Monday, March 20, 2006

AMERICAN JEWISH COMMITTEE at 100

Where there are two Jews, there are three different opinions. And where there are 5.3 million American Jews, there are countless organizations claiming to represent, defend and articulate Jewish interests. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations alone boasts 52 member groups.

That is both too many and too few. Too many organizations have lost their raison d’être. They duplicate the work of others and survive on “life support” provided by self-interested benefactors. At the same time, too few organizations, evidently, are meeting the needs of those American Jews who feel estranged from the community.

One organization whose value is worth highlighting is the American Jewish Committee, which marks its 100th anniversary this month. Its leadership is now in Israel to celebrate the occasion.

Sixty leading “uptown” Jews, mostly of German origin, established the New York-based AJC in the wake of a series of state-sponsored anti-Jewish riots in Czarist Russia, in particular the Kishinev pogroms of 1903 and 1905.

That well-connected communal leaders would intercede with the authorities as shtadlanim (court Jews) was not a new idea. But by constituting themselves as a committee, they gave an organizational framework to earlier ad-hoc efforts.

The group was elitist. Its founders included tycoon Jacob Schiff; Oscar Straus, the first Jew to hold a cabinet post; and philanthropist Cyrus L. Sulzberger.

The organization’s driving force was attorney Louis Marshall, president of Temple Emmanuel, the flagship of the Reform movement.

Under Marshall’s leadership the AJC sought to use Russia’s desire for trade with the US as leverage in trying to win better treatment for Russian Jews. The committee also worked indefatigably against immigration quotas that kept the Jews of Europe from reaching Ellis Island.

In a sense, the creation of the committee was also intended to discourage “downtown” Eastern European activists from galvanizing the immigrant masses. The AJC approach, then and now, is that complex issues require more than “simplistic solutions, sloganeering and ‘shoot from the hip’ rhetoric.”

Prior to 1948 the AJC was the leading non-Zionist (often anti-Zionist) group on the US scene. Its leaders viewed Judaism as a religious or cultural movement and opposed the idea of “Diaspora nationalism.” If Jews pursued peoplehood, what would become of their status in a pluralistic United States? And yet the committee endorsed the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

In 1942, however, the AJC opposed the Biltmore Program, which broke with Zionist gradualism by demanding a sovereign Jewish commonwealth in all of Palestine.

Only after the Holocaust did the committee, hesitatingly, support the creation of Israel.

From the vantage point of 2006, the group’s failure to embrace the Zionist cause seems tragically misguided. Still, it is worth bearing in mind that American Jewry in the first half of the 20th century was a fearful and insecure body politic – and for many good reasons.

Only after the 1967 Six Day War, when support for Israel became a defining characteristic of US Jewish identity, did the AJC put Israel at the top of its agenda. Once it had adapted, it quickly became the first group to establish offices in Israel.

Today it is among the most significant mainstream organizational champions of Israel. For instance, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s efforts to have strict limits imposed on US aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority has strong AJC backing.

The AJC, its leaders say, strives to balance private diplomacy with public advocacy. It believes that the best defense against anti-Semitism is strengthening pluralism and democracy worldwide. The quintessential establishment organization, it argues that Jewish interests can best be secured by framing them in a global context that resonates with non-Jews.

The committee funds, among other institutions, the work of UN Watch. It also operates effectively behind the scenes: It was the AJC that helped make it possible for Prof. Deborah Lipstadt to successfully pursue her legal case in London against Holocaust denier David Irving.

Amid the “alphabet soup” of Diaspora organizational life, the AJC remains on the short list of groups that matter. With 33 chapters, 150,000 members, eight international bureaus, and a presence in 17 other overseas locations, the AJC has what to celebrate on its centenary.

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