American Jewish Congress

American Jewish Congress

The American Jewish Congress describes itself 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 [ [ AJCongress' Website] ] .

Like the American Jewish Congress, another institution prominent in American Jewish life is the American Jewish Committee. It often goes by the initials AJC. For ease of identification, the two organizations are often referred to as the AJCongress or the AJCommittee.


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 [ [,9171,788721,00.html Time Magazine, June 20, 1938] ] .

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

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 [ [ American Jewish Historical Society] ] .

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

In August 1942, Rabbi Wise received a cable from Gerhard Riegner [ [ JVL Website] ] , 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 [ [ Joint Emergency Committee] ] . 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. Throughout the long battle to free Soviet Jews, AJCongress' voice was heard loud and clear on their behalf.

Domestically, AJCongress became active as well. It was the first Jewish organization to use law and legislation — the tools of democracy — 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

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. [ [ "Papers of Martin Luther King", pg 517] ]

The 1980s and 1990s

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.

The First Amendment

The emphasis on the First Amendment separation of church and state originated at AJCongress naturally and inevitably as part of its insistence that Jews in the United States are not guests but full-fledged citizens by right. Key to accomplishing its mission is the belief, “That only through the assertion of – and defense of – human rights in general, can Jewish rights themselves be guaranteed, that only through the pursuit of social justice for all can it achieve the narrower goal of justice for Jewish Americans.” With that, AJCongress 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 Ed. [ [ Brown v. Board of Ed.] ] 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

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

The American Jewish Congress 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 o the Commission for Women's Equality (CWE) [ CWE Release] ] 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 expected 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 [ [ AJCongress Release] ] [ [ CWE Article PDF] ] . Carole E. Handler was the CWE's most recent Chair.


Israel Singer

In the fall of 2007, the AJCongress announced that it had retained the services of Rabbi Israel Singer [ [ JTA Wire, (by way of the Baltimore Jewish Times), "AJC Taps Israel Singer", December 2, 2007] ] , 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 [ [ NY Times, "Spitzer Looking Into World Jewish Congress", By STEPHANIE STROM, December 31, 2004] ] and followed up by accusations from WJC founder Edgar Bronfman [ [ Ha’aretz, "World Jewish Congress fires chairman Israel Singer in surprise move" , By Amiram Barkat, March 15, 2007] ] about alleged theft. Jack Rosen, AJCongress' chairman has been accused of keeping the appointment from the agency's board and breaching protocol in doing so. At a December 2007 meeting of the Board's Executive Committee, Rosen was put on the spot and challenged by fellow board members who opposed the association with Rabbi Singer. Rosen has since indicated that he let Singer go, but as of January 2008, Singer has claimed it to be untrue [ [ The Jewish Week, "AJCongress Chair On The Hot Seat, Board members accuse Jack Rosen of running one-man show; he backs down on Singer appointment", By Gary Rosenblatt, January 18, 2008] ] .

Ms. Magazine

On January 10 2008, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) released an official statement [cite web | url= | title=Ms. Magazine Blocks Ad on Israeli Women | author=American Jewish Congress | date=2008-01-10 | accessdate=2008-01-18] critical of Ms. magazine's refusal to accept a full page advertisement [cite web | url= | title=This is Israel. (PDF document) | author=American Jewish Congress | date=2008-01-10 | accessdate=2008-01-18] 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). The AJC 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.' [cite web | url= | title=Ms. Magazine Blocks Ad on Israeli Women | author=American Jewish Congress | date=2008-01-10 | accessdate=2008-01-18]

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.' 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.' " [cite web | url= | title=Statement of Katherine Spillar, executive editor Ms. magazine concerning the AJCongress ad | author=Katherine Spillar, Ms. magazine | date=2008-01-14 | accessdate=2008-01-18] 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..." [cite web | url= | title=Statement of Katherine Spillar, executive editor Ms. magazine concerning the AJCongress ad | author=Katherine Spillar, Ms. magazine | date=2008-01-14 | accessdate=2008-01-18]

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."..." [cite web | url= | title="‘Feminist Moment Of Truth’ Ms. magazine’s refusal to print pro-Israel ad raises questions about the ‘Palestinianization’ of the women’s movement". | author=Stewart Ain, "The Jewish Week" | date=2008-01-16 | accessdate=2008-01-18]

Location of materials for research on the American Jewish Congress

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 the American Jewish Congress.

ee also

*American Jewish Congress v. Bost
*Ms. magazine rejects AJC ad honoring three Israeli women

External links

* [ Official website]
* United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - [ American Jewish Congress]


*AJCongress Archives, [ American Jewish Historical Society]
*The [ U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum]

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