The Suppressed Lineage of American Jewish Dissent on Zionism

In his recent book Our Palestine Question, historian Geoffrey Levin uncovers the long history of American Jewish concern for Palestinian rights.

Emma Saltzberg
March 13, 2024

Rabbi Elmer Berger, executive director of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, at Qalandia airport outside of Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem in 1959.

Courtesy of Geoffrey Levin

In the months since October 7th, the United States has seen its largest-ever mobilization of Jewish pro-Palestine activism: Membership in IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace has surged, and both groups have staged frequent acts of civil disobedience in cities across the country to protest Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. In response, the mainstream American Jewish community, which has largely consolidated around support for Israel’s war, has sought to cast these non- and anti-Zionist activists as operating outside the American Jewish communal tent. Yet historian Geoffrey Levin’s new book, Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948-1978, shows that American Jewish concern for Palestinian rights and critique of Zionism have a long history that has been thoroughly suppressed.

The book follows a cast of characters often excluded from accounts of American Jewish history—including a staffer at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a firebrand Jewish journalist, a Palestinian Syrian diplomat, and a crusading anti-Zionist rabbi—who tried to push American Jews to acknowledge Zionism’s impact on Palestinians. Levin, assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Jewish studies at Emory University, documents how the official American Jewish position on Zionism remained contested in the decades immediately following Israel’s founding, and how challenges to unqualified support for Israel emerged from both the community’s outer edges and the center of the establishment. Ultimately, mainstream Jewish organizations, responding in part to lobbying by the Israeli government, marginalized these critical voices.

I spoke with Levin about some of those embattled figures, the geopolitical dimensions of the contest for American Jewish public opinion in the 1950s, and why American Jewish elites were once uncomfortable with Jewish nationalism. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Emma Saltzberg: Your book chronicles a longstanding struggle over public opinion in the American Jewish world. What are the top-level conclusions you draw from this history?

Geoffrey Levin: The first big takeaway is that this history of American Jewish concern for Palestinian rights isn’t something that started yesterday, or even in the ’60s or ’70s. It goes back to 1948. As long as there has been a Palestinian refugee issue, there has been American Jewish concern for Palestinians, especially coming from Jews who spent a lot of time in the region and were deeply exposed to Israel and to the Palestinians. The second is that this American Jewish engagement with Palestinian rights was frequently influenced by state actors. Sometimes it was the Arab League [an organization of Arab states formed in 1945 to advance their shared interests], sometimes it was the CIA—but most often it was the Israeli government. I uncover this long record of Israeli diplomats trying to manage American Jewish discourse. And the last key point is that American Jewish groups were having nuanced and complicated debates in this period, as early as the ’30s, about the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. A lot of the groups that are arguing today that there’s a strong overlap between those two things, like the AJC and the Reform movement, didn’t hold that position 70 years ago.

ES: When Israeli state actors were trying to influence the American Jewish conversation, what did that look like? What kind of activism were they targeting?

GL: One of the main figures in the book is Don Peretz, a pacifist-leaning American Jew who volunteered to help displaced Palestinian Arabs in Israel in 1949, wrote the first dissertation on Palestinian refugees, and later became a major scholar on the subject. In 1956, the AJC hired Peretz to be their first Middle East consultant, and he wrote pamphlets for them about Arab refugees that did not rule out return as part of a possible solution. Later that year, Israeli diplomats pushed the AJC to fire him. The AJC compromised by allowing Peretz’s writings for them to be looked over—or censored—by the Israelis. Eventually, the AJC did push Peretz out. Israeli diplomats also successfully lobbied the London-based Jewish Chronicle, as well as several mainstream American Jewish publications, to disaffiliate with their longtime writer William Zukerman because he repeatedly wrote about the Palestinian refugee problem and was upset about refugees not being able to return.

A lot of these figures they went after, including Zukerman and Peretz, were not radical anti-Zionists. But Israeli diplomats were actually more concerned about these people who were operating within the American Jewish mainstream, because during its early years Israel relied heavily on American Jewish financial and political support. And they were afraid that the American government might pressure Israel to accept a limited refugee return, which they opposed because they wanted to maintain a larger Jewish demographic majority and to avoid having to return land to its previous Arab owners. So they didn’t want the American Jewish community wavering on its opposition to that. As far as Israel was concerned, it was best if American Jews just didn’t talk about Palestinian refugees at all—unless they were repeating Israeli talking points.

ES: What about the CIA and Arab state actors? How were they trying to influence American discourse on Israel/Palestine?

GL: Surprisingly, one of the main reasons American Jews were thinking about Palestinian refugees in the mid-1950s is because this CIA-funded anti-Zionist organization called the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME) was raising awareness about the Palestinian cause. This was part of the Eisenhower administration’s effort to create more political space to push Israel to make concessions to Egypt to help them court Arab nationalist Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser as an anti-Communist ally. In the US, AFME ran propaganda campaigns against Zionism. Many of its members were white American Protestants, though AFME also sponsored the creation of the Organization of Arab Students. So the first national American Arab student organization was funded with CIA money, though the students didn’t know that; they were just advocating for their cause.

