American Jewish Congress

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American Jewish Congress Inc.
Logo of the American Jewish Congress.png
Organisation logo
Founded 1918
1953
Registration no. 13-1679610 (EIN)
Purpose "Jewish Americans organized to defend Jewish interests at home and abroad through public policy advocacy - using diplomacy, legislation, and the courts."
Location
Key people Jack Rosen (President), Richard Gordon (Chairman), Herb London (Vice President), Bruce Blakeman (V.P.) , Ben Chouake (Secretary), Eli Verschleiser (Treasurer)
Website http://www.ajcongress.org/

The American Jewish Congress is as an association of Jewish Americans organized to defend Jewish interests at home and abroad through public policy advocacy, using diplomacy, legislation, and the courts.[1]

History[edit]

In 1918, leaders within the American Jewish community, consisting of Jewish, Zionist, and immigrant community organizations, convened the first American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) in Philadelphia's historic Independence Hall. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Felix Frankfurter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and others joined to lay the groundwork for a national democratic organization of Jewish leaders from all over the country, to rally for equal rights for all Americans regardless of race, religion or national ancestry.[2]

In addition to its stated goals of equal rights for all, it was founded to broaden Jewish leadership and to present a unified American Jewish position at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. It became effective as a pressure group in 1928 under the leadership of Rabbi Wise, who remained the president and chief spokesperson of the AJCongress until his death in 1949.

Through its emphasis on human rights for all Americans; on protection by government of the weakest among us; and on a just society based on civil law and the Jewish concept of Tzedek—righteousness—the American Jewish Congress has made its mark to a remarkable degree on American society in general and Jewish well-being in particular.

The 1930s[edit]

Throughout the 1930s, Rabbi Wise, was vocal in his warnings about the dangers of Nazism. When Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Wise organized a mass protest rally at Madison Square Garden, in New York City. He did this despite strong opposition by the German government, the U.S. State Department, and conservative Jewish organizations such as AJCommittee and B'nai B'rith. The American Jewish Congress continued to organize protest rallies throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In August 1933 the American Jewish Congress led a general boycott of German goods.[3]

In 1934, Daniel Marks was named head of the AJC. He traveled to Germany and brought 5,000 Jews to America.

In 1936 the American Jewish Congress was instrumental in establishing the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Maintaining his position as president of the AJCongress, Rabbi Wise was also elected president of the WJC. During World War II, the AJCongress acted as a liaison between the U.S. government and the WJC on issues relating to rescue attempts made on behalf of European Jews.

The 1940s[edit]

In August 1942, Rabbi Wise received a cable from Gerhard Riegner,[4] the WJC representative in Switzerland. Riegner reported that the Nazis had planned, and were implementing a policy to exterminate all of European Jewry; the cable also referred specifically to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. After the State Department confirmed the accuracy of the information in the cable, now known as the "Riegner telegram," the AJCongress convened a Joint Emergency Committee.[5] The committee sought to coordinate the major Jewish organizations in the United States to lobby the Roosevelt administration to take increased measures rescuing European Jews.

In December 1942 the American Jewish Congress established a Planning Committee, which sought support for a variety of rescue proposals. The committee was never more than marginally successful in mobilizing American public support for rescue efforts. The most impressive of these projects was another rally at Madison Square Garden. Held on March 1, 1943, the rally drew a crowd of 70,000. Similar rallies were subsequently held in a number of cities throughout the United States.

In August 1943 Rabbi Stephen Wise met Jan Karski.

The American Jewish Congress was pro-Zionist in its platform. Its leadership overlapped with that of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). As a result, the two organizations agreed to concentrate on different tasks during the war. The American Jewish Congress dedicated itself to rescuing European Jews, while the ZOA worked to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. This arrangement continued after the war, although its significance decreased after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

AJCongress was a pioneer in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, long before it became a popular movement.

Domestically, AJCongress became active as well. It was the first Jewish organization to use law and legislation to protect the rights of American Jews, at a time when other Jewish organizations were using appeals to good will to achieve this objective.

The 1960s[edit]

Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902–88) was president from 1958 to 1966. He served as a founding chairman of the 1963 March on Washington and spoke at that event.[6]

The 1980s and 1990s[edit]

Following its heyday during the 1960s, when many of its activities coincided with the larger American civil rights movement, a drop-off in its membership throughout the 1980s and 1990s ensued. It has since regrouped and is actively engaged in constitutional issues domestically and supporting Israel and challenging anti-Semitism abroad.

