejection. After leaving the ACJ he hoped that he might find an advisory niche in Washington’s Middle East structure—but that was not to be. He asked whether I had ever been approached. I had been asked at different times whether I would serve as deputy director of the United States Information Agency (USIA), assistant secretary of state for human rights, or ambassador to Zimbabwe. But I took my name off the lists.
Until the second intifada (uprising) in 2001-2002, both American and Israeli Jews were slowly, often painfully reexamining their relationship. Some Israeli texts for schoolchildren were revised to remove myths and explain the facts of Arab relations. Peter Novick argued that the Holocaust had been exploited to help communal leaders address their immediate problems.6 Some American Jews face an “identity crisis,” wrote Amy Dockser Marcus in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 14, 1994): “For Jews in Israel, peace is dawning at long last. But for Jews in the U.S., the turmoil is just beginning.” She quoted an Israeli Jew: “We are not a tiny version of America. We have more in common with the Druse [a sect of Islam living in Israel] than we do with American Jews.” The latter, however, have concentrated on Israel’s needs, she wrote. She quoted the head of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies: “We now have to answer, what does it mean to be a Jew [in America] in the modern world?”
That is the question Elmer Berger addressed when no one else would.
I sought my answer when I went to the Middle East for the first time in 1996, thirty years after I left the ACJ. I visited Israel, the Palestine autonomous areas, and Jordan. I was overwhelmed by the historic and archaeological aura of those lands. With every step one seemed to walk with long-distant antecedents: these were not only Hebrews, Judeans, or Israelites but Hasmoneans, Moabites, Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Turks, and countless others whose names are lost to history. Indeed, there were antecedents of Arabs and Jews here long before there were Israelites and Judeans. This was not a new thought, but it deepened my awareness that this birthplace of three major religions has been burdened with ungodly atrocities, perpetual fear, and a deep sadness.
Conversations there reconfirmed my personal commitment to the separation of state and religion. The bitter fruit of the opposite policy has prevailed since Israel’s creation in 1948. This was amply demonstrated at meetings of the International Press Institute (convener of my visit to Israel) in speeches by Prime Minister Shimon Peres, two supporters of his successor Benjamin Netanyahu, and Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, spokesperson for the Palestinians. They were forced to deal with the future of the “peace process” and the damage to it just weeks earlier by four Palestinian-terrorist bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
My visit confirmed two beliefs: first, the Israeli settlers had indeed taken great strides to create a political entity,. though they still struggled to build a homogeneous state composed of disparate racial, linguistic, and nationality groups as well as widely differing Jewish traditions—all this at great expense to the large number of Arabs they displaced and colonized.
Second, Elmer Berger’s proposal in 1967 for the peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israel struggle, after Israel had won that war—the suggestion of which led to his firing from the ACJ—might have been no more difficult to pursue in 1967 than it is thirty-five years later. Countless more Arabs and Israelis might still be alive and physically whole, and a new generation of anti-Israel terrorists in the Israel-controlled West Bank and Gaza strip might not have emerged. Whether tested in 1967 or in 1996, the peace process would have incurred risks, as both prime ministers Rabin and Peres frankly stated.
The history of Israel-Arab relations is marked by recurring wars spurred by outrageous terrorism committed by Arab and Israeli extremists whenever peace seemed even faintly nearer. The preelection bombings in 1996 were sparked by Palestinian terrorists probably directed from Iran. Related enemy assaults triggered a major Israeli bombardment of Qana, Lebanon, that killed more than 170 women and children in a refugee camp. Some 300,000 Lebanese were driven from their homes. Ari Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz, a major Israeli Hebrew-language newspaper, said in the New York Times, “So now Qana is part of our biography. Precisely because we have tried to deny and ignore the outrage, it remains affixed to us. And just as the Baruch Goldstein massacre of praying Muslims in Hebron and the murder of Yitzhak Rabin were extreme manifestations of some rotten seed planted in the religious-nationalist culture, it now seems that the massacre at Qana was an extreme manifestation of rotten seeds dormant in our secular Israeli culture: Cynicism. Arrogance. Egocentricism of the strong.”7
Still, Peres expressed to us his conviction that the peace process must go forward. At the same time, he closed off Gaza and the West Bank, forbidding entrance to Israel for Palestinians who work, get food, medicines, or hospital care in Israel. This caused physical and economic hardship and, in some cases, serious health problems for the Palestinians. Mixed signals probably cost Peres the election.
