Saturday, August 2, 2014

Israel's Vision of Peace with Gaza - 1955-2014

My reading during these last few weeks of horror in Gaza has been a travelogue, by the rabbi behind the establishment of my synagogue in 1955. Rabbi Elmer Berger was executive president of the American Council of Judaism from its founding in 1942, in the wake of the Zionist Biltmore Conference. He wrote the travelogue, actually a series of long letters, to a founder of my synagogue, Buddy Coleman.

In April 1955, Rabbi Berger and his wife Ruth left for a two month visit to Middle East capitals, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Jordanian and Israeli Jerusalem. He was treated by a VIP throughout the region. His schedule was filled with meetings with Jewish and top political leaders. He met with Chief Rabbis and leaders of the large Jewish communities. Foreign ministers and presidents welcomed him. Only in Israel was he treated differently.

"Who Knows Better Must Say So!" is full of prescient wisdom rooted in eyewitness reports, meetings with policy  makers and a clear worldview. Whole passages about Gaza and Israel leap off the page. I am working on a review of the book.

In light of reports today that Israel is planning to end the Gaza warfare unilaterally, here are excerpts from Rabbi Berger's reflections on his trip written from the boat on the way home, June 5, 1955.

The first is from an acquaintance of Berger's:

"Israel would like to have peace now - but not a very firm peace. That is, he believes the border raids [Berger is referring to Gaza, MD] and constant military tension maintained under the "retaliation" policy are designed to the hopes...[of] a kind of settlement. Then...Israel would be able to say it had won the peace with its own power and was under no international obligation, involving any of the great powers, to respect the peace at a time when it might be advantageous for Israel to forget such a peace....above all, Israel wants to avoid a Middle East peace which is internationally guaranteed...."

(italics in the original)
(Who Knows Better Must Say So! p. 106, by Rabbi Elmer Berger, American Council for Judaism 1955)

On who pays the price for what he saw as Israeli aggression, Berger has this to say:

"...the real, tragic victims of this are the Arab refugees and the man on the street in Israel...If present trends continue, we may see these unhappy people again the objects of suffering and homelessness."
                                                                                                                                            (p. 107)

Finally, a theme which is central to Berger's book, which I will write more about later:

"Another victim...will be the American Jews. One can plead innocence for so long; and one can ask indulgence for excesses for so long because of extenuating circumstances. But the shape of Israel is now a palpable, responsible sovereignty which makes no bones about its "partnership" with all Jews. If the "partnership" is caught engaging in unethical practices however, it will be difficult for one of the partners to be free of guilt on the grounds that he did not know how the business was being run."

Rabbi Berger's analysis could have been written this week.


  1. David SacksteinAugust 31, 2014

    I read up a little about Rabbi Berger.
    The first line in Wikipedia reads "Elmer Berger was a Jewish Reform rabbi widely known for his anti-Zionism".
    Other articles seem to support that.
    So you also are an anti-Zionist?

    1. Quoting somebody does not equal endorsing all their views. As a Reform American Jew, Rabbi Berger opposed messianic nationalism; as a rabbi, he opposed secular nationalism. He saw it as a perversion of Judaism.
      More importantly, as an American, he refused to build his identity on the nationalism of a foreign country halfway round the world. Today, that sounds quaint. To identify as a Jew automatically means to engage with Israel. Either the default "we stand with Israel" or to work for change. But there is no place to be anti-Zionist the way the American Council for Judaism was in 1955.