American Jewish Committee (AJC)
AMERICAN JEWISH COMMITTEE ajc
AMERICAN JEWISH COMMITTEE (ajc ), oldest Jewish defense organization in the United States, established in 1906 "to prevent the infraction of the civil and religious rights of Jews, in any part of the world." It was formed as one response to the search for a basis upon which a central representative organization of American Jews could be built and as a direct outgrowth of concerns about conditions in Czarist Russia, especially the 1905 Kishinev pogrom. The Committee initially consisted of a small group drawn from the established German-Jewish community, who had migrated in large numbers to the United States beginning in 1820. They were well established and viewed their purpose as being able to mobilize American Jews to respond to matters of concern. Its founders included Jacob *Schiff, Mayer *Sulzberger, Louis *Marshall, Oscar *Straus, and Cyrus *Adler, men who represented the prominent German stratum within the Jewish community, and who, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, combined philanthropic activities and hofjude ("court Jew") diplomacy on behalf of their fellow Jews. The Committee was their attempt to guard against the rise of what they considered to be more radical popular agencies based on mass membership and employing extensive publicity. Oligarchic in design, the Committee – literally a "committee" – limited its membership to 60 American citizens (expanded by 1931 to 350), with offices in New York, and remained a small group for many years. ajc was self-selected, and had a sense of the "elitism" of the German-Jewish community, then the regnant Jewish population in America.
Much enlarged after 1943, the ajc developed into a highly-professional organization in which the leadership have played the critical role in decisionmaking, and the agency has been an effective voice on intergroup and, in recent decades, in public policy issues. The ajc has traditionally had a special interest in ethnicity, pluralism, and Jewish family life, in Israel and the Middle East, and in a broad range of interreligious affairs, and is significantly active in these areas. In recent years with the perception of declining antisemitism and full acceptance of Jews into American society, the ajc's agenda has expanded beyond matters of "defense" to include questions of Jewish "continuity" deemed essential after the 1990 Jewish population survey.
During the 1960s and 1970s, under the stewardship of executive leaders John Slawson and especially Bertram Gold, the ajc resembled not a single agency but a collection of related "fiefdoms," each directed by a leader in his respective field, who collectively contributed to the shaping of the contemporary community relations agenda: Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum in interreligious relationships; Yehuda Rosenman in Jewish communal affairs; Milton Himmelfarb, who shaped ajc's research agenda and who edited the American Jewish Year Book; Hyman *Bookbinder, the highly-visible director of ajc's Washington office, who was instrumental in shaping the agency's public affairs agenda.
The ajc has since the early 1980s undergone a necessary process of redefinition of mission and function within the community. This process culminated in 1990, with David Harris as the new executive director – this following a period of institutional and financial instability, in which there were four chief executives within a very few years – with the ajc turning aggressively toward activity in the international arena, positioning itself as an "international diplomatic corps for the Jewish people." The American Jewish Committee's joining the *Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in 1991 signified more than a symbolic affiliation; the ajc, by its membership in the Presidents Conference (the designated spokesman of the American Jewish community to the American administration on Israel and other international issues), asserted that international affairs now had primacy on the ajc's agenda.
The plight of Russian Jewry before World War i prompted the ajc's strong defense of a liberal American immigration policy. The ajc contributed to the defeat of a literacy test requirement for immigrants in 1907 and 1913 by lobbying, propaganda, and publicity. In 1911 the Committee conducted a successful campaign for the abrogation of the Russo-American treaty of 1832. Not only did the ajc object to the Russian discrimination against the entry of American Jews into Russia, which it considered a violation of the treaty, but it hoped that by its abrogation Russia would inevitably be compelled to free her own Jews.
