The Death of the American Jewish Congress

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise

The American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) closed its doors today — dead broke, thanks to Bernie Maddoff.   Ideologically bankrupt too.  That leaves only the American Jewish Committee (AJC) as the remaining group of self-appointed, self-perpetuating, wealthy aristocrats pretending to speak in the name of all Jews.

But it wasn’t always that way.  The American Jewish Congress needs to be remembered for what it originally was, because its original values need to be institutionalized yet again.

The American Jewish Congress was launched in 1918 by Jewish activists dissatisfied with the then-dominant American Jewish Committee.  The American Jewish Committee consisted of wealthy German-Jewish (i.e., Reform) leadership.  The American Jewish Committee was dismissive of the Eastern European Jews, who by then were the vast majority of the Jewish population.  The AJCongress activists claimed that the AJC did not speak for American Jewry.  In addition to the  religious rift, and the Eastern Europe vs. German cultural divide, the AJCongress was Zionist while the rich German AJC leaders were not.

The debate over who spoke for American Jews began with the question of who would represent American Jewish interests at the peace conference following World War I.   The resulting ad hoc “congress” was an umbrella for several Jewish groups.  This first “American Jewish Congress” assembled in Philadelphia in December 1918, was dissolved in 1920, was reconstituted in 1922 under the leadership of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, was fully organized in 1928, and evolved into a membership organization in the 1930s.

Justice Louis Brandeis

Justice Louis Brandeis

The AJCongress’s early leaders, led by Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and Rabbi Wise, believed that only a democratic structure would yield maximum participation in Jewish affairs by Jews of all stripes.

Where the AJC saw American Jews simply as “citizens of the Mosaic faith”, the AJCongress was both religious and ethnic.

Their methods also differed.  The AJCongress saw that Jewish interests needed to be promoted through an organization, not only through a few well-connected individuals.  They also rejected the view that Jews should avoid vigorous public advocacy and limit activities to behind-the-scenes lobbying so as not to “make waves.”

Unlike the AJC and the ADL, the AJCongress didn’t just try to reform prejudicial attitudes.  The AJCongress pioneered the use of direct legal action to improve conditions for American Jews.  Often acting in concert with the NAACP and the ACLU, the AJCongress actively fought discrimination.  The AJCongress came to be seen as the American Jewish community’s “lawyer.”   It played a leading role in landmark civil rights and First Amendment cases on church-state issues heard before the Supreme Court.

This approach was a major departure from the “social-relations” model of the ADL and the AJC, both of which emphasized education programs to promote goodwill toward Jews and tended to use quiet diplomacy to redress grievances.

The AJCongress strategies eventually became the standard for the other American Jewish communal agencies.

Another radical creation of the AJCongress was using democratic governance as a model of the Jewish community. Of course, the AJCongress that we have known recently was an elite, moneyed  group, just like many other national Jewish organizations.  The ideal of vigorous discussion and debate of issues within and among agencies is today but a dim memory to many in the Jewish communal arena.  But in its heyday, the AJCongress led the way in this.

On many occasions, the AJCongress was willing to stand on principle, and stand apart from the rest of the Jewish organizational world.   The AJCongress was alone among Jewish organizations in supporting Israel’s kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina. The AJCongress was the first major American Jewish group (in 1984) to support the idea of a Palestinian state. The AJCongress was a trailblazer in its unvarnished support of free speech, often staking out positions at odds with other Jewish groups.  The early AJCongress was Zionist at a time when anti-Zionism was the regnant ideology.  The AJCongress incurred the wrath of other Jewish groups concerned about Jewish advocacy being too visible.

Yet all the other groups eventually followed the AJCongress’s lead.  The demise of the American Jewish Congress should be an occasion for remembering the values that it helped introduce into Jewish communal life.

Rest in Peace.

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