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Another Madoff Casualty?

Relevant Links
Suspended Animation  Gil Shefler, Jerusalem Post. The American Jewish Congress, which may have lost as much as 90 percent of its $24-million endowment, lacks a membership and/or a donor base.
What the AJCongress Did  Jerome Chanes, Forward. Rejecting the notion that a monied elite should have a monopoly on communal decision-making, AJCongress leaders favored democratic governance and public advocacy.
Let the Record Reflect  American Jewish Historical Society. A detailed, itemized listing of American Jewish Congress documents from the 1930s on, providing insight into its evolving concerns and activities. (PDF)

Shrunken and wizened, the American Jewish Congress lies on its evident death bed, debilitated by a loss of raison d'être as much as by Bernard Madoff's financial depredations. Under the circumstances, reflections on the spotty record of its approach to Jewish life, or on waste and duplication in the alphabet soup of the Jewish organizational world, may forgivably give way to a longer-term look at a once-proud agency's origins and purposes.  

The AJCongress was established in 1918, largely by "downtown" East European Jews out to challenge "uptown" German Reform Jews and their flagship agency, the American Jewish Committee, founded twelve years earlier. The downtowners, no underachievers themselves, were irked by the AJCommittee's elitism and its antipathy toward Zionism. The idea for a more representative umbrella group, which began to germinate as early as 1915, gained momentum in response to the AJCommittee's unenthusiastic reaction to the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

After World War I, the new "congress" lobbied the Versailles conference on behalf of Europe's remaining Jewish communities. While some uptowners, led by Adolph Ochs of the New York Times, were urging President Woodrow Wilson not to support the Balfour Declaration, the downtowners pressured from the opposite direction.

The congress was supposed to disband after Versailles, but in 1928 an ad-hoc coalition of Orthodox, Zionist, and fraternal groups reassembled under Stephen Wise and ultimately reconstituted themselves as an independent membership organization. Unlike the AJCommittee, which worked behind the scenes, the new AJCongress engaged in direct action. In the 1930s it organized boycotts of goods from Nazi Germany. In 1942, convinced that reports of Hitler's genocide were true, it held a mass rally at New York's Madison Square Garden—although Wise also acquiesced in FDR's ruling that the rescue of European Jewry would have to wait until the fighting ended.

In the postwar era, the AJCongress co-founded the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and established a niche for itself with its 1960s campaign against the Arab economic boycott of Israel. But its main passions centered on domestic American affairs, where, faithful to the left-liberal agenda, it positioned itself as the Jewish community's progressive lawyer: challenging restrictive clubs, litigating for the rigid separation of church and state, backing special legal dispensations for American blacks, and opposing the Vietnam war.

In the late 60s and 70s the AJCongress came under sharp criticism for its conspicuous failure to speak out against roiling black anti-Semitism and for its opposition to Jewish parochial schools. In response, AJCongress leaders claimed that some Jews preferred day-school education for their children "not because they loved God but because they were afraid of the Negro." In time they would re-think such reckless aspersions, somewhat modifying the agency's position in the process.  

By now, in any case, much of the Jewish communal agenda had become dominated by Israel. Like other liberal establishment figures, AJCongress leaders were aghast and befuddled at the 1977 election of Menachem Begin as Israel's prime minister. Arthur Hertzberg, the group's president, sought to sever support for the Jewish state from support of its government, especially when it came to settlements in the Israel-administered territories. Joachim Prinz, a former president and staunch Begin foe, prophesied that the community's obsession with Israel would damage its own spiritual well-being. Henry Siegman, the agency's executive director during the crucial period 1978–1994, went on to become one of Israel's harshest critics.

Always junior to the Anti-Defamation League and AJCommittee, the AJCongress survived on communal money, its own fundraising, and the "memberships" of tourists visiting Israel through its travel service. In its heyday, it boasted 300 chapters and published a fortnightly newsletter and the quarterly Judaism. But by the 1990s the agency was moribund. Both its leaders and its base had moved on, as new organizations on either end of the political spectrum—and, in the liberal center, its old nemesis the AJCommittee—were rendering it redundant or irrelevant.

All the more reason, then, to recall the once-revolutionary contributions made by this organization in behalf of Zionism, a more representative Jewish leadership, and the willingness forthrightly to pursue Jewish interests in the public square.

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Shelomo Alfassa on July 21, 2010 at 8:09 am (Reply)
It's easy to blame Madoff. Isn't it. It's an opaque argument. Sometimes, when you have an organization based on a Jewish base, which is secular and unaffiliated - they just don't have much interest and they just don't donate money. Assimilation is to blame more than Madoff, in my book. Sad, either way.
Norman Cone on July 21, 2010 at 8:17 am (Reply)
Henry Siegman and his increasingly loud hate campaign
against Israel, led to the unavoidable irrelevancy
and the end of AJC. It's probably the only positive
result of Bernie Madoff's pillaging and depredation.
Ira Stoll on July 21, 2010 at 8:49 am (Reply)
This is actually a shame. The American Jewish Congress was actually doing useful work on a whole variety of issues in the mid-1990s through today -- Marc Stern's work on church-state law wasn't just on separation but also on things like free exercise, making sure Jewish prison inmates could get kosher food and that zoning laws were not used to discriminate against home-based minyans. And they had a whole women's division that was working on legislation making sure that women with the Jewish breast cancer gene weren't discriminated against by health insurers. And David Twersky (who died Friday) was doing some interesting foreign policy work building relations with Pakistan and defending Israel's actions in Lebanon.

They certainly aren't the only Jewish organization with a waning membership (see, for example, virtually the entire Conservative movement) and they probably could have survived for quite a while longer in part on the basis of the $18,750,000 in cash they received from the sale in 2005 of their 27,000 square foot, six-story, 49-foot-wide, two-elevator townhouse at 15 E. 84th St.
Jonathan Margolin on July 21, 2010 at 1:09 pm (Reply)
Thanks for the informative article, Mr. Jager. I would like to correct what I believe to be one inaccuracy: Although Rabbi Stephen Wise may have been overly deferential to FDR, the record is clear that he did not, as you put it, acquiesce to "FDR's ruling that the rescue of European Jewry would have to wait until the fighting ended." He was a leader of the Jewish organizational effort to organize some sort of rescue, however enfeebled that effort may have been. Source: "The Abandonment of the Jews," David S. Wyman's masterful history of the American response to the Holocaust.
Arthur Lesley on July 22, 2010 at 1:13 am (Reply)
Elliot Jager's self-contradictory celebration of the disappearance of the American Jewish Congress claims that it duplicated what other organizations (AJ Committee and ADL)do, but blames it for reminding us of the limitations of mere nationalism and for differing from the lock-step nationalism of Likud and Dershowitz. The AJC did not "hate Israel," it urged Israel to take moral responsibility, maybe something beyond the sympathies of big American Jewish donors these days.

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