Elmer Berger (May 27, 1908 – October 5, 1996) was a Jewish Reform rabbi widely known for his anti-Zionism. He was the executive director of the American Council for Judaism from its founding in 1943 until 1955. After this time, he served as a consultant until he was forced to resign in 1968, at which time he founded American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism.
Berger was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a Hungarian-born railroad engineer and a third generation German-American Jew born in Texas. As a boy his family attended the Euclid Avenue Temple where he was encouraged to study for the rabbinate by Rabbi Louis Wolsey. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Cincinnati, he was ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1932. He began his brief career in the ministry in Pontiac, Michigan before serving in Flint, Michigan from 1936 to 1942.
Berger married Seville Schwartz, the sister of a classmate at Hebrew Union College, in 1933. They divorced in 1946, and shortly thereafter he remarried to Ruth Winegarden, the daughter of a prominent furniture manufacturer who belonged to the Flint congregation. They were married until Ruth's death in 1979.
From the beginning, Elmer Berger was squarely in the camp of those Reform rabbis who opposed the Columbus Platform of 1937 which moderated the movement's original anti-Zionism and rejection of traditional ritual. It was Berger's mentor, Louis Wolsey, who would in June, 1942 issue a call to convene the American Council for Judaism, and who hired Berger as its first executive director. In the organization's struggle against the Zionist program adopted at the Biltmore Conference in May, 1942, Berger increasingly became the movement's public face, particularly with the publication of his book The Jewish Dilemma in 1945, which argued that Zionism was a surrender to the racial myths about the Jews and that assimilationism was still the best path for the Jews in the modern world.
Louis Wolsey resigned from the ACJ in 1945, but this did little to slow the activities of Berger and the ACJ, who felt that their chief purpose was to combat the influence of Zionism in the religious life of American Jews. He continued to write and lecture on behalf of the ACJ, becoming its Executive Vice President. In this position he became increasingly well known and widely despised by the Zionist camp in American Judaism, particularly after he toured the broader Middle East in 1955 and his views became increasingly identified by opponents with Arab and Palestinian causes.
After the Six Day War in 1967, an event which swept what had previously been an arguably ambivalent American Jewish community with a massive pro-Israel fervor, Berger was widely pilloried, including by other members of the American Council for Judaism, for declaring Israel to be the principal aggressor in the conflict. This ultimately led to Berger's resignation from the Council the following year, at which time he founded, with the support of some loyal friends, American Jews for Alternatives to Zionism, which was intended to serve only as his personal vehicle for writing and lecturing. This, he continued to do actively, although in a state of semi-retirement, splitting his time between New York and Sarasota, Florida.
Elmer Berger died in Sarasota of lung cancer at the age of 88. Among his direct legacies were his close involvement with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and his mentorship of the noted Middle East scholar Norton Mezvinsky.
Beginning in the fall of 1944, however, Wolsey began to experience a sense of alienation from the anti-Zionist movement. He felt that Berger and Wallach ran the ACJ in an "undemocratic fashion" and that they overemphasized ACJ's anti-Zionist aspects rather than its Reform principles. As a result, Wolsey resigned as vice-president in December 1945 and thereafter became totally inactive in the ACJ. In 1948, upon the creation of the State of Israel, Wolsey formally withdrew as a member of the American Council for Judaism. In a statement released to the press, he called for the dissolution of the Council and pleaded for an effort to heal all wounds in order to strengthen Israel by creating a united spiritual front of American Jews. Wolsey's recognition of the realities of the situation and his willingness to state his changed position in public won him much acclaim.