AMERICAN JEWISH CONGRESS (AJCongress)

AMERICAN JEWISH CONGRESS (AJCongress), one of the central agencies in American Jewish community relations. The origins of the American Jewish Congress, founded in 1918, provide an important lesson in the dynamics of American Jewry. The AJCongress was established by a group that felt dissatisfaction with the american jewish committee . This group, largely of East European origin, felt that the "aristocratic" German-Jewish leadership of the Committee was a self-appointed, self-perpetuating body with no mandate from American Jewry, and that the AJC was paternalistic in its dealings with East Europeans. The debate, largely between East European and German Jews and between Zionists and anti-Zionists, was primarily over the establishment of a congress   that would represent American Jewish interests at the peace conference following World War I. The result was an ad hoc "congress" that would act as an "umbrella" for Jewish groups and represent Jewish interests. Institutionally, the American Jewish Congress was an outgrowth of the first American Jewish Congress, which assembled in Philadelphia in December 1918. A written agreement entered into by a number of organizations stipulated that the Congress was to dissolve as soon as it fulfilled its task of formulating a postwar program of the Jewish people, named a delegation to the Peace Conference in Versailles, and received its report. This agreement was implemented at the second and last session of the Congress in Philadelphia in 1920. However, some delegates from religious, Zionist, and fraternal organizations, and from Landsmannschaften, reassembled the next day under the chairmanship of stephen s. wise and laid the foundation for the present American Jewish Congress, which was fully organized in 1928. The initial constituency of the American Jewish Congress was mainly Zionist, other voices coming into the body following the 1928 reorganization. In sum, while the American Jewish Committee and other organizations wanted the Congress to go out of business – and indeed it did formally dissolve itself in 1920 – the pressure for a permanent representative organization resulted in the formation of the present Congress, which came into being in 1922, originally as a council of agencies. (The AJ Congress evolved into a membership organization in the 1930s.) The American Jewish Congress began with two goals, which together molded the agency's subsequent ideology: providing humanitarian relief for European Jews in the aftermath of World War I and restoring a political Jewish presence in Palestine. The American Jewish Congress is the only community-relations agency that has been pro-Zionist throughout its history, and, on a number of issues (for example, a boycott of German goods in the 1930s), was arguably more representative of the views of the grassroots of American Jewry than the other "defense" and community-relations agencies. The early AJCongress leaders, louis brandeis and stephen s. wise , believed that only a democratic structure would make possible maximum participation in Jewish affairs by Jews, and not just by German Jews. Moreover, they fervently rejected the belief that Jews should not organize along ethnocentric lines, that Jews ought not restrict their lobbying efforts to "behind the scenes," and that Jews ought not engage in vigorous advocacy. The American Jewish Congress's view of pluralism was different from that of the American Jewish Committee or the anti-defamation league : the AJCongress articulated the view that group and not individual interests needed to be advocated through appropriate organizational channels, and not merely through a few well-connected individuals. Stephen S. Wise especially offered a vision of American Jewry as both religious and ethnic, and, as a people possessing a distinct cultural history, needing openly to advocate its interests. The AJCongress set goals related to American Jewish affairs, as well as to Palestine and the world Jewish scene. In the 1930s the AJCongress emerged as a leading force in the anti-Nazi movement and in efforts to aid the victims of Hitlerism. It sought to arouse American public opinion and to combat antisemitic manifestations in America. With the jewish labor committee , the AJCongress organized the Joint Boycott Council directed against German goods and services. The AJCongress was a founder of the short-lived General Jewish Council and of the National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC, later National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, NJCRAC; now jewish council for public affairs , JCPA). In the mid-1930s the AJCongress led in the formation of the world jewish congress , and shortly thereafter changed itself from a body representing organized groups into one based on individual membership. National Jewish organizations found that group affiliation alongside individual membership was untenable, and withdrew in order to form the American Section of the World Jewish Congress, of which the American Jewish Congress is also an affiliate. The American Jewish Congress pioneered the use of law and social action as tools in combating prejudice and discrimination. This strategy – opposed by other Jewish communal groups, especially the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, which believed in quiet diplomacy and social relations – led to the creation in the 1930s of a number of "commissions" within the agency to examine the utility of litigative action to secure constitutional protection of equal rights. While the image of the AJCongress was one of a creative and aggressive advocate for Jewish interests, there was little substantive difference between the AJCongress and the ADL