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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