American Jewish congressVariant names
The American Jewish Congress was founded originally in 1918 by a group of Jewish American leaders as an umbrella structure for Jewish organizations to represent the American Jewish interests at the Peace Conference following the end of World War I. It was seen as a national parliamentary assembly representing all American Jews. Representatives to the Congress were selected by all major national Jewish organizations and delegates representing local communities were elected by some 350,000 Jewish voters.
The main purpose at that time was to unite American Jewry in support of a program to be submitted at the Versailles Conference, which included winning international support for a Jewish national home in Palestine and guarantees for the rights of Jews in post-war European countries. 1 Among the organizers of the American Jewish Congress were Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Judge Julian W. Mack and Zionist leader Louis Lipsky. During the Congress sessions in Philadelphia, its 400 elected deputes included such prominent figures as Felix Frankfurter, Henry Morgenthau, Nathan Straus, Henrietta Szold, Horace Kallen, future founder of New York’s New School, and a young Zionist from Milwaukee Golda Myerson (future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir).
It was supposed that the Congress would dissolve as soon as it fulfilled its task. But in 1920 some delegates reassembled after the last session of the American Jewish Congress in Philadelphia, and the next day under the chairmanship of Stephen S. Wise laid foundations for a new American Jewish Congress, which for more than 90 years represented the American Jewish community in many significant issues and challenges of the 20 th century United States and the world. 2 Stephen S. Wise (1974-1949), a Reform rabbi and charismatic orator, became a champion for social justice and civil rights and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He later became a strong advocate and vocal supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's “New Deal”. In 1938-1945 Wise was member of Roosevelt's Advisory Commission on Political Refugees, and advocated admission of a large number of Jewish refugees.
The need for a permanent representative organization led to the formal establishment of the Congress as a permanent active body in 1922. 3 It soon became one of the central organizations and one of the most influential agencies in defending the interests of the American Jewish community. Its main goal was one of advocacy of American Jewish interests through organizational channels rather than through individual connections as was the practice before World War I. Expanding its agenda internationally, the American Jewish Congress emerged in 1930s as a leading force in the anti-Nazi effort to stop Hitler and aid the victims of persecutions, rousing the American public to the Nazi threat at home and abroad. The American Jewish Congress staged a huge protest rally against Hitler and anti-Semitism in March 1933 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in which about 80,000 people participated. 4 The American Jewish Congress spearheaded the effort to unite Jewish communities around the world against their common Nazi enemy. A million dollar defense fund was launched to rescue Jewish children orphaned by the Nazis. The formation in the mid-1930s of the World Jewish Congress was a part of these international efforts, as was the American Jewish Congress’ domestic effort to combat anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews in the U.S., using laws and social activism as the effective means of struggle.
Since its earliest years, women played an important role in the work of the American Jewish Congress, enjoying the right to vote and to run as candidate there several years before the adoption of the 19th Amendment establishing women’s suffrage. In 1933, with the help of Louse Waterman Wise (1874-1947) the American Jewish Congress founded the Women’s Division, an effective vehicle for social and political action, aimed at mobilization of Jewish women for the cause of Jewish rights. In 1934 Women’s Division became the first among the American Jewish organizations to call for the boycott of Nazi goods, and played a pivotal role in day-to-day operation and local supervision of the boycott. 5 Later it actively participated in the relief effort for the European Jewry and for Israel.
Starting as a loose federation of national Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Congress reviewed its policy and in 1940 began to enroll individual members, becoming a membership organization, with tens of thousands of members, and dozens of regional and professional chapters across the country. It first depended upon the energetic efforts of Stephen S. Wise and his associates to procure funds for its work, but starting from late 1930s it began to build a professional staff and attracted lawyers and prominent public activists like David W. Petegorsky, Justine Wise Polier and John Slawson to meet the growing needs of an expanding organization.