With this in mind, it was disturbing to walk through the streets of Old Jerusalem. At every turn are caverns, shrines, and markers that peel away the archaeological layers of competing traditions, repeated violence, and mindless destruction of structures that were legacies for all the world. Saddest of all, one realizes that mindlessness and destruction continue to this very moment—and for the same reasons that every preceding civilization not only tore down another’s temples and desecrated its most sacred images but also murdered worshipers who responded to a different call. Old Jerusalem, encircled by a wall, symbolizes human divisiveness.
I entered Jerusalem through the Zion Gate and walked to the Wailing Wall. Armed security guards watch every visitor who descends the steps into the large open plaza before the wall. Orthodox Jews in black coats and prayer shawls walk to and from the wall, dovening aloud. There is unmistakable earnestness in these men, young and old. Women are fenced into a small area at the rightmost end of the wall. At the opposite end, providing the most holy aspect for prayer, is an alcove formed by an adjacent building that abuts the wall.
There several dozen men and boys with pais and talit chant in unison, facing the wall in that darkened tunnel-like place. This is presumed to be closest to the site where God would be most likely to hear prayers. Directly behind the wall is believed to have been the Holy of Holies in the First and Second Temples, the narrowly prescribed area where no human, only God Himself, is said to have trod. The First Temple was built in 963 B.C.E. by Solomon, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586, and rebuilt as the Second Temple in 536 on the same site, which was then destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The precise location of the temples is not known, but it is presumed to be behind the Wailing Wall, probably on the very site of the Arabs’ similarly historic and religiously important Dome of the Rock. The beautiful golden-domed structure covers the rock where Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven, making this one of the holiest places in Islam. Indeed, the Western Wall—a holy site in Judaism—was supposedly constructed to keep religious Jews from touching, even accidentally, the Holy of Holies in the place of the ancient temples. So intertwined are the histories and theologies of these two peoples.
Even as a non-Christian walking through Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, one senses the emotionality of the place where Jesus was crucified. A few steps away, remnants of the Cardo reveal the Greek streets and shops, followed by Roman revivals. In the same narrow stalls where Greeks and Romans hawked their wares, Palestinians and Israelis—before the intifada of 2001-2002—offered modem goods lighted by dim electric bulbs. The same narrow passagewayS were cluttered with sellers and buyers of fruits and scents.
My feeling of melancholy increased as I walked. So much had changed, yet so little in the minds of people. An occasional jeep of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) would move through the passageways, each vehicle with two armed soldiers observing every aspect of Old Jerusalem where, in a few days, another terror-bomber would blow himself up while delivering his deadly assignment.
Days later in Jordan, I stood on Mount Nebo and gazed at Jerusalem and Jericho. The Jordan River flowed narrowly in the foreground. Mt. Nebo was presumably the place where Moses died. He had completed the long trek across the desert from Mount Sinai but would fail to enter Jerusalem, the “promised land.” Standing on that place one could see the present state of Israel and Jordan. The day before, I had been in the Golan Heights and observed Syrian troops across the no man’s land occupied only by the UN force. From that place in the Golan, Israeli tanks in 1967 moved quickly to the very suburbs of Damascus, only forty- five miles away. Amman, the capital of Jordan, is about the same distance from Israel’s border. At that moment, it was easier to go from Jerusalem to Amman than from Amman to Baghdad in Iraq! The Jordanians spoke freely to Israelis, whereas the road and the dialogue between Amman and Baghdad were restricted. Yet all are in a small neighborhood.
Such limited geography has nurtured turmoil and death for millennia. The river Jordan is an example of how nature’s limitations, magnified by human conflict, perpetuate disaster for all who inhabit the region. The river is a great disappointment, whether viewed from the Golan or the valley of the Galilee. Despite its biblical importance and history, the river is just a narrow stream. Since Israel was established, mediators have tried to use the Jordan as leverage to induce peace between Arabs and Israelis. Arabs feared Israelis would increasingly divert the stream, thus depriving Jordan of this vital resource. In 2002, Israelis threatened reprisals after Lebanon set up a pumping station at Wazzani in the south. David Lilienthal, father of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), tried in 1949 to develop a water resources plan for the Golan area. The plan was intended to advance the Arab-Israel peace process at that time; however, after several unproductive years, Lilienthal quit.
