Where do we even begin to talk about the violence that erupted on October 7th? I have asked myself that question over and over since learning about the Hamas attacks during Shabbat service, far from my phone and desperate to learn more about what had happened. In the weeks since that day and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza, the American Jewish community has confronted some of the most serious intra-communal conflicts in its history over Jewish identity and Jewish support for Israel. How do American Jewish leaders understand the line between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, especially as young Jews continue to maintain increasingly critical opinions of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians? What is the history behind American Jewish support for Israel? Through Geoffrey Levin’s new book, Our Palestine Question, we get remarkable insight into the creation and evolution of the relationship between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.
In the opening pages of the book, Levin recounts the first of many stories that contradict the conventional wisdom concerning 1950s American Jewish life. He writes about Morris Lazaron, a 65-year-old rabbi from the anti-Zionist Reform Jewish organization the American Council for Judaism, who was visiting the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. Rabbi Lazaron was in Beirut as a delegate with American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), a multi-religious advocacy organization that wanted to spread a more sympathetic depiction of the Arab side of the conflict to an American audience. As he walked through the camp, children clutched his shirt, begging him in Arabic to let them return home. “We have sinned,” he said to himself, surveying the poverty and despair of the refugees.
This happened in 1953, almost thirty years before the Sabra and Shatila Massacre and nearly fifteen years before the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. On returning to the United States after the trip, Rabbi Lazaron called on the Israeli government to recognize the Palestinian right of return. He insisted that he was doing so not in spite of his Jewish values but explicitly because of them; he felt that the Jewish historical experience should compel Jews to endorse the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their prewar homes after 1948. Supported by the AFME, he quickly published a book to advocate for the repatriation of at least 75,000 Palestinian refugees. But he and many of his Jewish colleagues with the American Council of Judaism had an even more radical endpoint in mind: they supported one secular state in Palestine with equal rights for all.
Throughout Our Palestine Question, Levin, a professor of Jewish studies at Emory University, shakes many assumptions about how American Jews have historically related to the State of Israel. Rather than aligning with the commonly held view that American Jewish criticism of Israel is a recent phenomenon, he explores the marginalized history of the American Jews who protested Israel’s actions from the earliest days of Jewish statehood through the decade after the Six-Day War. Levin looks at a host of both Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews who dissented against the prevailing mood about Israel, often for religious reasons, their relationship to Jewish identity, and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Across the book’s six chapters, we learn about the different figures and institutions that illustrate these competing perspectives of Jewish politics. Levin discusses Don Peretz, a Jewish academic who authored the first doctoral thesis about Palestinian refugees after 1948. He references William Zuckerman, the prolific Yiddish journalist who polemicized against Israel in his widely read journal, The Jewish Newsletter. He talks about Elmer Berger, one of the most well-known leaders of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, who had relationships with Arab and Palestinian leaders across the Middle East and was known by some as “the PLO’s rabbi”. Near the end of the book, he even talks about Breira, an organization founded by liberal Zionists to push for a two-state solution after the Six-Day War. Breira had thousands of lay members with chapters across the United States. Hundreds of clergy were involved, including the noted progressive rabbis Arthur Waskow, Everett Gendler, and Arnold Wolf.
By breaking the assumption that American Jews have always supported the actions of the State of Israel, Levin complicates the narrative that Israel used to bind American Jews into one shared project; though they weren’t the majority, there were always active and committed Jews who spoke out as Zionism redefined the meaning of Jewish identity and practice. For these early dissenters, their Jewish ethics were often the impetus for why they spoke out against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and their objections to the Jewish State.
Much of the story revolves around Don Peretz’s work with Palestinian refugees on behalf of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), at the time a non-Zionist, humanitarian organization that often mediated between American Jewish leaders and Israel. In early 1956, the AJC offered him a position as the group’s first Middle East consultant. Peretz’s role was to organize an Arab refugee relief initiative with humanitarian aims as the AJC wrestled with the task of assisting the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who were displaced by Israel in 1948 into its neighboring Arab countries. Catching wind of his work, Israeli officials pressured various AJC leaders to fire him, but for a brief moment, the organization persisted in supporting his mission.
Peretz’s work raised serious questions about the AJC and how it could continue identifying as non-Zionist while contending with the implications of Jewish statehood for American Jews. Israel’s birth created a cognitive dissonance for American Jewish organizations; they needed to engage with Israel’s power over the Palestinians without abandoning the arguments that they regularly used to defend the minority rights of Jews in the Diaspora. By 1957, the AJC was forced to choose between two irreconcilable paths: they could address the underlying human rights issues that underpinned criticism of Israel or accept the claim that any criticism of Israel would harm American Jews, who were increasingly identifying with the country. Under the AJC presidency of Irving Engel (1954-1958), the AJC eventually chose the latter approach and fired Peretz from his position. Over time, the AJC increasingly attacked all criticism of Israel’s actions as antisemitic and after the 1967 war, the organization explicitly rebranded itself as a Zionist institution.