During World War II, the American Jewish Congress with other Jewish organizations used a variety of means to influence the decisions of the American government to rescue and to help the Jews of Europe who were being exterminated in the Holocaust. This included meetings with President Roosevelt, petitions to the government officials, negotiations with foreign diplomats, mass rallies at the Madison Square Garden and New York Lewisohn Stadium. They combated anti-Semitism, isolationism and pro-Nazi sympathies in the U.S. Despite steady petitioning and informing the Roosevelt administration on the plight of Jews under the Nazi occupation, the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish defense organizations were not successful enough to make the administration undertake more determined and effective steps to save the Jews of Europe. 6 After the war the American Jewish Congress was instrumental in relief efforts for the Jewish survivors. When the enormity of Holocaust became public, the American Jewish Congress coordinated a vigorous effort to help create a Jewish state and played a central role in winning U.S recognition and support of Israel. Support for Israel and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship became key concerns of the American Jewish Congress’ work.
In May 1945, the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Congress decided “to survey the activities of the American Jewish Congress, with a view of developing the dynamic presentation of the Congress program to the Jewish public and mobilizing adequate resources in support of the Congress movement”. The goal for the Congress was announced: “full equality in a free society for all Americans”. 7 It was decided to merge the Commission on Law and Legislation and the Commission on Economic Discrimination and create a new structure, the Commission on Law and Social Action (CLSA). When Will Maslow joined the American Jewish Congress to head the newly-founded Commission, the struggle against discrimination and bigotry took a new direction and a new impetus. Maslow created a special team of lawyers, including Shad Polier, Alexander Pekelis, Leo Pfeffer, Joseph Robison, Phil Baum, Naomi Levine, Lois Waldman and Howard Squadron, to pursue legal challenges to discriminatory practices in employment, education and housing at the time when the Department of Justice did not have even a single full time civil rights lawyer.
The struggle was waged in legislative chambers and courts, often attracting a great deal of public attention and support. In 1949 a successful campaign by CLSA in New York State led to enactment there of laws ensuring fair housing and education practices, which were the first of their kind in the nation. Working together with organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), CLSA got involved in constitutional issues like separation of church and state, and was instrumental in helping to outlaw school prayer and other religious practices in public schools in the 1960s and to stop government support of sectarian schools in the 1970s.
In 1964 the American Jewish Congress called for the elimination of restrictive abortion laws, and its Women’s Division and CLSA legal team joined the movement for women’s equality. By this time women in the American Jewish Congress increasingly refused to be segregated by gender within the organization and demanded equal power and responsibility in Jewish communal life. Affirming its dedication to the principles of liberty and equality, the American Jewish Congress eliminated the Women’s Division in the mid-1970s. Women were integrated into the national organization and assumed major leadership positions. In 1972 Naomi Levine became National Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress and the first woman to serve as an Executive Director of a national Jewish organization. 8
In 1984 the American Jewish Congress established the Commission for Women’s Equality (CWE), which concentrated on women’s issues and was chaired by a number of prominent feminists like Betty Friedan and Ann Lewis and with noted members like Cynthia Ozick, Bella Abzug, Francine Klagsbrun and others. CWE became the most effective voice in the Jewish community in support of reproductive freedom, participating in major pro-choice marches and events, and influencing U.S. Congress and state legislatures on abortion decisions. CWE successfully supported legislation prohibiting gender discrimination, and educated Jewish women on issues related to hereditary genetic ailments and mutations. Through the work of CWE the American Jewish Congress was the address for Jewish feminism. It held the first International Jewish Feminist Conference in Israel in 1987.