Going to Israel, I carried a plan produced over some years by Boaz Wachtel, an Israeli working at Freedom House on proposals for the international use of waterways serving the embattled region. Boaz’s plan included maps of the 1973 conflict exactly as we were briefed by the IDF before seeing the Golan cross points. One map also showed the route of the national water carrier as it presently exists. I saw parts of this vital pipeline as it snakes down from the sources in the Golan to its southernmost points just east of the Gaza strip at the Egyptian border. The pipeline serves all of Israel as presently constituted. One funny point: a tourist knelt beside the Jordan River in the Golan to fill an empty bottle with authentic water from the fabled river. My guide said, however, the man might just as well turn on the tap in his hotel room; that, too, is Jordan river water, with some chlorine added. But as with so much in these lands, symbolism counts.
The Boaz plan calls for a diversion of 1,100 million cubic meters a year, or 3 million cubic meters a day, from the elevated Atatürk Baraji lake in southeast Turkey (or from the Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers 160 and 240 kilometers west of the lake) to be equally divided among Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians. We heard at the IPI Congress from a Turkish representative that his country is ready to provide this assistance to the Middle East peace process.
Two subterranean pipelines would carry the water, mostly by gravity, through western Syria to a north-central point of the Syrian-Israel border on the Golan Heights near the city of Qunaytra. The plan includes the creation of an artificial boundary, a tank barrier structure, particularly positioned on the demilitarized zone of the Golan. Water would be diverted from there to fall through extensions in the upper Yarmuk River and from the western Golan slope to the Sea of Galilee. This water system could provide two stimulants for an Israeli military withdrawal from the Golan: (1) setting up a compensating security system and (2) providing substantial new water flows.
Boaz contemplates that a reduction of Israel’s strategic need to maintain control of the Golan Heights is possible with the construction of the tank barrier/water control structure on the border, and a substantial reduction of Syria’s ability to launch sudden, massive ground armored assaults into the Golan and northern Israel. This barrier could be dismantled after twenty years of peace, he notes. The structure could bridge the Israeli and Syrian positions and allow for gradual Israeli withdrawal from the heights under secured terms that may be acceptable to the Israeli public.
Boaz points out that there is built-in assurance that Syria would honor the arrangement of a water flow from Turkey through Syria to Israel. Syria, he notes, has a good reputation of keeping agreements that it signs. (There had been no Syrian incursion in the Golan since that agreement was signed more than twenty- five earlier.) If Syria interferes, it would only deny itself its share of water and power from the project and might also force military and economic action (regional and international) sanctioned under agreements relating to the project.
I believe, however, that if there is renewed fighting on the Golan it will be between the Jewish settlers of the Golan and the Israeli forces ordered to evict those settlers as part of a comprehensive peace treaty signed with the Arab states. Representatives of the “Golan residents committee” made it clear to me they would fight to retain land and buildings held by two generations of settlers, with a third generation already in the nursery school. “We will never give up the Golan,” Marla van Meter, the residents’ spokesperson, told me. I said that the looming crisis was inherent in David Ben-Gurion’s policy fifty years earlier of placing settlers on an outer defense perimeter. It is by definition challengeable and vulnerable. Ms. van Meter disagreed. “No different,” she said, “than you Americans populating the Mexican border, and calling it Texas and California.”
During my few days in Jordan I was struck by the difference in the morale of the Israelis and Jordanians. Israelis—their soldiers and guns highly visible—were fearful, suspicious, uncertain of their future (as well they may be, given the reality of terrorism and unsettled questions of borders, neighboring populations, and the status of their capital city). Jordanians, however, were convinced that peace bad arrived nearly two years earlier. No military were visible. Construction of homes and hotels was booming, largely funded during the first Gulf War by Jordanian workers expelled from Kuwait, who brought home their oil money.
