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The Eisenhower Administration and the Historic ACJ

David Eugene Blank
Spring 2005

The political climate in the United States during the administration of President Dwight David Eisenhower, 1953-1961, was ripe for the “historic American Council for Judaism (ACJ)” to develop a niche in the American Reform Jewish community that could have been sufficiently deep, broad and secure that the present Zionist hold over American Jewish communal life or the “Israelization” of American Jewish life would have been avoided.  

There are serious problems with the findings in much of the literature on the history of this period that posits that the “historic ACJ” in the 1950s was an “insignificant” and “inconsequential” group of “minuscule” size. This assessment in the literature, which is largely supportive of Zionism, is flawed to the point of being fraudulent. As a renewed hope for Middle East peace is again taking hold, it would be of value to look back at a time — before the Cold War intruded — when a quick resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute was pushed by the Eisenhower administration, and the role, however minor, the “historic ACJ” played in this effort.  

1990 Studies  

The findings of two 1990 studies, that of Thomas A. Kolsky, Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948 and the Rabbinic thesis of Mark Glickman, “One Voice Against Many: A Biographical Study of Elmer Berger, 1948-1968,” submitted to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, are instructive.  

Readers in the twenty-first century must appreciate that the political projection of the Eisenhower administration, as it promised to “roll back Communism,” and to prevent its spread into the oil rich Arab Middle East, had a profound impact upon the American Council for Judaism at that time. President Eisen-hower’s attitude toward Israel in the 1950s was simple and straight-forward. To the degree that the State of Israel hindered critical American foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, it was to be opposed and treated with suspicion. This climate of suspicion between the two countries was a key element in the reality of the “historic ACJ” during its peak years, 1953-1961.  

U.S. Perceptions of Israel During the Early Cold War Years  

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a respected writer on Middle East issues, and on the history of Zionism, perhaps best expressed the attitude of the Eisenhower administration toward Israel in a 2003 essay. He wrote that the relationship was “cool and sometimes frosty,” and that Israel was considered to be a “headache” for America.1  

“Relations between the new country [Israel] and the United States were cool and sometimes frosty to a degree now hard to recall or even credit ...  

“After several years of trying to practice a policy of ‘non-identification,’ between East and West, Israel was tilted westward by events, but toward Europe rather than America.  

“Eisenhower and Secretary of States John Foster Dulles regarded Israel simply as a headache, complicating American relations with the Arab world and hampering the containment of Soviet influence.”  

More Ominous View  

Some in the Eisenhower administration, at least in the early 1950s, had an even more ominous view about Israel, seeing much congeniality between the “Socialism” of the Zionist state, and that of the so-called “Socialism” of the Soviet Union. While the fear of Israel openly siding with the Soviet Union receded, the Eisenhower administration continued to perceive a coincidence of interests between Israel and the Soviet Union in destabilizing the Arab Middle East. The Eisenhower administration perceived Israel to be a headache because, while it professed non-alignment or non-identification in the Cold War, it acted much as would a free-wheeling asteroid in space; it seemingly only collided with American and not Soviet interests in the Middle East. The Eisenhower administration in general, had difficulty in relating to nations that professed nonalignment in the Cold War since it saw the world as being starkly divided between, “A Free World,” and the Communist bloc. To be part of the Free World, a nation had to oppose Communism, and/or not assist in its spread.  

In the lexicon of the early Cold War days, Israel appeared to fit in the category of being a “Stalinoid State,” whose ambiguity toward the Soviet Union and its containment was suspect. Interestingly, Israel’s role as being “Stalinoid,” ended in the late 1950s, and that characterization was later to fall on Nasser’s Egypt.2 As Geoffrey Wheatcroft stated above, while Israel, “was tilted westward,” in the late 1950s, in its political leanings, the Eisenhower administration remained distrustful of Israel’s intent and motives, and was reluctant to see it, rather than friendly Arab nations, as our “trustworthy” ally in the Middle East. The U.S. supported the British led Baghdad Pact created in 1955 to develop a mutual security arrangement among Turkey, the Hashemiteled Iraqi regime, Iran and Pakistan. The U.S. also strove to maintain good relations with Nasser’s Egypt during the early 1950s, to demonstrate that it was not anti-Arab.  

