American Jewish Congress - excerpt from Lee O'Brien, American Jewish Organizations and Israel, 1986

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This page is an extract, reproduced with permission, from Lee O'Brien, American Jewish Organizations and Israel, Washington DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1986. [1]

  • Year established: 1918
  • President: Theodore Mann
  • Executive Director: Henry Siegman
  • Chair, Governing Council: Paul Berger
  • Address: 15 East 84th Street, New York, NY 10028
  • Publications: Congress Monthly, Judaism, Boycott Report

General Background

The American Jewish Congress emerged in the early 1900s from a trend known as the ‘congress movement’, whose original impetus was to provide an alternative to the AJC. The movement was sponsored by such prominent American Zionists as Louis D. Brandeis, Stephen S. Wise, Julian W. Mack, Horace Meyer Kallen, and Felix Frankfurter, all of whom had been deeply involved in progressive or liberal politics and reformist crusades. Their opposition to the AJC was based not simply on its rejection of Zionism, but also on what they perceived as its elitist and anti-democratic structure and policies.

In 1915, Brandeis and Wise led the call for the formation of an American Jewish Congress to be a democratic, national umbrella body composed of existing Jewish organizations. Despite opposition from the AJC, a preliminary meeting of the Congress was held in Philadelphia in March 1916, with thirty-three national groups represented. The Congress floundered, however, and its members did not convene again till 1918, when they were galvanized by the crisis in Europe. This 1918 meeting decided to send a delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference with two demands: (1) to ensure that provisions protecting the rights of Jews and other minority peoples went into the peace treaties with defeated nations and (2) to press for recognition of ‘the aspiration and historic claims of the Jewish people with regard to Palestine’ in accordance with the Balfour Declaration, and ‘to assure the development of Palestine into a Jewish commonwealth.’[2]

The original conception of the AJCongress as a broad-based umbrella alternative to the AJC never materialized; instead, the AJCongress became yet another organization, though one with a substantially more populist, activist, and pro-Zionist program than the AJC. These differences were most marked in the 1930s, when the AJCongress took the lead in anti-Nazi work in the United States. At a time when the AJC was advocating ‘quiet Diplomacy’, the AJCongress sponsored a massive demonstration in Madison Square Garden, launched a world boycott of Nazi goods and services, founded international appeals, and established a National Women's Division to increase mobilization. It was also in this period that the AJCongress made its final switch from organizational to individual membership.

Historically, the AJCongress was the most Zionist of all the community organizations, an orientation due in large part to its founder and first president, Rabbi Stephen Wise, a passionate and committed activist in Zionist organizations and campaigns. The AJCongress' adherence to Zionism was intense and unswerving, but was noteworthy for functioning on an emotional rather than a doctrinaire level. Its allegiance was to Jewish peoplehood and right to a state, not to a particular Zionist organization or trend. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, the AJCongress issued a statement that read in part

There is no room in AJCongress for those who are not certain of the right of the Jewish people at last to establish the Jewish National Home in Palestine. [3]

The AJCongress criticized the AJC and ADL for being elitist, appeasing, and-by AJCongress standards-anti-Zionist. At the same time, they charged official Zionist organizations with being bureaucratic and incapable of leading American Jews and with failing adequately to reformulate Zionism after the creation of Israel.

When the AJCongress broadened its scope to include community relations following World War II, it placed particular stress on defending civil rights and liberties. It established the Commission on Law and Social Action and became known for focusing on the use of legislation and litigation to press for social change. Maintaining its populist tendencies, the AJCongress was more liberal than the AJC or ADL on such issues as McCarthyism and civil rights and was much more active with the concerns of the poor and inner city Jews. It also took a progressive stand on certain foreign policy issues and adopted a resolution against the Vietnam War in 1966.

Structure and Funding

The AJCongress is a tax-exempt religious organization with a national membership of approximately forty to fifty thousand. It is not as decentralized as the ADL or AJC; most of its activities and members are based in New York. It also receives much less funding than the other two national community relations agencies; in 1972, its budget was $2.5 million, compared to the AJC's $7.3 million and the ADL's $5 million, and this disparity is said to continue. [4] Like the ADL and AJC, it receives a financial allotment from the federations in addition to its private funding from gifts, bequests, membership dues, special campaigns, and a variety of other activities, such as sponsorship of tours to Israel.

