Before Mondoweiss: Jewish Anti-Nationalism in the Wake of the Holocaust
Once upon a time, Hillel chapters across the country distributed an adamantly anti-Zionist newsletter that could well be described as the Mondoweiss of its day.
Its very name, the Jewish Newsletter, perhaps belies the spirited and controversial writing of its contributors. It was founded in 1948—the year that Israel was established—amid a wave of Zionist fervor and excitement that inevitably sent it to the fringes of the Jewish community. The Newsletter’s founder, William Zukerman, wrote a decade after the publication launched that, “We believe that we [performed a] distinct service to American Jews by keeping alive a flame of dissent and nonconformity in the midst of an outburst of intense tribalism and conformity.”
Its contributors and editors represented a mosaic of the dissenting tradition in American Jewish life: classical Reform rabbis like Elmer Berger and Morris Lazaron; socialist stalwarts of the Jewish labor movement like Jacob Panken, J.B.S. Hardman, and Louis Nelson; and famed intellectuals like Erich Fromm, Hans Kohn, and David Riesman. The modest project, which Zukerman began with little more than a mimeograph machine in his New York apartment, was the glue that held together a disjointed anti-Zionist movement. With its demise after Zukerman’s death in 1961, along with the end of its social club (“Friends of the Jewish Newsletter”), so too vanished the anti-Zionism of a bygone era—perhaps only to later be resurrected in the languages of human rights, identity politics, and international law.
The biweekly letters, now consigned to historical archives, offer insight into the world in which anti-Zionist partisans were writing, a world in which Jewish leaders slung insult at one another over the question of Jews’ affiliation to Israel as the fledgling state took an increasingly central role in American Jewish life. Scarcely missed were opportunities to fire accusations of “Nazism” or “Hitlerism.”
While it may be that much of the content of the newsletters focused on politics in the Middle East, and contributors typically backed a binational state in the spirit of IHUD (the movement founded by Judah Magnes and Martin Buber that persisted through the 1950s), anti-Zionist concerns were rooted in larger questions of identity in post-war America: Would the specter of dual loyalty upend the Jewish community’s security in America? What sort of effects would nationalistic fervor have on American Jewry’s moral fabric? Is being “Jewish” an ethnic, religious, or national identity? And then, the nagging question that simply could not go unaddressed: how were anti-Zionists to justify their opposition to a protective homeland for Jews so shortly after the destruction of European Jewry?
Zukerman was anything but trivializing of the Holocaust—he was, in fact, allegedly the first reporter to cover the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the English press and he repeatedly invoked the memory of the anti-Nazi rebellion as a call for Jews to fight against the injustice he believed was occurring in Palestine. His lengthy report for Harper’s in 1943 emphasized the intrinsic anti-Zionism of the Warsaw resisters—that is, their determination to yet have a future in Poland. This naturally gained him the notice of the American Council for Judaism, founded the previous year by anti-Zionist Reform rabbis to advocate a postwar settlement for Palestine “in which our fellow Jews shall be free Palestinians whose religion is Judaism, even as we are Americans whose religion is Judaism.”
Irving Reichert, the irrepressibly leftist rabbi of San Francisco’s famed Temple Emanu-El, devoted a whole segment of his dramatically anti-Zionist Yom Kippur sermon in 1943 to Zukerman’s report. The leading spokesman of the American Council for Judaism, Elmer Berger, followed suit in his 1945 book The Jewish Dilemma. Zukerman and other anti-Zionists of the era had a simple, yet pivotal way of dealing with the aforementioned concerns, and particularly the Holocaust. They believed that racial nationalism and the notion of a genetically contiguous Jewish people, the very ideas at the heart of a Jewish State, were in fact the factors that led to the slaughter of Jews in Europe.
Yet during the years in which the Newsletter ran, Israel was gradually finding its place center-stage for Jews worldwide—a nightmare come true for the anti-Zionist camp. In February 1960, Israel responded to a series of swastikas painted on synagogues across Europe by sending delegations to the countries where the desecrations had appeared. It was acts like these that anti-Zionists and non-Zionists alike condemned, pointing out that it was an attempt on behalf of the State to speak for Jews globally, thereby fostering the Nazi-esque, racialized notion of “the Jewish people” as a valid concept in international law. Zukerman wrote, in poignant and pointed language:
Like the Nazi ideologists, the Zionists take it for granted the Jews are a foreign and inassimilable element in the body of all non-Jewish people and that it is impossible for them to live among other nations… One cannot help feeling, in times like these, that ideologically, at least, Nazism has won its greatest propaganda victory among the Jews.
While the political alliance between American Jewry and Israel was undeniably strong, it took years for an emotional connection to take hold. Yet as Israel permeated deeper into Jewish communal and religious life, anti-Zionists found themselves increasingly sidelined. With that, the Newsletter itself took on a more hostile tone. While it began more as news updates from the Middle East, its writers slipped toward polemical shots at Jewish communal leaders who supported a doctrinaire and aggressive brand of Zionism. Anti-Zionists believed that, steeped in a dark form of nationalism and “tribalism,” the American Jewish community had utterly lost its moral compass; that depraved morality reflected nowhere more clearly than in the Jewish community’s apathy toward the Palestinians. “For a people of Refugees of war and panic, to keep out the native population… makes me feel ashamed of Jews and of humanity,” Zukerman wrote to Rabbi Elmer Berger in 1950. “I am not, like yourself, a Rabbi, but I say that a Nation cannot build its resurrection on the destruction of another.” Several years later, Berger was even more blunt in writing to the venerable American Socialist leader Norman Thomas: “I am very much afraid that through a process of erosion of which most Jews today seem to reflect no consciousness whatsoever, Zionism is gradually ‘proving’ most of the allegations which have, at one time or another, been used by the most vicious anti-Semites.”
