The demise of the American Jewish Congress should be greeted with sadness and regret (and anger, directed at Bernard Madoff, for helping to bring this about).
The AJCongress, for many years one of the community’s premier “defense” organizations, accomplished a great deal. Its implosion should prompt us to reflect on its many achievements.
Jerome Chanes, longtime national affairs director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the predecessor to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, recently suggested, in a widely circulated opinion piece, that “The AJCongress taught the American Jewish community how to say what it wanted to say and how to do what it needed to do.”
At a time when Zionism was not a popular cause, the organization supported the rebirth of the State of Israel. When Jewish organizations were still trying not to “make waves,” the AJCongress raised its voice, no longer content to operate behind the scenes.
In the 1930s, for example, the group championed a public boycott of Germany, something then strongly opposed by the American Jewish Committee – which, ironically, may now absorb the remnants of the AJCongress.
Launched in 1918 by Jewish activists seeking a democratically run membership organization, the AJCongress – reconstituted in 1922 under the leadership of Rabbi Stephen Wise – boasted such illustrious leaders as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
Perhaps most important, the group mastered the use of legislative and legal channels to accomplish its goals.
Said Chanes, “This direct-action method – using the law and litigation, often in coalition with like-minded groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU – concentrated on actively fighting discrimination, not simply on reforming prejudicial attitudes.” Indeed, said Chanes, “The AJCongress came to be seen as the American Jewish community’s ‘lawyer,'” playing leading roles in civil rights and First Amendment cases heard before the Supreme Court.
If the group was idiosyncratic, it nevertheless had a tremendous influence on other Jewish organizations, which ultimately followed its lead.
Chanes noted that “[t]he 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 AJCongress was more than just another Jewish agency. It served us well and deserves our thanks.