According to the AJCongress' IRS Form 990, its total income for the year ending 1982 was $4,232,661, of which $2,119,730 came from direct and indirect public support. Disbursements for salaries and wages accounted for $2.2 million; expenses for program services were listed as follows: Israel and the Middle East-$857,967; Jewish Identity-$381,193; Church, State and Religious Freedom-$366,647; Other International Affairs -$189,469. Also listed is an expenditure of approximately one-half million dollars for grassroots and legislative lobbying between 1979 and 1982.

The AJCongress' regular publications are Judaism, a quarterly journal focusing on Jewish scholarship, and Congress Monthly, a magazine featuring general articles of interest to Jews, with a strong stress on Israel-related subjects and Jewish community activities. Congress Monthly is distributed free to members.

Israel Support Work

The 1983 program of the AJCongress lists the following issues (in this order):

  • Fostering U.S. support for Israel's defense and security needs.
  • Exposing the well-financed Arab propaganda campaign depicting Israel as an aggressor and the PLO as victim.
  • Informing the American public that the Arabs' refusal to negotiate, not Israel's policies, has been and remains the real obstacle to Middle East peace.
  • Uncovering efforts to compel illegal participation in the Arab sponsored anti-Israel boycott.
  • Combatting anti-Semitism, whether crude hate-mongering or subtle discrimination.
  • Unlocking emigration doors that have swung shut for Soviet Jews and beleaguered Jewish communities anywhere.
  • Advancing the struggle for human rights, women's rights, and civil liberties.
  • Challenging efforts to breach the Constitutional wall between church and state.
  • Fighting legislative attempts to strip federal courts of jurisdiction in issues like abortion and public school prayer.
  • Opposing the moral vigilantism of those who seek to impose their own breed of religious fundamentalism on the rest of American society.
  • Preserving the vitality of our democratic institutions on which the security and well-being of American Jews and all minorities depend.
  • Mobilizing support for compassionate social and economic policies during the current era of deep recession and high unemployment.
  • Building coalitions with other minorities in pursuit of commonly shared goals.
  • Strengthening Jewish life and culture through activities of the [[Martin Sternberg Center for Jewish artists, the University Summer Seminar programs and the publications Judaism and Congress Monthly. [5]

While the AJCongress clearly stresses Israel support work, it has rejected neoconservatism and still maintains much of its traditional liberal agenda. It seems less inclined than other Jewish establishment organizations to adapt its political positions to Israeli interests, as illustrated by its position on the following issues:

The Evangelical Right. A resolution passed at its National Governing Council on 4 October 1981 strongly denounces the program and ideology of the New Right. In its current literature, the AJCongress rejects an alliance with such groups, noting,

We are mindful that many of their leaders and spokesmen defend and support the state of Israel. We acknowledge that support, but we regard it as irrelevant to our assessment of their domestic programs. The damage done by their efforts to curtail domestic freedom is not made less by the sympathy they voice for Israel. Their support for the Jewish State has in no way caused us to mitigate or modify our opposition to the many policies and practices of the Evangelical Right with which we disagree. [6]

Domestic Policy: In a 1982 New York Times ad entitled ‘America Must Not Quit on Social Justice,’ the AJCongress criticized President Reagan's cutbacks in social welfare because ‘it is the poorest in our midst who are being asked to suffer the most.’ [7] In other literature, the AJCongress strongly defends the Equal Rights Amendment, the right to abortion, and other civil liberties under attack by the current administration.

Foreign Policy: After an aide to UN Representative Jeane Kirkpatrick addressed an AJCongress meeting in 1981, an official response to the speech was issued by the AJCongress' executive director, Henry Siegman, criticizing the outline of President Reagan's human rights policy and calling the distinction between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘totalitarian’ regimes ‘pernicious and untenable’. The New York Times ad mentioned above deplored U.S. reliance on military strength alone and noted

Overpopulation, depletion of resources, starvation and nuclear proliferation ... remain America's enemies and the enemies of all who hope to build a more stable, freer world. These problems will not yield to a foreign policy based solely on resisting Soviet expansion.