After the Israeli-Jordanian peace accord, tourism in Jordan tripled. Many Israelis for the first time could stand on Mt. Nebo one day and, as I did, travel the next day to Petra, capital of the Edomites, an Old Testament wonder. Leaving the village of Petra you follow a narrow dirt path through the Siq for a mile. The path darkens as rose-colored limestone cliffs rise on all sides; only a sliver of sky can be seen. With each movement forward, the rock takes on colorful new shapes hewn by wind and water through the centuries. Suddenly, out of the dimness appears a rose- red brightness. Tall carved stone images appear directly in your path, a temple of the Roman period. The Corinthian columns and statues were hewn out of the face of the rock. The monument is some 150 feet high. Past the temple is an eight-thousand- seat amphitheater built by the Romans in 106 C.E. out of sheer rock. Farther on, many major rock carvings reveal burial places and assemblies of the antecedents. They appear in a profusion of colors: rose, purple, crimson, and saffron.
With the intifada of 2001-2002, however, most tourism in Petra ceased.
Related to tourism, one little-noted development may be a hopeful sign for a more peaceful future in the region. At the southernmost tip of Jordan is the port city of Aqaba, literally a stone’s throw from Eilat, at Israel’s southern point. Over the years, both Jordan and Israel built small airports at Aqaba and Eilat to serve their respective countries. But as with the Jordan River bridges, for decades all direct movement between the two countries was barred. Now, quietly, an airport has been built to serve both Aqaba and Eilat; it was a joint venture based on the peace agreement. After disembarking, a passenger could walk out the airport’s eastern door and enter Jordan or take the western door and be in Israel. That is indeed the peace process at work.
Such practical steps seemed impossible from 1948 to the day Anwar el-Sadat visited Jerusalem. Yet such steps were in our minds at the ACJ when we tried, with admittedly little success, to separate the modern practice of Judaism from Jewish nationalism. We were castigated as “self-haters” and worse. Elmer Berger bore the brunt of such attacks, but I felt them too.
After the assassination of her husband, Leah Rabin, widow of the slain prime minister, faced the dilemma “What does it mean to be a Jew?”—for Israel and for Reform Judaism. Significantly, she expressed solidarity with Reform Judaism in the face of the religious parties’ effort to blot out Reform in Israel. Referring to those who sent the assassin to kill her husband, she said, “They do not sanctify our Torah; it is not holy to them. They have a value more holy to them, a political value: land. It is more important than a man’s life.” That man, her husband, bad referred to Reform as “the other Judaism, that is ready to listen, to accept, that has different values and ways to respect our faith, so that man and his faith may live.”8
Subsequently, an Israeli religious paper called Reform Jews rodifim, or pursuers. In Orthodoxy, a pursuer may be killed to prevent a crime. Prime Minister Rabin was called a rodef before he was assassinated. I believe that if Elmer Berger had not retired, he would have been a victim of assassination and the “logic” of religious extremism.
In 2002, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times heard this question asked in Israel: “Is Judaism a threat to Israel?” Too many schools, he said, “give more emphasis to the value of the land than to the value of life.”9 In 1880, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, a venerated leader of Reform Judaism, declared that “Judaism protests against the dogma of materialism, it does not less raise its voice against the materialism of dogma.”10 Jerusalem is thus an idea, not an address, a metaphor for the time when the world may live in peace. That calls for an end to the dogma centered on a single Jewish nationalism.
In June 2002, during the suicide bombings in Israel, Henry Siegman—who had been a young refugee from Nazism, had studied for the rabbinate, and for sixteen years headed the pro-Zionist American Jewish Congress—called the Palestinian struggle for a state “the mirror image of the Zionist movement” that led to the creation of Israel in 1948. “This does not excuse suicide bombings,” he said, “but the way Israel deals with these outrages is suspect as long as they are exploited to extend the occupation and enlarge Israeli settlements” on Palestinian land. He added, “Future Jewish historians who will be writing about our times will not be kind to us because of such political and moral blindness.”11
In a letter to me shortly before he died, Elmer explained his original motivation for his anti-Zionist career: “I never veered from my enthusiasm for the transcendent and universal principles of the Judaism of the literary prophets of the Old Testament. Yet the widespread public debate over the political destiny of Palestine, the unwarranted and basically fallacious Zionist claim to represent something called ‘the Jewish people’ (a euphemism for all Jews), the deliberate omission of any political justice for the indigenous Arab inhabitants of Palestine—all led me to intensify my study and understanding of the conflict in Palestine at a time when increasing numbers throughout the Western world were becoming concerned with postwar plans for peace.”