There were also Arab state actors who were advocating for Palestinians in the US; I focus on the work of Fayez Sayegh, who was running the Arab League office in the US for a short period in the mid-1950s. At that moment, there was a hope amongst some in the American foreign policy establishment and some more conservative Arabs—often Christian like Sayegh—that America and the Arabs would align to counter Soviet influence in the Middle East. But by the ’60s, and especially by the ’70s, that dream was falling apart as Cold War alliances solidified. And so you had Arab states and the Palestinians moving in an anti-US direction, turning toward Third World alliances and alignment with global anti-colonial struggles. In fact, In the early ’70s, that Arab student group that was first funded by the CIA ended up being monitored by the FBI.

ES: How did American Jewish groups respond to the pro-Palestine advocacy of the 1950s?

GL: The AJC and other mainstream American Jewish organizations felt like they couldn’t simply avoid talking about Palestinian rights, because it was out there already, thanks to the Arab states and these American Christians. The Jewish groups branded themselves as human rights organizations, and they were concerned that they were going to be accused of not being serious about protecting minority rights and civil rights, because the pro-Arab groups were saying, “How can you not talk about the fact that in October 1956, Israeli border guards in Kafr Qasim killed 49 of the state’s own Arab citizens?” They also feared that news of such events would end up aiding white, right-wing antisemites. For example, far-right publications that embraced traditional antisemitic conspiracy theories sometimes circulated reports of Israeli violence against Arab civilians to make their broader case against Jews.

ES: That sounds similar to concerns we hear from some American Jews now, that anti-Zionist activism will fuel antisemitism. How legitimate were those concerns in the 1950s?

GL: Sayegh, at the Arab League, was trying as hard as he could to disassociate with antisemites and avoid anything that sounded antisemitic. But some of the other diplomats who were representing Arab states said or did things that were pretty undeniably antisemitic—for example, in 1956, an Egyptian diplomat, Abdul Hassan, spoke at a meeting of the National Renaissance Party, a neo-Nazi organization. A lot of times, Jewish organizations used the fact that some Arabs were doing that to denounce the entire pro-Arab cause.

ES: Your book shows how Sayegh tried to work proactively with the AJC to develop criteria for expressing anti-Zionist critiques without being antisemitic. And the AJC ultimately gave up on that project—it’s really sad.

GL: The AJC had their experts on antisemitism looking at all of Sayegh’s work, and they weren’t seeing anything antisemitic. But a question they were grappling with was, essentially, “Even if it’s not antisemitic, is it bad for the Jews?” There was a sentiment that even if this person wasn’t saying anything actually antisemitic, it was going to create a negative perception of Jews; Earl Raab, director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, called what Sayegh was doing “antisemitism by detour.” And what was a Palestinian supposed to do with that, if they were revealing things that didn’t make Israel look good, and that in turn made some Americans have negative views of the Jewish state or Israel’s supporters, or—the Jewish groups feared—of Jews as a whole? When one side is focused on protecting the image of Jews, and the other is trying to make Americans aware of how hard the Palestinians have had it, and how this is a problem that needs to be addressed politically, how could they ever come to an agreement?

ES: At that time, even as it was ultimately reluctant to focus on Palestinian rights, the AJC still defined itself as non-Zionist. What did it mean for Jewish organizations to reject Zionism during the period you’re looking at? How does that differ from the use of the terms non-Zionist and anti-Zionist today?

GL: Today, you’ll often hear that to be a Zionist just means to be pro-Israel, to support the Jewish state. That’s not what it meant 80 years ago. At that time, if you were a Zionist, that meant something more substantive: that you believed the Jewish people constitute a nation. For some, like Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, being a real Zionist meant that you should move to Israel.

The AJC, which is a very pro-Israel organization today, drew from the late 19th-century Reform Jewish tradition, which understood Jewishness as a primarily religious identity. In its 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the Reform Committee said Judaism is no longer a nation; it’s a religion, and America is our national homeland. People who were non-Zionist, including leaders of the AJC, were often Reform and originally Central European. They felt like their nationality and their loyalties lay with the United States, and Zionism might get in the way of that—and they also thought that other Americans might accuse them of being disloyal for being Zionists. They were not from the Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking milieu of later immigrants who felt a deeper sense of Jewish peoplehood. The people at the center of my story are these more assimilated elites. That’s not something that probably resonates for most American Jewish leftist activists today, many of whom seek to create a distinctive American Jewish left culture drawing on the diasporist Yiddish working-class tradition. But Eastern Europe is where Zionism really grew and became popular. So there were many Yiddish speaking anti-Zionists, but there were also lots of Yiddish-speaking people for whom Zionism resonated.