The American Jewish Congress viewed anti-Semitism, an historically unique form of discrimination, as a form of racism. That meant that Jewish people could not win their struggle for equality in isolation from other victims of discrimination and prejudice. The struggle demanded that Jews join with all other groups in confronting their common problems and involve themselves in common unified actions. The American Jewish Congress and especially CLSA cooperated closely and fruitfully with the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund. CLSA started litigation to halt exclusion of Negroes from the Stuyvesant Town housing project in 1947 and brought housing discrimination in New York under state legal control in 1951. It was instrumental in ending racial discrimination in Levittown, New Jersey, in 1959. It submitted amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in virtually every racial segregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court, including the restrictive covenant cases in 1948 and the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decisions of 1954 and 1955. 9
In 1960s and 1970s the American Jewish Congress joined the active fight for civil rights, women’s equality and became an effective vehicle for social and political action. The civil rights campaign culminated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963. 10 The march was successful in pressuring the administration of John F. Kennedy to initiate a strong federal civil rights bill in Congress. President of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), was a founding chairman and one of the key organizers of the March. That day he walked to the podium immediately after a spiritual “I’m on my way” sung by the folk singer Odetta, and presented his address just before Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I have a dream” speech. In his address Dr. Prinz famously said that “America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us…” 11
President Lyndon B. Johnson in his message on occasion of the 50 th anniversary of the American Jewish Congress wrote that the “eloquent voice of the American Jewish Congress has been heard not just on behalf of Jews but on behalf of the highest ideals of freedom and democracy we all share as Americans.” 12 The American Jewish Congress continued to be concerned with racial segregation even after the desegregation laws were adopted, and was involved in Ohio public schools’ segregation cases in late 1970s-early 1980s (Columbus Board v. Penick, Dayton Board v. Brinkman).
The American Jewish Congress became one of the nation’s most important agencies defending the interests and well-being of the Jewish people as well as defending the constitutional rights and freedoms of all Americans. In 1946 it launched a successful drive to bar the quota system in colleges and universities. It led the successful effort to liberalize Sunday Laws in New York and other states for the benefit of Saturday Sabbath observers. It remained actively involved in the legal issues related to racial segregation, free speech and religious liberty and church-state separation. At the same time it considered affirmative action to be an agonizing dilemma for the American Jewish Congress and for the Jewish community, recognizing, on one hand, the need to undo the effects of past massive injustice and discrimination against African-Americans, and on the other hand unable to accept sanctioning of admission to the legal system of race as a factor of making decisions in employment, education and other essentials of life (Bakke case). 13
In 1980, the American Jewish Congress filed amicus briefs in support of freedom of press in Unification Church v. Harper & Row and Sklar case. In Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, a free speech case the same year, the American Jewish Congress supported students who filed suit to vindicate their First Amendment rights.
The American Jewish Congress addressed injustice and inequality issues abroad, such as Arab discrimination against Jews in the Aramco company employment policy in Saudi Arabia. In 1964 a number of the American Jewish Congress officials were arrested at the Jordanian pavilion at the New York World Fair, protesting against the ant-Semitic mural there. The American Jewish Congress joined the struggle against the regime of apartheid in South Africa, campaigned to end persecution of Soviet Jews, to free the Jews of Syria, Ethiopia and Iran. It raised its voice protesting the atrocities in the Balkans in 1990s, the use of civilians as human shields by Hamas, and called for a stop to acts of genocide in Darfur and South Sudan. 14
Among its other activities, the American Jewish Congress organized a successful worldwide travel program (e.g. brought its 300,000 th tourist to Israel in 1991); established a unique program that brought mayors from cities around the world to Israel for better mutual understanding and cooperation (Jerusalem Mayors Conference); created a Hasbara Public Diplomacy project aimed at better information of American public about Israel and vice versa. The American Jewish Congress carried out significant publishing projects and produced a number of periodical publications, such as Congress Monthly and a scholarly journal Judaism.
In the late 2000s, the American Jewish Congress scaled back its activities, when donors gradually became more interested in direct support of particular cases and causes rather than of general Jewish non-profit organizations. On July 13, 2010 American Jewish Congress suspended its activities and laid off much of its staff.
- 1. Jonathan Frankel, “The Jewish Socialists and the American Jewish Congress Movement,” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 16 (1976): 202-341.
