Rabbi Elmer Berger - May 1989 Air date
Elmer Berger (May 27, 1908 - October 8, 1996) was a Jewish Reform rabbi widely known for his anti-Zionism. He was the executive director of the American Council for Judaism from its founding in 1943 until he resigned in 1968, at which time he founded American Jews for Alternatives to Zionism.
Berger was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a Hungarian-born railroad engineer and a third generation German-American Jew born in Texas. As a boy his family attended the Euclid Avenue Temple where he was encouraged to study for the rabbinate by Rabbi Louis Wolsey. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Cincinnati, he was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1932. He began his brief career in the ministry in Pontiac, Michigan before serving in Flint, Michigan from 1936 to 1942.
Berger married Seville Schwartz, the sister of a classmate at Hebrew Union College, in 1931. They divorced in 1946, and shortly thereafter he remarried to Ruth Winegarden, the daughter of a prominent furniture manufacturer who belonged to the Flint congregation. They were married until Ruth's death in 1979.
From the beginning, Elmer Berger was squarely in the camp of those Reform rabbis who opposed the Columbus Platform of 1935 which modified the movement's original anti-Zionism and rejection of traditional ritual. It was Berger's mentor, Louis Wolsey, who would in 1942 issue a call to convene the American Council for Judaism, and who hired Berger as its first executive director. In the organization's struggle against the founding of the State of Israel during the 1940s, Berger increasingly became the movement's public face, particularly with the publication of his book The Jewish Dilemma in 1945, which argued that Zionism was a surrender to the Nazi racial myths about the Jews and that assimilationism was still the best path for the Jews in the modern world.
The founding of the State of Israel in 1948, which prompted the defection of Louis Wolsey, did little to slow the activities of Berger and the ACJ, who felt that their chief purpose was to combat the influence of Zionism in the religious life of American Jews. He continued to write and lecture on behalf of the ACJ, becoming its Executive Vice President. In this position he became increasingly well known and widely despised by the Zionist camp in American Judaism, particularly after he toured the broader Middle East in 1955 and became increasingly identified with Arab and Palestinian causes.
After the Six Day War in 1967, an event which swept what had previously been an arguably ambivalent American Jewish community with a massive pro-Israel fervor, Berger was widely pilloried, including by other members of the American Council for Judaism, for declaring Israel to be the principal aggressor in the conflict. This ultimately led to Berger's resignation from the Council the following year, at which time he founded, with the support of some loyal friends, American Jews for Alternatives to Zionism, which was intended to serve only as his personal vehicle for writing and lecturing. This, he continued to do actively, although in a state of semi-retirement, splitting his time between New York and Sarasota, Florida.
Elmer Berger died in Sarasota of lung cancer at the age of 88. Among his direct legacies were his close involvement with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and his mentorship of the noted Middle East scholar Norton Mezvinsky.
 Bibliography (partial)
•Elmer Berger: The Jewish Dilemma : The Case Against Zionist Nationalism, Devin-Adair, New York, 1945
•Elmer Berger: A Partisan History of Judaism : The Jewish Case Against Zionism, Devin-Adair, New York, 1951
•Elmer Berger: Who Knows Better Must Say So! American Council for Judaism, New York, 1955
•Elmer Berger: Judaism or Jewish Nationalism: The Alternative to Zionism, Bookman Associates, 1957
•Elmer Berger: Letters and Non-Letters: The White House, Zionism and Israel, Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut, 1972.
•Elmer Berger: Memoirs of an Anti-Zionist Jew. Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut, 1978.
•Deane A. Tack, Elmer Berger: Thorns of Resistance, Destra Publishers, 1993 ISBN 0963598201
•Elmer Berger: Peace for Palestine: First Lost Opportunity, University Press of Florida Gainesville, FL 1993 ISBN 0813012074
•American Council for Judaism
•A Tribute to Rabbi Elmer Berger, a short biography
•A Jewish Thinker in the Tradition of Humanistic Universalism by Dr. Naseer Aruri January/February 1997, pgs. 24, 84 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
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Categories: 1908 births | 1996 deaths | People from Cleveland, Ohio | American Reform rabbis | 20th century rabbis