and AJC until after World War II. In 1945 the AJCongress embarked on a program based on proposals submitted by Alexander H. Pekelis, in which the character of the agency was matured. Proceeding from the premise that the well-being of Jews depended on a liberal political and social climate, the AJCongress became increasingly involved in the promotion of social legislation and in activities designed to strengthen American democracy, eliminate racial and religious bigotry, and advance civil liberties. The AJCongress created its Commission on Law and Social Action (CLSA, a merger of two commissions, on discrimination and law and legislation) to implement this premise. The CLSA was created for the purpose of engaging the direct-action strategies that would encompass legislative and judicial measures to redress constitutional grievances of American Jews. The CLSA began implementing a vision of advocacy that had been fermenting within the AJCongress for some years. The underpinnings of CLSA advocacy were that the AJCongress ought not limit its work to attacking governmental infringements on the rights of Jews, but should fight discriminatory practices by large, private organizations, such as universities and corporations, and in doing so enter into coalition with like-minded groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU. Moreover, the direct-action method – law and litigation – would concentrate on fighting legal discrimination, and not prejudicial   attitudes. This approach was a major departure from the strategic stances of the ADL and the AJC, both of which were committed to education programs and goodwill campaigns to educate Americans about Jewish interests, and to "quiet diplomacy" to redress grievances. Indeed, the creation of the CLSA created shock waves that reverberated throughout these American Jewish organizations. Contributing to the widening gap between the AJCongress's commitment to legal reform and the ADL's and AJC's preference for the "social-relations" model was the towering figure of leo pfeffer , for many years the director of CLSA. Pfeffer's uncontested emergence as the Jewish community's chief strategist on church-state matters was accompanied by his exercise of almost complete authority over the Jewish community's litigation agenda. CLSA activity over the years has led to the AJCongress having viewed itself as being the "lawyer" for the American Jewish community; indeed, it took a pioneering stance and leading role in Jewish community involvement in landmark Supreme Court cases on First Amendment (especially church-state separation) and civil rights issues. Major advocates such as Alexander Pekelis, David Petegorsky, and Will Maslow, and above all Leo Pfeffer, put their stamp on the AJCongress's agenda, and, beyond the agency, on American Jewish communal activities in the First Amendment and civil rights arenas. In Zionist affairs the Congress has adopted a pro-Israel position, and indeed is the only American Jewish group (aside from Zionist organizations) to be pro-Zionist from its beginnings. It has organized annual "dialogues" in Israel with the participation of U.S. and Israeli intellectuals and has sponsored regular tours of its members to Israel. Nuanced changes with respect to Israel emerged under the professional leadership of Henry Siegman in the 1980s and 1990s, and the AJCongress veered sharply to the "left" on Israel-related issues, departing in some cases radically with consensus positions of the Jewish community on issues such as settlements and the peace process. Viewed as being relatively "liberal" on most social justice issues and on Israel-Palestinian matters, the AJCongress in the 21st century is re-examining a number of its stances, including its strong "separationist" position in church-state affairs. The AJCongress is a membership organization with approximately 40,000 members; in 2005 it operated out of 15 chapters, with offices in Jerusalem and Paris, and a presence in Moscow and Brussels. Its 2005 budget was $6.5 million, raised from membership dues, independent campaigns, allocations from Jewish federations, and other sources. The small budget – relative to its sister defense agencies, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee – is deceptive. While many predicted the demise of the AJCongress during the 1990s – particularly after merger talks with the ajc broke down – and while it is clearly in the "second tier" of defense agencies, the AJCongress in the first decade of the 21st century is hardly moribund. The core of its operation, CLSA, is active, and the AJCongress has added an Office of Jewish Life. The AJCongress holds national conventions annually, and is administered by a Governing Council. The publications Congress Monthly and the scholarly Judaism, which for many years was one of the premier intellectual journals in American Jewish life, are produced under American Jewish Congress auspices. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: American Jewish Congress, Reports… to the National Convention (1949–51); idem, Confidential Congress Reports (1943–44); American Jewish Congress, What It Is and What It Does (1936); Fortnightly Newsletter (1959–61). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Ivers, To Build a Wall: American Jews and the Separation of Church and State (1995); S. Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (1997); J.A. Chanes, "The Voices of the American Jewish Community," in: Survey of Jewish Affairs 1991 (1991); M. Fommer, "The American Jewish Congress: A History," Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University (1978). (Jerome Chanes (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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