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Elmer Berger: A Spokesman For Justice

Grace Halsell
Fall 1996

Why, I asked on my initial meeting with Elmer Berger, do so many American Jews give their total support, including tax-free dollars, to Israel, yet prefer to stay in the United States?  

I put the question to Dr. Berger soon after our initial meeting in 1981. I had gone to a Middle East conference in a Washington, D.C. hotel. After learning that Elmer Berger was in the audience, I sought him out. Tall, distinguished, with graying hair, he gave me a friendly smile: "Let’s go for a coffee, where we can talk." Once we found a quiet corner in a cafe, Dr. Berger began:  

"Most American Jews don’t want to leave America. They have no intention of seeking ‘normality’ by expatriating themselves to live in a ‘Jewish state.’ But in reality it is a Zionist state and Zionism itself is an anomaly, a movement not to save souls but to seize land and gain power."  

Then the rabbi explained that a half-century ago he became convinced that "Zionism was deleterious to Jews and to the long-range interests of the United States." Through his own personal activities, through the American Council for Judaism and later through the American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism, Rabbi Berger impressed a multitude with the sincerity of his convictions, his personal courage, and the depth of his commitment.  

Victims of Zionism  

Dr. Berger long reminded his co-religionists that they, after the Palestinians, "are the second greatest victims of Zionism." As for American Jews giving their allegiance and dollars to Zionism, he observed that they were subsidizing an operation which has as its ultimate objective "the expatriation of the contributors themselves."  

American dollars are not going to support an Israeli "democracy," said Dr. Berger. "Israel’s highest courts have said ‘The state of Israel was established and recognized as the state of the Jews. This is the sovereign state of the Jewish people.’ This being the case, those for whom the state was created would qualify as first-class citizens and non-Jews would be relegated to another, lesser category. The Zionists did not draft a constitution for their new Jewish-Zionist state. Rather, they passed ‘Basic Laws’ that protect and elevate those of one religion and denigrate those of other faiths. The first of these basic laws states that any Jew, at any time, has the right to immigrate to Israel. This right is given only to Jews."  

The second of the basic laws, he said, "provides that any Jewish immigrant automatically acquires Israeli citizenship. This is automatically given only to Jews. A third law states that it is the central task of the Zionist state to bring all Jews to the Zionist state. A state that regards the immigration of Jews as its ‘central task’ cannot at the same time allocate its services and resources in a completely equal basis among its citizens who do not qualify as part of the ‘Jewish people.’"  

Exclusivist Ideology  

According to Dr. Berger, these "Basic Laws" mean that Zionism constitutes "an ethno-centered, exclusivist, aggressive ideology." Yet, Zionists largely have been successful in convincing the American public that it is a "benevolent, liberating, progressive movement."  

Because this view has been so successfully presented, few dare speak the truth about Zionism, said Dr. Berger, adding that "while Israel does indeed practice widespread . . . discrimination against a large segment of people, the U.S. State Department refused to deal with Israeli violations of human rights except in a cursory, bland and shallow manner."  

As for the role of the U.S. media in promoting Zionism, Dr. Berger said: "I shudder a bit when someone speaks of Zionist ‘control’ of the press. But Zionist influence is something else. The sheer mass of Zionist handouts does ‘influence’ the American media." He mentioned that much of the early Zionist propaganda convinced many Americans that Arabs were lazy while "strong, industrious Jews had made the desert bloom." With regard to Menachem Begin, "There was a flood of news stories whitewashing the former ‘terrorist’ and pressing upon his brow the laurel wreath of ‘statesman.’ The cumulative effect of all the releases contributes to the mindset of the American people."  

Once, Berger related, he and other anti-Zionist Jewish leaders sought an interview with the Jewish owners of The New York Times to complain about its pro-Zionist bias. "They promised us the top management, which would of course be Jewish. But when our group got there, we were ushered in to talk with a non-Jew, Clifton Daniel, who was married to (former) President Truman’s daughter Margaret. And Daniel tried to convince us that the Times owners and managers were not Zionists so much but that many of their readers were. He seemed to assume, or at least wanted us to believe, that a major newspaper such as the Times does not shape public opinion, which of course it does."  

Middle East Tour  

In 1955, Elmer Berger and his wife Ruth toured in the Middle East, visiting Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. He spoke to heads of state, community and religious leaders as well as refugees. His trip resulted in his writing Who Knows Better Must Say So, a title borrowed from a centuries-old Dutch process for hearing all sides of an issue. Other books include Why I Am A Non-Zionist (1942), The Jewish Dilemma (1945), A Partisan History of Judaism (1951), Judaism or Jewish Nationalism (1957), Letters and Non-Letters: The White House, Zionism and Israel (1972), Memoirs Of An Anti-Zionist Jew (1976), Judaism or Zionism: What Difference For The Middle East? (1986), and Peace For Palestine: First Lost Opportunity (1993).  

After the death in 1979 of his closest comrade in the anti-Zionist fight, his wife Ruth, Rabbi Berger retired to live in Long Boat Key, Florida. He continued to remain generous with his time, making presentations at conventions and talking with small groups. At one gathering, a listener asked if he had regrets about speaking out so forcefully on such volatile issues, particularly with regard to the Palestinians. "I have few regrets in my life," he said. "I owe the Arab nothing. And they owe me nothing. Our paths have met or been parallel when we have both stood upon those great, monumental rocks of human values which, despite the parochialism of so much of life, are the genuine universalities."  

When one listener spoke of his life as being "heroic," he replied that he did not see his life like that. Rather, he hoped to embrace humility "for there is still so much to be done before there is justice in Palestine and before the universalism of the prophetic tradition in Judaism and Christianity and Islam dominates the tribalism."  

For me, Dr. Berger stands with other great men who were voices in the wilderness crying for justice. There is no other American Jewish leader today who comes close to his outstanding contribution in stating the case for justice in the Middle East.

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