2010[edit]

The Congress suspended its activities and laid off much of its staff on July 13, 2010 because it had run out of operating funds due to losses in the Madoff scandal.[7][8]

2013[edit]

In 2013 the board restructured the organization and has been working on incorporating new missions that are relevant with the times.

The First Amendment[edit]

The American Jewish Congress has been involved in hundreds of civil rights and religious freedoms cases, before local, Federal and the United States Supreme Court. Brown v. Board of Education[9] gave AJCongress its public entrée into the field of Constitutional defense agencies.

The group advocates removing religious symbols from public life, and thus filed a brief against allowing public displays of the menorah during Hanukkah in County of Allegheny v. ACLU.

Charitable choice[edit]

AJCongress monitors issues like "charitable choice" proposals, in which federal funds would be given to faith-based institutions to provide social services historically the responsibility of government.

Women's issues[edit]

AJCongress was the first mainstream Jewish organization with a membership of both men and women to devote considerable time, effort and resources to women's issues. The establishment in 1984 of the Commission for Women's Equality (CWE)[10] was a direct result of these activities.

In recent years, CWE has turned its attention to the ethical, legal and medical issues arising from research revealing that Ashkenazi Jewish women have higher than average frequencies of gene mutations predisposing them to breast and ovarian cancer. The 1996 conference, Understanding the Genetics of Breast Cancer: Implications for Treatment, Policy and Advocacy, organized by national CWE, has been duplicated by AJCongress regions nationwide. In 2000, CWE presented Cancer Genetics in the Ashkenazi Community, to explore medical breakthroughs since the first conference as well as new developments in genetic testing. This follow-up conference was distinctly more upbeat than its predecessor, both in terms of medical preventive measures and in regard to legislation to ensure privacy and eliminate discrimination based on testing.

The CWE most recently held a major women's conference in Tel Aviv, Israel in May 2006, bringing notable women of achievement like Anne F. Lewis, Lynn Sherr, anchor for ABC's 20/20, Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam, Bettina Plevan, Partner at Proskauer Rose LLP and former head of the New York Bar Association and others to a weeklong discussion on women's accomplishment and success.[11][12] Carole E. Handler was the CWE's most recent Chair.

Interfaith[edit]

AJCongress has participated in interfaith dialogue with the U.S. Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Controversies[edit]

Israel Singer[edit]

In the fall of 2007, AJCongress announced that it had retained the services of Rabbi Israel Singer,[13] the former secretary general of the World Jewish Congress - who left the agency after claims of financial irregularities were levied following an investigation by the New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer[14] and followed up by accusations from then WJC President Edgar Bronfman[15] about alleged theft.

Ms. Magazine[edit]

On January 10, 2008, AJCongress released an official statement[16] critical of Ms. magazine's refusal to accept a full page advertisement[17] honoring three prominent Israeli women: Dorit Beinisch (president of the Supreme Court of Israel), Tzipi Livni (Foreign Affairs Minister of Israel), and Dalia Itzik (speaker of the Knesset). AJCongress press release states: "...'What other conclusion can we reach,' asked Richard Gordon, President of AJCongress, 'except that the publishers − and if the publishers are right, a significant number of Ms. Magazine readers − are so hostile to Israel that they do not even want to see an ad that says something positive about Israel?'...'Clearly Ms. has changed a great deal from the days when AJCongress members and leaders of the AJCongress' Commission for Women’s Equality − including Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Ms. co-founder Letty Pogrebin − were at the forefront of the Women's Movement that led to the creation of Ms. Magazine.'[16]

Katherine Spillar, executive editor of Ms. magazine responded to the AJCongress on Ms. magazine's website, denying an anti-Israel bias, stating that: "Ms. Magazine has been criticized for not running an ad submitted by the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) featuring the photographs of three prominent Israeli women leaders with the statement 'This is Israel.' She argued that the proposed advertisement was inconsistent with the magazine's policy to accept only 'mission-driven advertisements from primarily non-profit, non-partisan organizations', suggesting that the advertisement could have been perceived 'as favoring certain political parties within Israel over other parties, but also with its slogan “This is Israel,” the ad implied that women in Israel hold equal positions of power with men.'[11] Spillar stated that the magazine had 'covered the Israeli feminist movement and women leaders in Israel ... eleven times' in its last four years of issues.[12]

