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Elmer Berger, 1908-1996

American Council For Judaism
Fall 1996

Rabbi Elmer Berger, who served as executive director and then executive vice president of the American Council for Judaism from 1943 to 1967, died on October 5 at the age of 88.  

We extend condolences to his family and his many friends upon his passing.  

Dr. Berger’s role in the history of the Council was an important one.  

In 1942, Berger wrote a widely circulated essay called Why I Am A Non-Zionist, in which he questioned the Zionist claim "to represent something called ‘the Jewish people.’" He also attacked what he called the Zionist movement’s "deliberate omission of any political justice for the indigenous Arab inhabitants of Palestine." He maintained that "religion and nationality are separate and distinct," and, as the Associated Press reported in its obituary notice, "advocated peace talks between Arabs and Israelis long before it was fashionable."  

On June 1, 1942, thirty six rabbis came to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for a two-day conference. Six former presidents of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) attended, among other Jewish leaders. The main issue to be confronted was nationalism versus religion — whether Jews should retreat to a nationalistic ghetto or follow the universal message of the Jewish prophets.  

In his book, Jews Against Zionism, The American Council for Judaism 1942-48, Professor Thomas A. Kolsky reports that, "The star attraction of the evening session was thirty-four-year-old Elmer Berger from Flint, Michigan . . . Berger’s address was a turning point in his career, launching his meteoric rise to the leadership of American anti-Zionism. It marked the beginning of a relentless lifelong crusade against Zionism."  

After Berger’s presentation, the rabbis approved a recommendation that a committee be appointed to explore the possibility of interesting prominent laymen throughout the country in forming a lay-rabbinical organization for the purpose of advancing the cause of a Judaism of universal and prophetic values shorn of nationalism.  

On November 23, 1942, at a meeting in Philadelphia, Elmer Berger was appointed executive director of the new group which was to be called the Council for American Judaism. On December 7, 1942, at a meeting in New York, the name was altered to the American Council for Judaism. "The final choice," writes Kolsky, reflected their eagerness to stress the American character as well as the pro-Judaism stance of the organization." Contrary to Zionist claims, Kolsky declares, "The American Council for Judaism’s philosophy was firmly rooted in a long historical tradition. In fact, only fifty years prior to the Council’s formation, the ideals it espoused reflected the thinking of the majority of American Jews."  

In a number of widely read books, among them The Jewish Dilemma, A Partisan History of Judaism and Judaism or Jewish Nationalism, Dr. Berger set forth the case for a universal and prophetic Judaism.  

While Dr. Berger’s growing involvement in the politics of the Middle East led to his separation from the American Council for Judaism, and while many in the Council went on to sharply disagree with some of the positions he took, no one ever doubted that the Council would never have become the formidable force it did, and remains, were it not for the work of Elmer Berger.  

What is beyond doubt is that Elmer Berger’s assessment of Zionism in 1942 was an accurate one. Despite the Council’s losing battle with Zionism in the 1940s, Professor Kolsky notes that, "Many of its predictions about the consequences of the establishment of a Jewish state did come true . . . Indeed, as the Council had often warned and contrary to Zionist expectations, Israel did not become a truly normal state. Nor did it become a light to the nations. Ironically, created presumably to free Jews from anti-Semitism . . . as well as provide them 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 American Council for Judaism are still haunting the Zionist venture."  

Elmer Berger lived long enough to see the dawning of peace in the Middle East. The negotiations with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states which he had urged upon Israel for so many years had finally become a reality.  

One of those rare individuals who was prepared to risk popularity and worldly success for his convictions, Elmer Berger was, both to those who agreed with his perspective and many who did not, a man of unquestioned principle. When the history of Judaism and Jewish nationalism during this period is written, Elmer Berger will occupy an important place. His vision, in the end, may be viewed as more prophetic in the future than it was among his contemporaries.

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