The Eisenhower administration simply did not have the restraints on its behavior toward Israel that the Truman administration had faced. The Democrats in 1952, and in 1956, needed both the “Jewish vote,” and the community’s financial support, while Eisenhower needed neither to be handily elected and reelected by landslide votes.  

The Eisenhower-Dulles Middle East Peace Initiative  

In 1953, the Eisenhower administration started to push for a comprehensive settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict. According to George Ball, an Undersecretary of State in two Democratic administrations, a quick settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict was considered necessary by Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, to firstly prevent Soviet exploitation of that conflict, and secondly to “encircle the Soviet adversary with a cordon sanitaire, of alliances.”3 Even though in the 1952 elections, Republicans had in fact campaigned, on the promised halting of “creeping Socialism” in the States, and for privatizing the TVA, in 1953, it was offering a comprehensive economic development plan based on the U.S. TVA experience, “A TVA for the Jordan River Valley” to Israel, Jordan-Palestine and Syria. The political side of Eisenhower’s Middle East Peace Initiative was explicit. Israel should be integrated into the region, and Israel should not see itself as “alien” to it, and its Arab reality. The Eisenhower administration, in 1953 and 1954, openly suggested that Israel accept an end to Zionism’s call for “an ingathering of [allegedly] exiled Jews.”4  

Key officials, especially in the State Department and CIA, and several critical supporters of the Eisenhower administration, such as the owner of the media conglomerate, Time-Life, Henry Luce, considered the “historic ACJ” as a potential ally of its foreign policy objectives, and as a potential, friendly countervailing force and support group within the diverse American Jewish community. Key elements in both the U.S. State Department, and CIA were to reach out to the ACJ in the early 1950s, including Undersecretary of State, Henry A. Byroade, and senior CIA official Kermit Roosevelt, and his distant cousin, Archibald “Archie” Roosevelt. Their support of the ACJ was overt at times, and explicit.5  

“Minuscule Sect”  

The writer challenges the finding of fact presented by Isaac Alteras in his 1993 book, Eisenhower and Israel: U.S.-Israeli Relations, 1953-1960, that the ACJ was an unrepresentative “minuscule sect,” outside of the American Jewish mainstream in the 1950s. Alteras, a legitimate scholar, relied on a 1978 polemic written by Professor Melvin Urofsky, We Are One! American Jewry and Israel, to write the above assessment. To demonstrate the potential strength of the ACJ, and its attractiveness to the Eisenhower administration, it is instructive to review a November 3, 1952 article that appeared in Time magazine, on the activities of the ACJ in 1952. Time reported that the ACJ had 16,800 “dues-paying” members. While the article began by saying that, “Most Jewish religious agencies in the U.S. are enthusiastically friendly to Israel, and Zionism ...” it described the opening of a Jewish religious school in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb, with 115 young American Jewish youngsters enrolled. That Illinois Jewish school had the “avowed purpose of eliminating Zionist and Israeli influences from the lives of Jewish children in the U.S,” and was organized by the ACJ.  

The article continued to report that, “many teachers and Reform rabbis [were] cooperating in spreading the example of this Highland Park school,” which quickly became a network of ten [10] such Jewish schools to be run by the ACJ. This Time article also described the ACJ membership as almost entirely belonging to Reform congregations. A picture of a youthful Rabbi Elmer Berger, the ACJ’s Executive Director, age 44, accompanied the article, and under that picture was the statement, “Too much Israelism.” The above statement was a paraphrase from the Time reporter’s interview with Rabbi Berger, in which he stated that, “American Jews are uneasy about the nationalism of the Israelis. They’re beginning to listen to us.” This Time, portrait of the ACJ was that of a vibrant group, growing in membership, and that was bubbling with new programs and ideas to defend Judaism as “a universal world religion” from being debased into “a nationalist faith.” In short, the ACJ presented in the above 1952 Time article was a potential threat to Zionism’s increasing hold on American Jewish communal life. The article on the ACJ appeared in an issue that featured a glowing portrait of candidate Eisenhower that was followed by the question, “Do the American people want a Change?” The writer suggests that Time seemingly was asking — that just as Dwight David Eisenhower was elected President of the United States by a landslide margin, it appeared that it was time also for the American Jewish community to consider change — such as lessening its fascination with Israel and build an American version of the Jewish faith — based on American values.  

