In a classic bit of satire, the writer and activist Paul Jacobs wrote about how various Jewish organizations would react to a bit of anti-Semitic graffiti found in a bathroom stall. The Anti-Defamation League launches an investigation and issues a press release. The American Jewish Committee gives a grant to a university to study the historical phenomenon of anti-Semitism. The Jewish Labor Committee calls for union members to boycott anti-Semitic urinals. And the American Jewish Congress organizes a picket line and files a legal brief with the Supreme Court.
It’s a joke about Jewish activism, but it’s also a nice snapshot of what were then meaningful differences among Jewish organizations. The American Jewish Congress was launched in 1918 as a brasher, more democratic alternative to the American Jewish Committee, then dominated by moneyed German Jews. Its key early leaders, including Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, were Zionists who bucked the “sha shtil” diplomacy of other Jewish groups — they were more willing to take to the streets and to the courts in defense of Jewish interests. “This direct-action method — using the law and litigation, often in coalition with like-minded groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU — concentrated on actively fighting discrimination, not simply on reforming prejudicial attitudes,” explains Jerome Chanes, who is editing a history of American-Jewish activism.
The AJCongress’ legal office, most recently under the leadership of Marc Stern, has fought landmark civil rights and religious freedom cases, shaping both the courts and Jewish attitudes for generations.
The news that AJCongress will be suspending its operations — a victim of the recession, Bernie Madoff, and a changing philanthropic culture to which it was unable to adapt — came as sad news for those who cherish those accomplishments, and its attitude. In one sense, its demise — and possible absorption by AJCommittee — is a welcome and inevitable consolidation of a Jewish organizational world weighed down by its own redundancies.
Yet we hope the vision of AJCongress’ founders — brash, democratic, vigorous — lives on.