Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Zionism, Anti-Zionism, Non-Zionism, Post-Zionism in Philadelphia

Thomas A. Kolsky, Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).

_____, "The Opposition to Zionism: The American Council for Judaism Under the Leadership of Rabbi Louis Wolsey and Lessing Rosenwald", in Philadelphia Jewish Life: 1940-1985, ed. Murray Friedman (Ardmore, PA: Seth Press, 1986), pp. 81-123.

many authors, Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace (The Palestine Israel Network of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, 2011).

_____, "Diaspora Anti-Zionism", in Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, ed. Avrum Ehrlich (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008).

Stanley Aronowitz, "On Zionism and Its Jewish Critics", Logos Journal, Summer 2004.

Banksy in Palestine

This spring 2016 I attended an 8 week course "Steadfast Hope" offered by Christian-Jewish Allies of Greater Philadelphia (CJA) about the Israel-Palestine conflict. My old friend Fran Gilmore and new friend Susan Landau were helping teach the class at the Unitarian Society of Germantown. I had stopped considering a just peace in Palestine possible. It seemed hopeless after 70+ years of conflict. Maybe if I reviewed my thinking about Israel-Palestine, I could be more hopeful. Certainly nothing will change if we resign ourselves to Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. CJA is "an interfaith group of Christian, Jews, and Muslims of Greater Philadelphia who work together to build relationships to bring peace and justice in Israel-Palestine." They offer films, speakers, and workshops to religious institutions in Philadelphia to promote peace and justice in the historic Holy Land. The "Steadfast Hope" class was excellent. Unfortunately I missed the last sessions, so maybe I'll reenlist when they offer a nearby class again. It is inspiring to see so many Philadelphians working for peace in Palestine.

Studying the history of Israel-Palestine conflict reminded me of accounts I've read of Jewish opposition  to the formation of the state of Israel in Philadelphia. It turns out, the epicenter of liberal Jewish anti-Zionism was in Philadelphia during the 1940s and 1950s. Thomas A. Kolsky, Professor of History and Political Science at Montgomery County Community College, wrote Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism, 1942-1948, which is a sympathetic history of the foremost organized Jewish opposition to a Jewish nation-state. The American Council for Judaism (ACJ) was launched on November 2, 1942 in Rabbi Louis Wolsey's office at reform Congregation Rodeph Shalom, with his friend Rabbi William H. Fineshriber of reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, and 13 other rabbis. Rodeph Shalom is located at Broad and Mt. Vernon Sts in N Philadelphia, and is the oldest Ashkenazi congregation in the New World. Keneseth Israel was then located at Broad and Columbia Sts in N Philadelphia, and is one of the largest Jewish congregations in the US. Their goal was to revitalize the spiritual roots of 19th century Reform Judaism, and oppose Jewish nationalism, ie a Jewish state in Palestine.

The first Jews in America in the 19th century were largely German. They assimilated culturally and economically, and embraced liberal Reform Judaism. Russian Jewish emigration began later after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, bringing two million new Jewish refugees to America between 1880 and 1914. Zionism, the desire for a Jewish homeland, was born of this group. It was a secular response to racial antisemitism in Europe. Most liberal and socialist Jews in the US embraced the Enlightenment faith in reason and rejected Zionism. They considered themselves citizens of the US democracy. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the founder of the Reform movement, dismissed Zionist ideas as "Ziomania".  But the poorer, religiously orthodox, working class Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe did not share the same faith in Western democracy. Particularly with the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the case for a Jewish homeland or refuge became more compelling. Reform Judaism and many Jewish organizations divided over Zionism. This is the subject of Thomas Kolsky's book. 