On the outbreak of World War i, the American Jewish Committee sparked the organization of the American Jewish Relief Committee, which set up a central relief fund for Jewish war victims. Opposed to the idea of a democratic and nationalist American Jewish movement presenting the Jewish demands to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Committee joined the first *American Jewish Congress under pressure of public sentiment. However, the minority rights secured for Jewry in the new, succession states of Europe were largely the result of the work of Julian *Mack, Louis Marshall (who served as ajc president from 1906–29), and Cyrus Adler who operated as individual intercessors in Paris. The Committee welcomed the *Balfour Declaration but underscored the provision that it would in no way prejudice the liberties of Jews in other lands. Louis Marshall's post-war correspondence with Chaim Weizmann led in 1929 to an enlarged *Jewish Agency composed of Zionists and non-Zionists. The ajc's stance was a "non-Zionist" one until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
During the 1920s the Committee centered its attention on the United States. It fought the popular "Jew-Communist" charge circulated in the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and further propagated in Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent. Marshall, as president of the Committee, formulated the terms for Ford's retraction in 1927. The approach of the Committee, both strategically and tactically, differed sharply from that of the American Jewish Congress, which was more confrontational and which relied – especially after 1945 – on litigation as a primary vehicle for social action. ajc's approach reflected the Louis Marshall idea that discreet lobbying would best serve the interests of American Jews. This non-confrontational strategy reflected the fear that ajc would be perceived as a "Jewish lobby" with interests at odds with those of other Americans.
The rise of Nazism led to intensified activities on two fronts. In an effort to ameliorate the situation of German Jewry, the American Jewish Committee applied pressure upon the Roosevelt administration, the Vatican, the League of Nations, and even individual German officials. The objective of halting the Nazis by an aroused public opinion failed, and Committee members turned increasingly to plans of rescue and emigration for German Jews. The outbreak of the war halted independent operations, leaving the fate of Jewry contingent upon the Allied war effort. Upon learning of the mass murders, the Committee with other American organizations staged protest meetings and appealed for concrete assistance from the *Bermuda Conference on Refugees (1943). The Committee also cooperated in the efforts of the *War Refugee Board.
Simultaneously, the Committee fought the alarmingly sharp rise in organized antisemitism in America, with an emphasis on education and "prejudice-reduction" programs. In developing new techniques both to measure and to influence general and Jewish opinion, the Committee discarded the traditionally apologetic Jewish reaction to antisemitism and asserted and demonstrated that antisemitism is a device to undermine the foundations of democratic society. The Committee also investigated the operations of the virulent hate groups and disclosed their connections with the Nazi regime. The ajc pioneered an approach to combating antisemitism in the communities, using as a model the idea that every Jewish community in the U.S.A. needed to have a "volunteer fire brigade" countering antisemitism. In 1941 the ajc and the *Anti-Defamation League joined forces in the Joint Defense Appeal, to raise funds for both agencies' domestic programs.
While the American Jewish Committee joined the Zionists in protesting British curtailment of immigration into Palestine as a result of the British White Paper, it denounced the concept of "Diaspora nationalism" inherent in the programs of the American Jewish Congress and *World Jewish Congress. It opposed the Zionists' Biltmore *Program of 1942 and, in protest against Zionist tactics, left the *American Jewish Conference in 1943. It hoped that the future of Jewry would be secured by universal recognition of human rights to be protected by the United Nations; and it lobbied in 1945 at the San Francisco Conference, at which the charter for the United Nations was prepared, for an international commitment to that principle. By 1946 the Committee realized that the problem of the displaced persons could be solved only by the creation of a Jewish state, and it cooperated with the Zionists in pushing the cause of Palestine partition. After 1948 the Committee filled a dual function with respect to the State of Israel; it worked consistently to insure American sympathy and diplomatic aid, and by agreement with Israeli statesmen, it officially kept Israel's interests distinct from those of Diaspora Jewry. This dynamic was exemplified in the 1950 "entente" between Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and ajc President Jacob Blaustein, following reports that Ben-Gurion had called for large-scale immigration to Israel by American Jewish youth; Ben-Gurion acknowledged that American Jews "have only one political attachment, to America," and in effect admitted that the "ingathering of exiles" as a central Zionist principle did not apply to American Jewry.
The American Jewish Committee also assumed a role in several extended projects relating to the Holocaust: prosecution of Nazi war criminals, material restitution by Germany to the Jewish community, and rehabilitation of Jewish cultural life within Europe. The Committee concentrated in the post-war period on combating the persecution of Jews within the Soviet orbit; it was active in disclosing the character of Kremlin-inspired antisemitism in documented form. The eruption of antisemitism in two other areas, the Muslim countries and South America, involved the Committee in tasks of relief and emigration with respect to the former, and self-defense with respect to the latter.