Legacy of Conflict  

This interest by supporters of Eisenhower in the ACJ of the 1950s, as an American version of the Jewish faith, needs to be seen as a legacy of the conflict back in the 1945-1948 period over whether or not the U.S. should support the creation in Palestine of a Zionist State. Those interested in revisiting that history should read the above cited Thomas Kolsky book. Thomas Kolsky wrote [p. 171] that a senior CIA official, Kermit Roosevelt, was, “one of the ACJ’s strongest allies in Washington,” during the 1947-1948 time period. Kermit Roosevelt and Virginia Gildersleeve, a former Dean at Barnard College, created in 1948 [the year of the historic U.N. partition of Palestine] the Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land [CRP]. The ACJ’s Rabbi Morris Lazaron, was on the CRP’s Board. In 1951, most of the key Protestant groups, and personalities associated with the CRP went on to join a group founded by the respected newspaper columnist, Dorothy Thompson, and a senior U.S. diplomat, Cornelius Van H. Engert, the American Friends of the Middle East [AFME]. A common concern with the threat of Communist expansion into the Middle East linked the ACJ to groups, such as the AFME in the 1950s. Kermit Roosevelt was to remain a strong ally of the ACJ until his retirement from the CIA in 1958.  

Even if the ACJ membership figure reported to Time in 1952 was somewhat bloated, it was a remarkable accomplishment that the ACJ’s “dues-paying” membership increased at all between 1948 and 1952. Kolsky reported that in 1948 the ACJ had a membership of 14,000. [Kolsky, 1990, p. 86], and Glickman also found in internal ACJ documents for 1948 that also gave this figure [Glickman, 1990, p. 95]. Between 1948 and 1952, the ACJ developed an impressive growth strategy and series of programs such as the above mentioned religious schools, and an ACJ Philanthropic arm, with which to reestablish itself and “Classical” Reform Judaism within the overall American Jewish Reform community. The writer challenges the finding presented by Howard M. Sachar, in his 1980 book, A History of the Jews in America, [p. 720], that, “Yet by the early 1950s, the Council’s peak membership of some fifteen thousand (in 1944) had dropped off to barely three thousand.” Why Professor Sachar, a very strong Zionist, would report such a low “historic” membership estimate for the ACJ in the 1950s — that has been contradicted by the research of Thomas Kolsky, Rabbi Mark Glickman, and Time magazine — is beyond the purview of this essay.  

Not “Insignificant”  

Isaac Alteras, cited above, [1993, pp. 106-107], reported that in 1954, Israel’s David Ben Gurion, did not dismiss the ACJ as being “insignificant,” and he considered the public support of the ACJ by Eisenhower’s aides such as Under-secretary of State Henry A. Byroade in 1954, to be a potential “danger” to his Zionist goals. Ben Gurion, apparently feared that the Eisenhower administration would develop the ACJ “to drive a wedge between Israel and U.S. Jewry.” It appears that Ben Gurion may have ordered a maximum effort by his intelligence agents in the U.S. to destroy the ACJ as a “traitor in the family.” Alteras reported in his book that Ben Gurion resorted to writing under a “nom deplume” in an Israeli magazine, Davar, to attack the ACJ and perhaps called for a Zionist “Fatwa” against it. This was during the time Ben Gurion was ostensibly “retired.”  