The elites, meanwhile, disassociated from Jewish nationalism and were really hesitant to get involved with a lot of pro-Zionist efforts throughout the ’40s. Yet then Israel was created, and coming out of the Holocaust, they wanted to support it. Still, the AJC continued to consider themselves non-Zionist, and a lot of other organizations like the Anti-Defamation League didn’t call themselves either Zionist or anti-Zionist—that you needed to call yourself Zionist was not an assumption back then. The AJC’s letterhead often officially said they were non-Zionist until 1967, when the Six-Day War catalyzed a new wave of American Zionist passion, and that identification just disappeared without being announced.

Overall, 1948 was just so disorienting for American Jewish political figures. Suddenly there’s this state, which has this power over other people. Yet these organizations had really framed themselves as minority rights groups, and they were formed in an American setting when it was better to be a religious—rather than national—group, because of the First Amendment’s religious protections and because of American concerns about split loyalty. It wasn’t until later, in the ’60s, that it suddenly became okay to be a “hyphen”—to have more than one identity. The Black Power movement and then what’s been termed the “white ethnic revival” popularized this idea that it’s great to have more than one identity and natural to be proud of where your grandparents came from. And so, in the late ’60s and ’70s, you have groups that were organizing around ethnic identity, and Zionist organizing fit into that framework.

ES: You also write about some Jewish figures whose anti-nationalist position led them to maintain their opposition to Israel’s creation even after 1948.

GL: A more extreme version of the AJC’s position emerged through the American Council for Judaism, which was an anti-Zionist group originally formed by Reform Jewish thinkers. Before and after ’48, they were against the creation of a Jewish state, but they were not focused on the Palestinian question initially. They opposed Israel because of their anti-nationalism, thinking the state would be bad for Jews. These anti-Zionists were focused on keeping Zionism and Israeli and Hebrew culture from dominating American Jewish life. They were concerned that doing so diverted American Jewish loyalties. Yet ultimately, some within the American Council for Judaism, mostly leaders like Rabbi Elmer Berger who had a lot of exposure to Palestinians themselves, did become strong advocates of Palestinian rights. And then they got kind of nudged out of the organization.

ES: You tell the story of Breira, an anti-occupation Zionist group founded in 1973 that tried to advocate for Palestinian rights in this context of increased Jewish nationalism. What happened to them?

GL: Breira was the first national American Jewish group arguing for what we now call the two-state solution. The leaders had gone to Israel and heard from Israeli leftists and had become convinced that Palestinians couldn’t be ignored forever. They framed themselves as nice Jewish boys and girls—people who wanted what’s best for Israel and for Jewish politics. And every chance they could, they highlighted Israeli voices. But they still ended up getting eviscerated as “Jews for Fatah”—Fatah being the leading PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] faction—after just a couple of members met with a few moderate members of the PLO. It was an early example of how no matter how much American Jews who want to recognize Palestinian rights try to burnish their Jewish and even Israeli credentials, people will push against that and question their Jewish identity. And that hurt people a lot. A lot of those figures in Breira could have contributed a lot more to the future of the American Jewish community, but they felt really burned.

ES: As you note in the book, some analysts today describe American Jews’ increased criticism of Israel and Zionism as a product of distancing from Israel. But, as the Breira story shows, this stance is often a product of very close engagement with Israel.

GL: I think this is crucial. Millennial and Gen Z Jews who are involved in the Jewish community are far more likely to have gone to Israel than people of older generations, because of all these newer subsidized programs, like Birthright. They are far more likely to have met Israeli shlichim [young adult “emissaries” from Israel] through camp or through campus Hillel, and far more likely to watch Israeli stuff on YouTube and enjoy Israeli cuisine. Younger Jews are far more likely to know Palestinians as well. In contrast, many in earlier generations may have had more positive views toward Israel, but less deep engagement with the actual place and the people living there, both Israelis and Palestinians.

In my book, those from the earlier generations who engaged with Palestinian rights did spend a lot of time over there. They knew Hebrew. When they were advocating for Palestinian rights, whether that meant self-determination, or civil rights for minorities in Israel, or a different approach toward Palestinian refugees, they often came to those conclusions from going there and talking to Israelis and talking to Palestinians.

ES: Why is it important to know this history, as we contemplate different American Jewish responses to Israel’s onslaught on Gaza today?

GL: The characters in this story are people that a lot of experts haven’t heard of before. By unearthing these stories, I show how seriously people were thinking through some of these same questions 70 years ago. I think that one of the most important chapters is this one where I am able to use the archives to put a Palestinian voice at the forefront. Fayez Sayegh was struggling to find a way that was acceptable in American public discourse to talk about Palestinian issues and Arab issues. I think it’s important to write these people back into history, because they were so eager to change the discourse.

These people all kind of failed; they were pushed out. The critical American Jews were fired. I think a lot of American Jews thought the problems would just go away. And I can’t tell you that we would have had peace if the dissenting voices had succeeded. But I do think if they had been successful in getting a more open discourse within the Jewish community 70 years ago, that we would probably be in a healthier place right now, both in terms of the American Jewish community and American discourse more broadly.

Emma Saltzberg is an organizer, strategist, and researcher who lives and attends many Jewish potlucks in Brooklyn. She is a co-founder of IfNotNow.