In its press release, AJCongress claims that Ms. therefore must be 'hostile to Israel'. This is untrue and unfair... Indeed Israeli writers have reported in the pages of Ms. on the continuing efforts of the Israeli feminist movement to combat discrimination and achieve a larger voice for women in the country’s political arena.' "[18] She also levelled her own criticism: "...In a feature length story in the Spring 2006 issue of Ms., Israeli feminist scholar/activist Alice Shalvi catalogued the ongoing struggles to rectify such inequalities, including increasing women’s representation in elected office and at the table negotiating for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Women only comprise 14% of the Israeli Knesset, placing Israel 74th in the world for women’s representation in government..."[18]

The New York, Jewish Week reported that a number of leading Jewish feminists were mostly disappointed with Ms.'s decision to reject the ad: "Ms. Magazine’s rejection of an ad celebrating three Israeli women leaders has prompted Jewish feminists here to charge that the magazine has adopted an anti-Israel posture. 'This is a feminism that has been utterly Palestinianized,' said Phyllis Chesler, one of five Jewish feminists who lashed out at the magazine this week. Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance founder Blu Greenberg told a press conference at the offices of the American Jewish Congress, whose ad Ms. Magazine rejected, that the leaders of the magazine 'have aligned themselves with those on the political far left whose agenda is to totally de-legitimate Israel on the stage of world opinion.'... Novelist Cynthia Ozick sent a letter to the AJCongress criticizing Ms. Magazine and saying it is 'now conspicuously exposed as having joined the anti-democratic anti-Israel totalitarian radical Left. A journal that once stood for free and open opportunity for all now shows itself to be among the haters: closed, narrow, insular, and above all cowardly.' And Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., issued a statement saying she was 'profoundly disheartened by this foolish decision' of the magazine."..."[19]

Location of materials for research on the American Jewish Congress[edit]

The Western Jewish History Center, of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, in Berkeley, California has a large collection of historical records and documents from the Northern California Division of AJCongress. Additionally, The American Jewish Historical Society has a large collection related to the American Jewish Congress. The American Jewish Historical Society has recently completed a National Endowment for the Humanities funded project to process a new accretion of organizational records and create a finding aid for the additional records, photographs, and audio-visual material related to the American Jewish Congress and its Executive Directors, Commissions, and Public Relations department.

References[edit]

  1. ^ AJCongress' Website
  2. ^ Time Magazine, June 20, 1938
  3. ^ American Jewish Historical Society
  4. ^ JVL Website
  5. ^ Joint Emergency Committee
  6. ^ Papers of Martin Luther King, pg 517
  7. ^ Berkman, Jacob (20 July 2010). "AJCongress shutters quickly, pays debts slowly". Jewish Telegraphic Agency (jta.org). Archived from the original on July 28, 2010. Retrieved July 28, 2010. 
  8. ^ "U.S. Jewish Group Eyes Merger With AJC After Losing Money in Madoff Scam". Fox News (FOXNews.com). 20 July 2010. Archived from the original on July 28, 2010. Retrieved July 28, 2010. 
  9. ^ Brown v. Board of Ed.
  10. ^ CWE Release
  11. ^ AJCongress Release
  12. ^ CWE Article PDF
  13. ^ JTA Wire, (by way of the Baltimore Jewish Times), AJC Taps Israel Singer, December 2, 2007
  14. ^ NY Times, Spitzer Looking Into World Jewish Congress, By STEPHANIE STROM, December 31, 2004
  15. ^ Ha’aretz, World Jewish Congress fires chairman Israel Singer in surprise move , By Amiram Barkat, March 15, 2007
  16. ^ a b American Jewish Congress (2008-01-10). "Ms. Magazine Blocks Ad on Israeli Women". Archived from the original on 13 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-18. 
  17. ^ American Jewish Congress (2008-01-10). "This is Israel. (PDF document)". Retrieved 2008-01-18. 
  18. ^ a b Katherine Spillar, Ms. magazine (2008-01-14). "Statement of Katherine Spillar, executive editor Ms. magazine concerning the AJCongress ad". Retrieved 2008-01-18. 
  19. ^ Stewart Ain, The Jewish Week (2008-01-16). "‘Feminist Moment Of Truth’ Ms. magazine’s refusal to print pro-Israel ad raises questions about the ‘Palestinianization’ of the women’s movement.". Archived from the original on 2008-01-20. Retrieved 2008-01-18. 

External links[edit]