The task the leadership and members of the ACJ faced in the early 1950s was not to overcome the hold an alleged “close to a million” American Zionists had over all six million or so American Jews with a mere 14,000 - 16,800 members — as reported by Kolsky in his above cited book [p. 86], but again to reestablish and re-strengthen a more than century’s old religious philosophy, religious practices, and self-identification of American Reform Judaism. The ACJ’s reported membership of 16,800 in 1952, also did not exist in a vacuum, but rested upon a constituency support base found among many members of Reform congregations, and unaffiliated American Reform Jews — who, while not formally “dues-paying” members, often voted with their feet by attending ACJ public meetings, and voted with their “hearts and minds” in responding to various opinion surveys in the 1950s, that indicated sympathy with the ACJ’s programs, and perhaps even voted with their pockets by giving financial support to it. The 16,800 or so dedicated “dues-paying” members of the ACJ, in the early 1950s, rested on a constituency support base among American Reform Jews that may have easily numbered 150,000-200,000.6 The ACJ was making its mark within the Reform community, as a refurbished “dissident Reform element,” and as a challenge to the Zionists.  

Balanced Approach  

The election of Dwight David Eisenhower in November 1952, suggested that there was now an administration in Washington, D.C., that would look favorably on the ACJ, as the U.S. sought to develop a “balanced” approach to the Middle East. The political reality in America, in 1953, was quite different than that in 1948. In 1947, the strongly Zionist publisher of the New York Post, an evening newspaper with a large Jewish readership, angrily ended publishing Dorothy Thompson’s column, “On The Record,” because of her refusal to toe the pro-Israel line. This act of censorship shocked many who would become important supporters of the Eisenhower administration, and Dorothy Thompson went on to create the above mentioned AFME, becoming its first President. Reader’s Digest in 1951 published a lengthy essay, “Israel’s Flag Is Not Mine,” written by ACJ member Alfred Lilienthal, and [Glickman, 1990, p. 93] reported that in 1951, the New York Times had “put [Rabbi] Berger’s A Partisan History of Judaism on its list of the ‘125 Outstanding Books of The Year.’”  

Key supporters of the Eisenhower administration were clearly presenting the ACJ as a potential supportive American Jewish group at a critical time in the early decade of the Cold War. Kermit Roosevelt, as the flamboyant grandson of one President and a distant cousin of a second, was not your usual senior CIA official; his influence appeared to exceed that of his position. He was a top and experienced CIA official with responsibility in the Middle East. He was to become a personal friend of Rabbi Elmer Berger. His friendship with ACJ Vice President George Levison dated back to 1945, according to Kolsky, [p.138]. Peter Grose, in his 1983 book, Israel In The Mind of America, [p.303] also described the general climate in the early 1950s, as follows: “Israel faded from America’s public agenda. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower was able to address even Jewish audiences without once mentioning the state of Israel.” [emphasis added]  

Arab Enmity  

Grose on the same page even strongly suggested that the enmity of the Arab world toward Israel was not as extreme as the Zionists had been claiming. He wrote that the “economic embargo” against companies that traded with Israel, imposed in 1951, was “carelessly applied and full of loopholes.” While “Israelis drank Coca-Cola, [and] Arabs drank Pepsi-Cola ... Conrad Hilton managed to build modern new hotels in Cairo and Tel Aviv at the same time.” The above also suggests that the climate in the early 1950s was propitious for the ACJ to establish itself as a secure force within the American Jewish Reform community, at a time when Iraq was a strong U.S. ally and had even retained a sizable Jewish community — after the 1948 creation of the State of Israel.  

