Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Proving the Rule: The American Council for Judaism

I started exploring the links between Judaism and Zionism as early as April 2007, when I wrote "Judaism's Culture of Death". Today, I finished reading Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948. The book demonstrates that the American Council for Judaism is an exception that proves the rule of overwhelming Jewish religious support for Zionism.

Author Thomas A. Kolsky writes that although there was Jewish opposition to Zionism from other quarters, "the longest, fiercest, and most persistent resistance to it in America came from Reform Jews" (28). He continues, "The only American Jewish organization ever formed to fight against Zionism was founded by Reform Jews" (29).

The organization in question is the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), which was belatedly founded in 1942, five years after the 1937 convention of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) whence The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism were adopted. The principles stated inter alia:
In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.
The precipitating event that led to the formation of the ACJ was the introduction and passage of a resolution on February 27th at the 1942 CCAR convention "favoring the creation in Palestine of a Jewish army" (42). The convention that year was presided over by "a staunch Zionist," Rabbi James G. Heller, who had proclaimed upon assuming the presidency of the CCAR "that Reform was no longer anti-Zionist."

In August 1942, 96 rabbis, including many who would later that year found the ACJ, issued a "Statement of Principles of Non-Zionist Rabbis." The document "recognized the importance of Palestine 'to the Jewish soul' and expressed support for the Jews in Palestine in their economic, cultural, and spiritual--but not nationalistic--endeavors" (54). The reaction by their foes was a resounding repudiation in the form of "Zionism: An Affirmation of Judaism". An early release of this document--which declared "Anti-Zionism ... is a departure from the Jewish religion"--listed as signatories the names of 757 rabbis, representing "the largest number of rabbis whose signatures are attached to a public pronouncement in all Jewish history". By the time the statement was released to the press on November 20, 1942, 818 rabbis had signed on.

As Kolsky shows, the Reform rabbis opposed to the Zionist hardliners in the CCAR were beset, at the very beginning, by internal divisions. One camp was primarily motivated by the Reform vision exemplified in the "Pittsburgh Platform" of 1885, which stated: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine ... nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state." The other camp shared the vision of their brethren but they were more strongly animated by and prioritized their opposition to Zionism as detrimental to Jews. Although he cites some individual rabbis who opposed the injustice that Zionism represented for Arabs, I found no evidence that the ACJ ever strongly appealed to Jews or anyone else on those grounds.

The story of the ACJ is, of course, much more complicated than just internal division and visionary short-sightedness. Suffice it to say, though, the ACJ's story is one of failure. Kolsky writes: "Unlike the Zionists, who had skillfully penetrated most American Jewish institutions by the 1940s, the Council was unable either to penetrate or to influence significantly even a single important Jewish organization during its struggle against the Jewish state" (199).

Despite their best efforts, by November 1945, a Roper poll of American Jews "showed that 80.1 percent supported the Zionist goal of a Jewish state in Palestine and only 10.5 percent opposed it" (126). Also, despite having access to high-level, sympathetic State Department officials, the ACJ was unable to thwart US support for the UN's partition resolution in 1947 or US diplomatic recognition of Israel in 1948. As Kolsky notes, Zionists--David Niles and Clark Clifford--were inside the White House (172). On the matter of recognizing Israel, Kolsky writes, "President Truman was constantly reminded by Jewish spokesmen and Democratic party leaders that he needed Jewish votes and financial contributions in the approaching 1948 elections" (188).

After the establishment of Israel, the ACJ, writes Kolsky, "did not have an appreciable effect on American Jews" and "became no more than a marginal, isolated, unpopular and largely ignored gadfly, an irritating critic of Zionism of all shades and degrees" (194).

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