- 2. Proceedings of Adjourned Session of American Jewish Congress Including Report of Commission to Peace Conference and of Provisional Organization for Formation of American Jewish Congress. Philadelphia, May 30-31 1920, pp. 32-81, American Jewish Historical Society, I-77, Box 8, Folder 5. Maurice J. Karpf. Jewish Community Organization in the United States (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1938), 63-64.
- 3. Minutes of Executive Committee meeting held in Philadelphia. May 22, 1922; June 4, 1922, American Jewish Historical Society, I-77, Box 5, Folder 4. Henry Feingold, A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920-1945 [The Jewish People in America, Volume 4] (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 158-159.
- 4. 35,000 in Streets Outside Garden. The New York Times, March 28, 1933. Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in American Jewish History, ed. Michael Feldberg (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav Publishing House, 2002), 79.
- 5. Rona Sheramy, “"There are Times When Silence is a Sin": The Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Nazi Boycott Movement,” in American Jewish History 89, no. 1 (March 2001): 105-121.
- 6. Hasia R. Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 217-221.
- 7. “The Two Commissions and Their Role in the Congress”. A Memorandum Submitted to Irving Miller, Chairman, Executive Committee, p. 3. American Jewish Historical Society, I-77, Box 594, Folder 9.
- 8. The AJCongress Women’s Division: A History (New York: American Jewish Congress, 2009), 5. Paula E. Hyman, “Feminism and the American Jewish Community”, in Imagining the American Jewish Community, ed. Jack Wertheimer (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2007), 245.
- 9. 35 Years of CLSA (New York: American Jewish Congress, 1980), 5-7.
- 10. Stuart Svonkin. Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 87-88.
- 11. “Rabbi Joachim Prinz’ Speech,” Congress Monthly 70, no. 4 (July/August 2003): 15.
- 12. “A.J.C. Celebrates 50th Anniversary,” The New York Times, April 22, 1968.
- 13. 35 Years of CLSA, 8. Marc Dollinger, “A Different Kind of Freedom Ride: American Jews and Struggle for Racial Equality,” in An Inventory of Promises: Essays on American Jewish History in Honor of Moses Rischin, ed. Jeffrey S. Gurock and Marc Lee Raphael (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1995), 63-87.
- 14. See, for example: “Soviet Jewry Update” [various materials], Congress Monthly 55, no. 2, (February 1988); Henry Siegman, “Bosnia and the Lesson of Memory”, Congress Monthly 60, no. 1 (January 1993); Patrick Clawson, “What Fate for Iran’s Jews?” Congress Monthly 66, no. 5 (September/October 1999); Gerhard L. Winberg, “Kosovo and the Holocaust”, Congress Monthly 67, no. 1, (January/February 2000); “American Jewish Congress’ resolution on Terrorism,” Congress Monthly 68, no. 5 (September/October 2001); “Resolution of the American Jewish Congress 2008 Annual Meeting “Acting to Stop Genocide in Darfur,” Congress Monthly 75, no. 3 (May/June 2008): 7.
For further literature on the history of the American Jewish Congress, see also:
Chanes, Jerome. “American Jewish Congress,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 2, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA in association with the Keter Publishing House, 2006).
Frommer, Morris. “The American Jewish Congress: A History, 1914–1950.” Ph. D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1978.
--------. “American Jewish Congress,” in Jewish American Voluntary Organizations, ed. Michael Dobkowski. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Gottlieb, Moshe. American Anti-Nazi Resistance, 1933-1941: An Historical Analysis . New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1982.
Rosenbaum, Gerald. “The educational efforts of the American Jewish Congress to combat anti-Semitism in the United States, 1946-1980.” Ph. D. dissertation, Loyola University, 1992.
Svonkin, Stuart. Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties . New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1997.
From the guide to the American Jewish Congress, records, undated, 1916-2006 (bulk 1949-2003), (American Jewish Historical Society)
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|Biomedical Issues and Ethics|
|Church and state|
|Civil Liberties and Rights|
|Economic and Social Welfare|
|Freedom of religion|
|Freedom of speech|
|Political and Legislative Issues|