The Clash of CIA Factions  

A pro-Israel 1990 book, written by two journalists, Dan Raviv, an American affiliated with CBS TV, and Yossi Melman, an Israeli affiliated with its prestigious newspaper, Ha’aretz, on Israeli intelligence, Every Spy A Prince: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community, best described the U.S. suspicions toward Israel in the early 1950s. They wrote [p. 102 ] that, “Allen Dulles of the CIA, and John Foster Dulles, his brother, in the State Department, saw a Red under every [Israeli] bed.” In 1994, Raviv and Melman, again collaborated in writing a second highly pro-Israel book, Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S-Israel Alliance. As if to elaborate on the startling revelations of U.S. suspicions of Israel during the Eisenhower years, at a time when the Dulles brothers were seeing “A Red under every bed,” the authors, Raviv and Melman, spent considerable time on describing the mission of a CIA official, James Jesus Angleton, to Israel, and his working with the Ben Gurion protégé Teddy Kolleck, in an attempt to delouse alleged pro-Soviets from the Israeli Intelligence Services. In their 1994 Friends In Deed [p.58], Raviv and Melman called, Angleton “the biggest ally Israel ever had in the U.S intelligence community.” The literature on the Middle East in the 1950s suggests that there was a conflict between the Kermit Roosevelt faction in the CIA, who worked to keep Nasser friendly to the U.S., and that identified with James Jesus Angleton, who became the champion of the Israelis. In 1991, a second, more independent account of Israeli intelligence was published by a maverick Israeli academic, Benny Morris, and a British journalist, Ian Black, Israel’s Secret Wars: A History of Israel’s Intelligence Services. The above authors reported that a Deputy Director of Intelligence for the CIA named Robert Amory considered Angleton to have been a “co-opted Israeli agent” in 1956, but later reported that Angleton was probably “duped” by the Israelis [p. 321]. In 1973, Angleton was forced to resign from the CIA. It appears that Angleton’s history of being either co-opted by the Israelis or duped by them was a factor in his downfall.  

Early Cold War Mood in the U.S.  

For readers in the first decade of the 21st century to truly appreciate the political reality in which the Eisenhower administration and the “historic ACJ” operated, there are two critical facts that should not be forgotten. The Korean War, that started in June, 1950, as the result of North Korean aggression against South Korea, formally ended in a stalemate — truce — in September, 1953. U.S. armed forces suffered 54,000 fatalities in this three year struggle that almost matched the number, about 58,500, of the 12 year struggle in Vietnam. Total fatalities during the Korean Conflict were in the 2.5 million range. The Korean War was the first of many limited, “proxy” hot wars between the former Soviet Union and the U.S.  

The second critical fact involved the intense “anti-Communist” mood in the United States in the early Cold War years and the time of the Korean War. In my previous essay in ISSUES, Spring 2004, “Harry Truman’s Diary: How Legitimate Are Charges of Anti-Semitism?,” it is suggested that readers should read Peter Novick’s 1999 book, The Holocaust in American Life to gain an accurate and dispassionate view of the American Jewish reality at the dawn of the Cold War. It is worthwhile to repeat a stark quotation from Novick that there was a “popular association of Jews with Communism,” and that many American Jews, were in “near panic” over the revelation that there was a preponderance of Jews among those accused of espionage for the Soviet Union, or who were involved in alleged Communist and pro-Soviet “front” organizations and activities.  

It seems to be the case that ACJ had close to the 16,800 “dues-paying members” it reported in 1952. Its strategy of sponsoring “Classical Reform” religious schools, and philanthropic activities further retained its constituency support base in many Reform congregations, and among many unaffiliated American Reform Jews who numbered 150,000-200,000. Its support in the broader American culture during the early Cold War, needs also to be taken into consideration in determining the historic strength of the ACJ. The “historic” ACJ was an attractive, potential American Jewish ally of the new Eisenhower administration’s Middle East peace initiative, and a potential rival to the Zionists in the early 1950s.  

Potential Threat  

Despite the apparent effort by some writers to deny this historic reality, the ACJ was perceived as a potential threat to his expansionist Zionist goals by Israel’s David Ben Gurion in 1954. According to Rabbi Elmer Berger’s 1990 interviews with Rabbi Glickman, [Glickman, 1990, pp. 112-114.], the ACJ was also considered to be a sufficiently important ally of the Kermit Roosevelt faction in the State Department and CIA, that in the case of Rabbi Berger’s 1955 Middle East trip, financial support of this trip was arranged through the good offices of the AFME to supplement the always limited ACJ funds. This trip led to Rabbi Berger’s 1955 book on the Middle East, Who Knows Better Must Say So!.  

The continuing intrusion of the Cold War in the Middle East that forced Israel and several Arab countries to shift their strategic alliances in the late 1950s may have deterred Eisenhower from developing a more formal constituency support relationship with the ACJ — perhaps not unlike that which President Bush has with certain Evangelical Christian groups. Eisenhower’s insistence in 1953-1954 that Israel accept a “post-Zionist” reality as part of its integration into the Arab Middle East was one reason for his reaching out to the ACJ. This insistence remains a critical element of any just and lasting peace in that region.  

