One day nearly 20 years ago, Stephen Naman was preparing to help the rabbi of his Reform Jewish temple in South Carolina move the congregation into a new building. Mr. Naman had just one request: Could the rabbi stop placing the flag of Israel on the altar?
“We don’t go to synagogue to pray to a flag,” Mr. Naman, 63, recalled having said in a recent telephone interview.
That rabbi acceded to the request. So, after being transferred to North Carolina and joining a temple there six or seven years later, Mr. Naman asked its rabbi to remove the Israeli flag. This time, the reaction was more predictable.
“The rabbi said that would be terrible,” recounted Mr. Naman, a retired paper company executive who now lives outside Jacksonville, Fla., “and that he’d be embarrassed to be rabbi of such a congregation.”
As shocking as Mr. Naman’s insistence on taking Israel out of Judaism may seem, it actually adheres to a consistent strain within Jewish debate. Whether one calls it anti-Zionism or non-Zionism — and all these terms are contested and loaded — the effort to separate the Jewish state from Jewish identity has centuries-old roots.
For the past 68 years, that stance has been the official platform of the group Mr. Naman serves as president of, the American Council for Judaism. And while the establishment of Israel and its centrality to American Jews consigned the council to irrelevancy for decades, the intense criticism of Israel now growing among a number of American Jews has made Mr. Naman’s group look significant, or even prophetic.
It is not that members are flocking to the council. The group’s mailing list is only in the low thousands, and its Web site received a modest 10,000 unique visitors in the last year. Its budget is a mere $55,000. As Mr. Naman acknowledges, the council’s history of opposition to Zionism renders it “radioactive” for even liberal American Jewish groups, like J Street and Peace Now.
Yet the arguments that the council has consistently levied against Zionism and Israel have shot back into prominence over the last decade, with the collapse of the Oslo peace process, Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza, and most recently the fatal attack on a flotilla seeking to breach the naval blockade of the Hamas regime. One need not agree with any of the council’s positions to admit that, for a certain faction of American Jews, they have come back into style.
“My sense is that they believe that events are proving they were right all along,” Jonathan D. Sarna, a historian at Brandeis University and author of the seminal book “American Judaism,” said in a telephone interview. “Everything they prophesied — dual loyalty, nationalism being evil — has come to pass.”
“I would be surprised if vast numbers of people moved over to the A.C.J. as an organization because of its reputation,” he continued. “But it’s certainly the case that if the Holocaust underscored the problems of Jewish life in the diaspora, recent years have highlighted the point that Zionism is no panacea.”
Mr. Naman grew up in a Texas family deeply involved in the council, and as a result he has lived through the swings of the political pendulum.
“We were ostracized and maligned,” he said. “But we felt back then, and we feel now, that our positions are credible. They’ve been justified and substantiated by what has occurred.”
On that matter, to put it mildly, there is disagreement. If American Zionists who oppose the West Bank occupation face withering criticism from the conservative part of American Jewry, which has tended to dominate the major communal and lobbying groups, then the unapologetic foes of Zionism in the council are met with apoplexy and indignation.
The rejection of Zion, though, goes back to the Torah itself, with its accounts of the Hebrews’ rebelling against Moses on the journey toward the Promised Land and pleading to return to Egypt. Until Theodore Herzl created the modern Zionist movement early in the 20th century, the biblical injunction to return to Israel was widely understood as a theological construct rather than a pragmatic instruction.
Most Orthodox Jewish leaders before the Holocaust rejected Zionism, saying the exile was a divine punishment and Israel could be restored only in the messianic age. The Reform movement maintained that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality.
“This country is our Palestine,” a Reform rabbi in Charleston, S.C., put it in 1841, “this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.” The Reform movement’s 1885 platform dismissed a “return to Palestine” as a relic akin to animal sacrifice.
Only when the Reform leadership, on the eve of World War II, reversed course did its anti-Zionist faction break away, ultimately forming the council in 1942. Its discourse was simultaneously idealistic and contemptuous — a proposed curriculum in 1952 described Zionism as racist, self-segregated and non-American — and for a time it boasted leaders like Lessing J. Rosenwald, heir to the Sears fortune, and a membership of 14,000.
If the 1967 and 1973 wars shoved the council toward obsolescence, then Israel’s controversial wars since 2000 have brought it back from the grave. One hears echoes of its positions in Tony Judt, the historian who has called for a binational state in Palestine; in Tony Kushner, whose screenplay for the film “Munich” portrayed an Israeli’s true home as America; in Michael Chabon, whose novel “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” parodied Zionism; and in the emerging disengagement from Israel on the part of young, non-Orthodox Jews, as Peter Beinart noted recently in an essay in The New York Review of Books.
What is numerically true, thus not open to debate, is that only a tiny proportion of American Jews have ever rejected exile here to emigrate to Israel.
“I think we represent a silent majority,” said Allan C. Brownfeld, a longtime member of the council and editor of its magazines, Issues and Special Interest Report. “We are Americans by nationality and Jews by religion. And while we wish Israel well, we don’t view it as our homeland.”