Just as Levin uses the story of the AJC to complicate the standard narrative concerning the early American Jewish institutional position on Israel, he uses another key section of the book to discuss the much-neglected anti-Zionist Reform organization, the American Council for Judaism. The Council, as it was known at the time, is an organization of Reform rabbis and lay members who have continued to advocate for the Classical Reform Judaism of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform up to the present day. As work by Jonathan Gribetz and Jack Ross has already shown, though the Council’s original mission was strictly religious, over time it evolved into an overtly anti-Zionist political organization with the goal of shifting American Jewish public opinion about Israel.
The organization was led by Rabbi Elmer Berger, a combative American Jewish leader who continued fighting for Classical Reform Judaism long after the rest of the denomination changed its beliefs. Berger traveled across the Middle East, meeting with Arab leaders to learn about their relationship with Israel and to teach them about his vision of Judaism. He authored several books about Jewish anti-Zionism, many of which were influenced and published by the PLO Research Institute in Beirut. As Levin points out, Berger was close friends with the Palestinian intellectual Fayez Sayegh, one of the most public proponents of Palestinian rights in the United States. Together with Don Peretz, Berger worked with Sayegh on ways of critiquing Israel without falling into antisemitism and defended him against those accusations throughout his career. Berger even took out an advertisement in the New York Times to support UN Resolution 3379 from 1975, which declared that “Zionism is a form of racism”—a resolution that Sayegh had helped author. Unsurprisingly, this alienated Berger from most American Jewish institutions, but it’s important to remember his ideological roots: as a Classical Reform Jew, Berger rejected the idea that Jews constituted a nation, and thus was deeply sympathetic to arguments challenging the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. Even as the Reform movement continued evolving to integrate Zionism and to make space for a vision of Jewish particularity in the United States, Berger remained steadfast in his insistence that Jews were “Americans of Jewish faith” and should continue assimilating into mainstream American culture.
Throughout the book, Levin suggests that for many young American Jews, Berger and Peretz offer important perspectives for contemporary Jewish politics. Berger was insistent that as a religion, Judaism made an absolute ethical claim on the way we treat one another, dismissing the idea that Jews should have a nation state at the expense of Palestinian sovereignty or human rights. Peretz, for his part, devoted his life to fighting for justice for Palestinian refugees, insisting over and over that coexistence demanded the Palestinian right of return. Levin introduces these characters to demonstrate that Jewish dissent was once quite present among American Jews—he points to a Time magazine article that said that as late as the 1960s the Council reported having as many as twenty-two thousand members.
In recounting the stories of American Jews who advocated for Palestinian human rights, Levin pushes us to recognize that the history of Israel-Diaspora relations should be written as a two-way street. American Jewish dissenters influenced how the Israeli government interacted with Diaspora Jews and both communities changed in an ongoing, evolving relationship that was neither pre-ordained to success nor marked by unanimous agreement. The book analyzes how complicated issues about Palestinian human rights and Jewish statehood were kept off the American Jewish communal agenda for decades, while simultaneously pointing out that there were always people who resisted these changes, sometimes using tactics and ideas more commonly associated with the present day.
One shortcoming of the book is that it often overlooks the diversity of early Jewish critics of Israel. Levin does not reference any key female players, but women were certainly a part of this story. One example is through the activism of Sharon Rose (whom he mentions near the end of the book) who supported Palestinian rights as an editor with the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Another key female activist was Lynn Gottlieb, the first ordained female rabbi with the Jewish Renewal movement, who helped found Breira and is an outspoken advocate for Palestinian human rights.
Our Palestine Question also places too much emphasis on Jews at the center of power, whether working for the AJC in New York or in diplomatic circles in Washington DC. The book leaves me wondering how these issues played out in synagogues and community centers across the United States. Both of these issues will hopefully be addressed in Marjorie Feld’s forthcoming book, The Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism (2024), that analyzes these issues in an even broader context, including for Jews involved in anti-colonial struggles and in debates about Jewish feminism.
These issues aside, by further opening this discussion about 20th century Jewish life, Levin has undoubtedly succeeded in complicating our understanding of American Jewish Zionism. Our Palestine Question achieves what historians do at their best: it challenges communal memory, complicates what was once considered solid, and disrupts the perceived inevitability of our current political moment. By deconstructing the presumed success of American Jewish Zionism, we can better understand the figures, arguments, and ideas that were circulating at that time to hopefully revive a more vibrant landscape for debate about Jewish politics. Books like these can perhaps open up new visions for shared life and equality in Israel/Palestine following this horrific, paradigm-shattering escalation to the conflict.
Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent 1948-1978 by Geoffrey Levin, Yale University Press, 2023.