But this was as much an argument about politics in the Middle East as about Jewish identity at home. While the Jewish Newsletter was undoubtedly perceived controversially, it seems possible that it was also seen as part of a lively discourse about Jewish identity in America and its relation to a global, scattered people. In an internal document from the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism about countering Zionist propaganda on campuses, a 1950 memorandum stated, “We were encouraged to learn that Hillel is subscribing to the publication for each of its college units.”
It is possible that Hillel’s efforts to police Jewish student’s opportunities to talk and learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have, over the years, grown more stringent as the Jewish “communal tent,” as some have alleged, has shrunk. Yet we know that Zukerman was as much a “gadfly” of his time as the Mondoweiss writers of our own. And yet, right up to the time of Zukerman’s death, the Jewish Newsletter was never considered as unreservedly tref as its ally, the American Council for Judaism. This is not to say that it was never attacked by Zionists. As early as 1954, the nominal socialists of the Forward did not hesitate to attack the revered Jacob Panken—a one-time Socialist elected judge and candidate for mayor of New York—for his “crackpot” anti-Zionist associations.
Three years later, Norman Thomas (one of several righteous gentiles names as Friends of the Newsletter, along with ACLU founder Roger Baldwin and the anarchist cultural critic Dwight Macdonald) hoped the Forward would print a column of his concerns about the aftermath of the 1956 Suez War, only to receive the brusque reply that its substance had already been “delivered by Arab hatemongers.” An incredulous Zukerman responded, “I have never read anything more crude and contrary to the principles of the freedom of the press by any reactionary editor, let alone a socialist.” Yet many who clearly disagreed with Thomas and Zukerman on many things were shocked and affronted when made aware of the attack by the Forward editors, including the long-time Commentary mainstay Lucy Dawidowicz.
Most likely, Zukerman’s Newsletter, albeit probably despised and marginalized by the majority of Jews who knew of it, was read in the context of a lively debate over what it meant to be Jewish in America after World War II. The Newsletter was part of an ongoing negotiation with identity, religion, and nationality. The Nazi Holocaust had given life to an intense anti-nationalist spirit among many Jews. Debates of the era ultimately disappeared as Zukerman’s generation of anti-Zionist leaders began dying off and a younger generation of enthusiastic Zionists took over. Previously non-Zionist organizations, like B’nai Brith and the American Jewish Committee, accepted the Zionist platform. Even the American Council for Judaism imploded following the war of 1967 and a new gust of Zionist spirit.
Anti-Zionism lived on beyond the Jewish Newsletter’s death—even beyond 1967, right up to the present day—with a new life and a different language. Today’s Jews—be they supporters of the right-wing, Israel-right-or-wrong AIPAC; the dovish, liberal Zionist lobbyist J Street; or the fiercely critical Jewish Voice for Peace—are engaging in a discourse about Jews’ relation to the Israeli state that is now center-stage in their synagogues, day schools and cultural centers. It’s a debate rooted as much in today’s political concerns over ethics and security as the debates of Zukerman’s day were over identity and loyalty.
Yet the differences between the diverse group that backed the Jewish Newsletter and the most prominent critics of Zionism today can be striking. There are deep historical roots to this disconnect. Zukerman and the other old Socialists around the Newsletter were deeply and irrepressibly anti-Communist, whereas radical Jews of later generations would be far more likely to find their roots in the old Communist left—the simple disparity in followers being at least as responsible for this as any more complex historical reasons. As late as the Oslo years, the militant Zionism of the Jews of the old Communist left in the era of the Jewish Newsletter—“It is a part of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan to sacrifice Jewish blood for Arab oil” was a slogan on one campaign flier in 1948—could be a point of pride for latter-day torchbearers.
Too often contemporary anti-Zionists are absorbed in awkwardly jamming solidarity with Palestinian nationalism into a set of preconceived notions about identity politics and deconstructionist theory—particularly as they relate to gender and sexuality. This needlessly complicates what should be, questions over the historical roots of the problem notwithstanding, a simple matter of protesting the horrible present day denial of basic human rights to Palestinians. Whatever the case for or against the BDS movement, a singleminded if not fanatical devotion to it betrays an epistemic closure suggesting that concern for the plight of the Palestinians only secondarily follows these preconceived notions.
To take the example of just one ongoing controversy within the BDS movement, the dogmatic insistence that the Israeli state and Zionist movement be understood as a “colonialist, apartheid regime” and that no other framework for understanding the situation is legitimate, is the sort of elevation of a semantic argument into a matter of high principle that is endemic to nationalist and authoritarian movements, indicative of the danger too often treated cavalierly of Palestinian nationalism repeating the worst habits of Zionism. Indeed, this dogmatist treatment of an academic question may resemble nothing so much as the forerunners of today’s neoconservatives in the debate over the 1962 Port Huron Statement, fanatically insisting that the Soviet Union be acknowledged as “inherently expansionist and aggressive” as opposed to a mere “status quo power.”
Tragically, the unassuming ethical concerns of Zukerman, his supporters, and the Socialist tradition they represented appear alien to much of today’s Palestinian solidarity movement. If liberal, non- and anti-Zionists hope to galvanize a broad movement of dissent from the American Jewish establishment for a generation clearly yearning for it, with the widest possible appeal and based firmly in the ethical universalism of Judaism, in the pages of the Jewish Newsletter they can and should begin to go and learn.
(To read more about the Open Hillel movement, return to the Open Hillel table of contents.)