In 1990, as a requirement for his ordination as a rabbi in America, Mark Glickman completed a scholarly 181-page biography of Elmer Berger. He called it “One Voice against Many.” Glickman concluded:
I began my research very sympathetic to Zionism and actually quite hostile to Berger and his views. . . I have come to believe that Berger’s notion of a democratic, de-Zionized Israel is one which carries a great deal of merit. I have not come to this decision lightly. . . . An Israel which would cease seeing itself as a Jewish state, and which would instead be a Western-style island of democracy in the Middle East, would ideally (and I am admittedly speaking in ideals here) be a much calmer place than it is today. All citizens of the country, regardless of their religion or original nationality, would have equal status in its national life. Legalized discrimination against Arabs would cease to exist.
The benefits would be external as well. A de-Zionized Israel would lead to a radical redefinition of Israel-Diaspora relationships. No longer would Israeli sh‘lichim [agents] enter the Diaspora communities and rouse the ire of Jews there by urging that they all leave their “homes” and make aliyah [emigration to Israel]. The Law of the Return [automatic citizenship offered all Jews in Israel] would have to be repealed, and the very notion of aliyah eliminated. By the same token, Diaspora Jews would no longer have the right to play “armchair” politician and thus anger the Jews who live in Israel and have to deal with the consequences of their actions in a very real way. Diaspora Jews would also have no need to feel embarrassed when Israel behaves in a shameful way.
Although Israel as a Jewish nation would cease to exist, Jewish culture could continue to flourish. . . . This break would be mitigated by a certain affinity which Israeli and Diaspora Jews would feel for one another as members of “the mishpocheh” [the larger family]. . . . There would be a separation of “church” and state within Israel. . . American Jews can be shown that Judaism can be thrilling, exciting, and most importantly, can address their own needs in very deep and significant ways. .. . As a Jew I feel impelled to dream—to dream with perhaps the naive hope. . . that someday we will be able to look each other in the eye—Jew to Jew, Jew to Arab—and that together we will be able to sit under our vine and fig trees, and be afraid no more.’12
Ideas have consequences: in this case, a young rabbi’s discovery of Elmer Berger’s inflammatory ideas.
1. “Policy on Israel Called Strategic: Gideonse Says Aim is U.S. Security,” New York Times, October 28, 1948.
2. Harry D. Gideonse, telephone conversation with author, November 29, 1973, and letter to author, December 12, 1973.
3. See Leonard R. Sussman, “The Sacred and the Profane in Judaism,” Religious Education, May-June 1960.
4. Thomas A. Kolsky, Jews against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-48 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 193.
5. Quoted in Allan C. Brownfeld, review of Why Should Jews Survive? by Michael Goldberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Issues (American Council for Judaism), spring 1996, p. 1.
6. Quoted in Allan C. Brownfeld, “It Is Time to End the Doomsday Rhetoric of a ‘Second Holocaust,” Issues (American Council for Judaism), summer 2002, 9-10.
7. Ari Shavit, “How Easily We Killed Them,” New York Times, May 27, 1996. Adapted from an article by Shavit in Haaretz.
8. Quoted in “Leah Rabin Expresses Solidarity with Reform Jews,” Special Interest Report (American Council for Judaism), May-June 1996, p. 2.
9. Thomas L. Friedman, “Land of Life,” New York Times, November 19, 1995.
10. Quoted in Howard A. Berman, “The Faith of Classical Reform Judaism,” in Issues (American Council of Judaism), summer 2001, p. 1.
11. Quoted in Chris Hedges, “Separating Spiritual and Political, He Pays a Price: Henry Siegman,” New York Times, June 13, 2002, p. H33.
12. Mark Glickman, “One Voice against Many: A Biographical Study of Elmer Berger (1948-1968)” (thesis for ordination, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1990), pp. 169-74.