By Dr. Naseer Aruri
Dr. Naseer Aruri is Chancellor Professor of Political Science (In the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. His latest book is The Obstruction of Peace: The U.S., Israel and the Palestinians, Common Courage Press, 1995. He is a longtime friend of Rabbi Berger.
One of the great moral leaders of our time has departed, leaving a broad legacy which spans six decades. Rabbi Elmer Berger, who died on Oct. 6, 1996 in his home at Long Boat Key in Florida at the age of 88, was an intellectual who authored a half-dozen books and scores of articles in popular magazines and specialized journals. He was an activist, lecturer, philosopher and theologian. He graduated from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Dr. Berger's legacy comprises two major themes: first, Judaism is a religion of universal values which does not assume a nationality; second, equality for every single human being in Palestine/Israel irrespective of whether that person is Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. Together, these themes constituted the message which characterized his professional life and long career, first as founder, executive director and executive vice president of the American Council for Judaism (1943-1967), and after 1968 as founder and president of the American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.
The message was that peace in the Middle East requires the application of Judaism's commitment to truth and justice and the repudiation of Zionism's commitment to Palestinian dispossession, dispersion, and disenfranchisement. He rejected categorically the claim by Zionism and the state of Israel that all who profess Judaism as their faith belong automatically to a national entity called the "Jewish people." Under Israeli law, all constituents of this "Jewish People" national entity are Israeli citizens with rights and obligations. This is the meaning of the claim that Israelis the sovereign state of the Jewish people"~a claim which confers upon Israel an extraterritorial jurisdiction over Jews wherever they may be, a claim which resulted in the establishment of the society in which "Jews, to use Orwell's phrase, would be more equal than others."
For Elmer Berger, who was ordained in 1932 and who served congregations in Pontiac and Flint, Michigan, early in his career, religion was "a private, individual matter of conscience," particularly in open, democratic societies. But when religion becomes a 'determinant of rights, responsibilities and status, the resultant society is 110 longer democratic. Then territorial disputes are no longer negotiable by the simple adjustment of boundaries."