Issues of 2005  

The issues in 2005 are, in many ways, not far different from those in the 1950s. The ACJ continues to maintain its belief that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality, and that Israel is the state of its own citizens and does not speak for or represent American Jews. And U.S. Middle East policy, which seeks a two-state solution in which both Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security, may serve the same long-term interests perceived by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s.  


Explanatory Footnotes and Related Comments  

1. Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “The Buddy System — Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S-Israel Alliance,” by Warren Bass. The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, July 21-27, 2003.  

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Controversy of Zion, which The Washington Post in July 2003 informed the readers of the above cited review-essay, won a National Jewish Book Award. The writer has read The Controversy of Zion, and several essays of Wheatcroft on the Middle East, and would recommend his writings.  

2. The term used to describe such free-wheeling and self-serving, non-identified nations during the Cold War was that they were “Stalinoid,” as opposed to being either a satellite state or “Stalinite,” or openly pro-Soviet or “Stalinist” The former USSR, China and North Korea were the hard core “Stalinist states.” With regard to the ongoing Middle East tragedy, Israel was considered by some to be a “Stalinoid state” in the early 1950s. Soviet sponsorship of the 1947 partition plan, the supply of Soviet bloc arms to Israel in the 1948 struggle, and the Soviet veto of a U.S. sponsored U.N. Security Council motion to censure Israeli aggression in diverting waters of the Jordan River system in 1953 were all indicators of its “Stalinoid” reality. Later [1955-1973] Israel was to be replaced by Nasser’s Egypt as a model “Stalinoid State.” Israel apparently did not become an alleged “strategic asset” of the U.S. until either the Johnson or Nixon years.  

3. George W. Ball with Douglas B. Ball, 1992, The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the present. For an analysis of the Eisenhower plan for a “TVA for the Jordan River Valley,” see, Miriam R. Lowi, Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin.  

Readers should know that George W. Ball was the highly respected Undersecretary of State in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He wrote the above book — during the last year or so of his life with his son’s support — in large part to influence the Clinton administration, 1993-2001. The Jewish Establishment was alleged to have launched a smear campaign against the book and its authors, stating that somehow George Ball, a distinguished top State Department official and respected author and international lawyer, had become an “anti-Semite.”  

4. In addition to reading George Ball above cited, The Passionate Attachment... the account in Isaac Alteras, Eisenhower and Israel: U.S.-Israeli Relations, (1993) [pp. 100-105] is a reliable description of history.  

5. Both Kermit Roosevelt and his distant cousin “Archie” Roosevelt were not shy about writing books and essays on their experiences. See Kermit Roosevelt, “The Partition of Palestine: A Lesson in Pressure Politics,” The Middle East Review 2, (1948), and his view on the 1953 CIA sponsored coup in Iran, Counter-Coup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, (1978). Archibald “Archie” Roosevelt wrote his CIA memoirs, For Lust of Knowing (1988).  

The gist of the importance of the 1953 coup in Iran and Kermit Roosevelt’s role in it is that the U.S. will move covertly against ostensibly democratically elected governments if they appeared to the U.S. as being under the control of Communists. This was a Cold War doctrine of several GOP administrations as witnessed by the coup in Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973.  

6. The science of estimating the popular strength and constituency support base of groups involved in conflicts — be these conflicts armed and violent, or civil and civilian — that are not resolved by an election is imprecise. There is a rule of thumb that usually states that in dealing with an insurgent military force, for every one [1] activist who is a dedicated fighter [part or full-time], there needs to be at least ten [10] more passive supporters who form that group’s support infrastructure, and at least one hundred [100] people who form its constituency base.  

The writer has no difficulty in stating for the purposes of his above essay that the 16,000 or so ACJ “dues-paying” members in the early 1950s lived, worked and worshipped among many American Reform Jewish friends and acquaintances in synagogues, and extended family members who easily reached 150,000 to 200,000. In subsequent essays, the writer will discuss in greater detail this political science literature.  

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