After World War ii the Committee expanded markedly in size and function. A chapter plan adopted in 1944 slowly changed the oligarchic cast and elitist control of the organization. The ajc's strategic approaches to participating in litigation as a vehicle for achieving its goals underwent a marked change as well in the post-war years. In its early years the ajc, parting company from the Anti-Defamation League, did promote advocacy against anti-immigration measures. But the Committee had long believed that litigation was confrontational and would damage the constructive relationships that Jews had built up in the interfaith arena. Louis Marshall's view was that individuals, not groups, were constitutionally protected from prejudicial action. (The adl, conversely, believed that Jews had every right to oppose the insult of group defamation.) Taking upon itself the obligation of strengthening the foundations of a pluralistic democratic society, the Committee took an active interest in the rights and liberties of non-Jews as well as Jews. The ajc's strategy of working with diverse non-Jewish organizations, especially in the Christian religious community, reflected the Committee's concerns both with legal matters (such as the separation of church and state) and social relations. A turning point came in 1943 with the appointment of John Slawson as ajc executive, who believed that, consistent with the ajc tradition of viewing rights for Jews as part of the larger struggle for rights for all minorities, ajc needed to be transformed into a vibrant civil rights agency. From 1947 ajc actively participated, through litigation, educational campaigns, and community projects, in the struggle of the blacks for equal rights. Work to break down the barriers in education, housing, employment, and public accommodations led to pioneer efforts against anti-Jewish discrimination in clubs, fraternities, and the "executive suite." The American Jewish Committee's focus on human relations resulted in new approaches to intergroup cooperation and intercultural education. In that area it labored successfully for the revision of prejudiced teachings about Jews in Christian textbooks and for the historic declaration on the Jews approved by the *Vatican Council in 1965. The Committee consistently emphasized the need for research in the behavioral sciences to guide it in plotting its action program. It sponsored the multivolume Studies in Prejudice and Other Sociological Studies. The watershed volume The Authoritarian Personality (1950) emphasized the psychological, rather than the socioeconomic, forces at work in group prejudice.
Through surveys of American Jewish and general communities, and through conferences and other programmatic initiatives, the ajc has also explored new ways to understand intergroup dynamics and to strengthen Jewish identity within the United States. The annual Survey of American Jewish Public Opinion, conducted by the Market Facts agency, provides valuable data for social scientists and policymakers. Numerous studies on a range of issues have emerged from the ajc over the past 40 years.
In 2005 the ajc had a membership of approximately 150,000 people organized in 33 chapters around the United States. Operating in 2005 on a budget of approximately $37,000,000 – the ajc's budget in 1979 was $8 million, on par with the Anti-Defamation League – the agency maintains offices in Brussels, Berlin, Geneva, and Jerusalem, and has a presence in Paris, Bombay, and Warsaw, in addition to its New York headquarters.
The Committee's orientation has long been that of a thoughtful and deliberative organization. Indeed, it traditionally viewed itself as being the "think tank" of the Jewish community. In addition to its regular sponsorship of a range of studies and conferences, an influential periodical, *Commentary, is produced under the ajc's auspices, with a completely independent editorial policy. (Present Tense, a bimonthly, ceased publication in the early 1990s.) Since 1900 the ajc has published the annual American Jewish Year Book, which over the years has become the "document of record" for American Jewry.
N. Schachner, The Price of Liberty (1948); M.D. Waldman, Nor by Power (1953). add. bibliography: J.A. Chanes, "The Voices of the American Jewish Community," in: Survey of Jewish Affairs 1991 (1991); N.W. Cohen, Not Free to Desist: The American Jewish Committee, 1906–1966 (1972); G. Ivers, To Build a Wall: American Jews and the Separation of Church and State (1995); S. Svonkin, Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (1997).
[Naomi W. Cohen /
Jerome Chanes (2nd ed.)]
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