Keneseth Israel at Broad and Columbia Sts
Rodeph Shalom at Broad and Mt Vernon Sts

During the 1930s Reform Judaism began to accommodate Zionism. Like today, most Americans opposed increased immigration to US.Unemployment, nativist nationalism, and anti-semitism blocked any efforts to open immigration in Congress. Jewish refugees from Nazism (and other refugees, like Spanish Republicans and anarchists) had no where to go. On November 24,1942 Rabbi Stephen S. Wise announced publically the US State Department report of the mass extermination of the European Jews by the Nazis. Support for a Jewish state in Palestine became overwhelming.

Remarkably in the face of the Holocaust and bitter attacks from Zionist organizations, the ACJ began their work. The founders hired Rabbi Elmer Berger executive director in January 1943. He was a disciple of Rabbi Wolsey and the leader of the first anti-Zionist group in the US in Flint, Michigan. Anti-Zionism became Elmer Berger's (1908-1996) life work. After resigning the ACJ in 1967 after the Six Day War, he founded American Alternatives to Zionism (AJAZ), and became increasingly identified with Palestinian and Arab causes. In his book The Jewish Dilemma: The Case Against Zionist Nationalism (1945), Elmer Berger presented the ACJ views: (1) Jews are a religious group, not a race or nationality; (2) All inhabitants of Palestine must enjoy equal rights - no exclusively Jewish state; (3) Repatriation and normalization of the lives of the Jews after WWII. 

The ACJ argued Jews constituted a minority population in Palestine, and had no right to impose their rule on the territory and the indigenous people, regardless of American public opinion or UN mandate. They also argued a Jewish state was bad for Jews in Arab countries, and the West. Jews would become a political lobby with divided loyalties outside Israel. Judaism as a religion would became corrupted in defense of a secular nation-state.

The lay  leader of ACJ was Lessing J. Rosenwald, President of the American Council of Judaism 1943-1955. Rosenwald was the retired Chairman of the Board of Sears Roebuck and Company, a Philadelphia philanthropist, art collector, and congregant of Rabbi Fineshriber's Keneseth Israel. His home in suburban Philadelphia, the Alverthorpe Manor, was donated to Abington Township, and is now the Abington Art Center. Rosenwald and the ACJ were serious players in the debates over partition in Palestine and the subsequent state of Israel declared May 14, 1948. They met with Roosevelt, Truman, the US State Department, and testified in Congress and the UN. The fortunes of a Jewish state were uncertain. Kolsky notes, "Roosevelt's skilled evasiveness regarding Palestine has led some historians to suggest that had he survived until 1948 a Jewish state might not have come into existence." Truman was ambivalent.

After Israeli independence, the ACJ redirected its mission to Jewish philanthropy, aiding displaced persons from WWII, and advocating equal rights for all citizens in Israel. Many anti-Zionist reconciled with the new reality of the Israeli state. Zionism took many manifestations. In On Zionism and Its Jewish Critics Stanley Aronowitz suggests four broad Jewish perspectives on Israel: (1) Uncritical support of the settler state with limits on Palestinian rights and a welfare state underwritten by US dollars. (2) A  right wing vision of Arab ethnic cleansing first articulated by Vladimir Jabotinsky which is now ascendant. (3) A socialist Zionist vision of a secular binational state inspired by Ber Borochov's book The National Question and the Class Struggle (1905). (4) Non-Zionist or post-Zionist cosmopolitan, internationalist vision of Israel which informs most contemporary peace activists in Israel and the West.

Thomas Kolsky's history is fascinating because the legitimacy of Israel remains in question today, after 70 years. The Zionists won in 1948, but the debate is not over. Many of the problems the ACJ had forseen have come to pass: Israel is financially dependent on the US; Jewish communities have exited the Arab countries; non-Jews are second class citizens in Israel; and the Palestine-Israel conflict is unceasing. Israel is a garrison state- not what it hoped for. Some sort of reconciliation or compromise between Palestine and Israel must be found, which failed to happen in 1940s. Surely neither side wants more war. Perhaps left and liberal circles in the US, Israel and Palestine will lead the way. 

This is a mission for Superman.

Peace in Palestine