Beyond  /  Book Review

The Forgotten History of American Jewish Dissent Against Zionism

In resurrecting stories of non- and anti-Zionist critics, a new book shows American Jews how questioning Israel is deeply rooted in their community.

Few people will know, for example, that Jacob Blaustein — who helped forge the alliance between American Zionists and David Ben Gurion at the Biltmore Conference in May 1942 — was not really a Zionist; if Blaustein is known at all today, it is as a kind of American Zionist hero of sorts. Blaustein remained close friends with figures like Elmer Berger, who together with Lessing Rosenwald, led the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, which was against the existence of a Jewish state before and after its establishment.

Meanwhile, few will recall that most of the members of the 1970s Jewish protest movement Breira (Alternative), which was deeply critical of Israel and was shut down by a fierce negative campaign by the American Jewish establishment, were actually Zionists. Or that Fayez Sayegh, the most popular pro-Palestinian Arab spokesperson of his generation, was not considered antisemitic even by his Zionist detractors.

Perhaps the most central figure is Don Peretz and organizations such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the decidedly non-Zionist group (which Blaustein also headed) that was the most powerful U.S. Jewish organization in the postwar period. The AJC was non-Zionist in that it was not in principle against the Israeli state, even as it was harshly critical of the treatment of the Palestinian minority inside Israel; but the organization was opposed to Jewish nationalism being the raison d’etre of American Jews. In a certain sense, the AJC made an important distinction between the national identity of Jewish Israelis and nationalism (Zionism) as an identity for diaspora Jews — a distinction that has been forgotten.

Today, this distinction may sound dissonant because the Zionization of American Jewry and America more broadly intentionally collapsed any possibility of being non-Zionist and pro-Israel — that is, making Israeli identity and American Jewish identity categorically separate. Israel’s 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law codified this when it declared the State of Israel to be the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” assumingly whether they live there or not. Yet, ironically, this claim seems to undermine precisely what Ben Gurion wrote to Jacob Blaustein in an oft-cited letter from 1950, insisting that “Israel does not demand the loyalty of non-Israeli Jews.” Such a statement made by Israel’s first Prime Minister would likely be considered anti-Zionist today.

We don’t know all this, and much more, because many American Jewish historians don’t want us to. It upsets the narrative of the so-called “Zionist consensus,” a product of the 1970s projected backward to suggest all that precedes it is merely “antiquarian,” or intellectual refuse for a few scholars and archive rats with time on their hands. It shouldn’t interest us, they argue, because those debates have been decided. Levin deftly and with scholarly precision presses the “undelete” button and suddenly, as if in a hologram, a world largely forgotten pops back into focus.