Nonetheless, it is important not to confuse the AJCongress' liberal tendency with serious dissent. The AJCongress has consistently adhered to a pro-Israel position; it diverges from the pro-Israel mainstream only on issues where it is impossible to reconcile its traditional agenda with a particular policy, such as alliances with the Evangelical Right or the hawkish ‘strategic cooperation’ concept as the basis for U.S.-Israeli relations. The AJCongress does not waver on supporting Israel-rather, it occasionally questions what the ideological basis of that support should be. The heirs of Brandeis, Wise, and the ‘downtowner’ cannot embrace all the policies of the Reagan and Likud governments without abandoning the assumption that the very establishment of the AJCongress was predicated on, namely that there is no conflict between Zionism and liberalism. Former AJCongress President Arthur Hertzberg addressed this issue in a 1980 interview, saying

The problem with all this strategic nonsense is that it makes support for Israel conditional on its importance as a strategic asset." Disagreeing also with the domestic policies that such "strategic" thinking leads to, he argued that American Jews should strengthen their alliance with Blacks and speak out against the Reagan program; pointing to a link between anti-Semitism and economic instability, he warned that." ... in difficult days, midwestern WASPs will not be our shield and buckler, our refuge and fortress. [8]

Despite this tension within the AJCongress, its pro-Israel activities are indistinguishable from those of other American Jewish organizations. In its literature, the Congress writes that it ... continues to work closely with the makers of public opinion and public policy to demonstrate how the cause of Middle East peace and America's vital strategic interests are served by an economically and militarily strong Israel with defensible and recognized borders. We playa leadership role in fighting the sale of AWACS and other sophisticated equipment to Saudi Arabia and we continue to campaign against any tendency in the White House to bypass or abandon the Camp David process. [9]

During the 1973 war, the AJCongress led a major mobilization, calling on its members to give to the UJA and Israel Bonds and to agitate for rearming Israel. Following the 1976 UN resolution on Zionism and racism, it published a full-page ad in the New York Times, headed ‘Proud to be Jews, Proud to be Zionists’. (Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg was the president of the AJCongress at the time.) The AJCongress strongly supported the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which it characterized as necessary for peace; [10] during the war, AJCongress sponsored a New York Times ad (4 August 1982) listing ‘politicians and columnists ... who supported the action in Lebanon.’ [11] Congress Monthly published articles claiming that there was a disinformation campaign against Israel, denying the existence of any division among American Jews, and describing the invasion as liberating Lebanon from the ‘grip’ of the PL0. [12]

The AJCongress' focus on Israel support work is also reflected in its biennial conferences, which feature as keynote speakers either prominent Israelis or U.S. politicians. In the past decade, speakers at the biennials have included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Senator Edward Kennedy, Israeli ambassadors Simcha Dinitz, Abba Eban, and Avraham Harom, Senator Daniel Moynihan, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, and the late Senator Frank Church.

AJCongress programs involving Israel have included the following:

The Overseas Travel Program, set up in 1958 to promote tourism in Israel. The first trip involved only twenty-three people; today it is the largest such tour in the Jewish community, with approximately seven thousand people participating each year.

The Louise Waterman Wise Youth Hostel in Jerusalem. The largest such facility in Israel, it is not simply a youth hostel, but also offers special citizenship training programs for new immigrant children.

Arrangements for mayors of major u.s. cities to go to Jerusalem for the annual International Conference of Mayors, where, according to an organizational brochure, participants ‘learn at first hand the importance to Israel's security of a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. Particularly gratifying have been the activities of the Mayors on their return home supporting Israel's enlightened administration of the city- a major goal in our effort to build public understanding of Israel's security requirements as essential to our own country's strategic interests. [13]

The American-Israel Dialogue, instituted in 1962. This is a symposium held in Jerusalem for American Jews and Israelis. Among the Israeli participants have been former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin, Moshe Sharett, Abba Eban, and writers Amos Elon and Amos Oz; Americans have included leaders of the AJCongress along with writers and other intellectuals such as Arthur Hertzberg, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Irving Kristol, Leonard Fein, and Chaim Potok. The symposium transcript is published by the AJCongress each year. According to the Congress, ‘The 'Dialogue' is AJCongress's response to the need we feel to forge a closer understanding and a profounder unity between Israel and American Jewry.’

A statement on the mass media adopted by the National Governing Council on 6 March 1983 notes

The need to counter inaccurate or tendentious coverage in the media is a formidable challenge, but a critical requirement in the ongoing battle to defend the security and welfare of Israel and of Jews everywhere.

The statement concludes with a list of specific recommendations for the Congress and the Jewish community to adopt, reproduced here in full:

  • 1. Cultivate publishers, editors and other media executives during periods of non-crisis. This gives an opportunity to provide them with long range perspectives and establishes accessibility during moments of crisis.
  • 2. Inform editors in your local area where an organizational news source can be reached at any time of day or night so they can obtain information or verification on breaking news stories. A mini-media directory should be compiled for ready reference as to where and to whom to send letters of complaint or congratulations.
  • 3. When errors of commission or omission occur, call the attention of the reporters and editors to the inaccuracy as soon as possible. Don't wait until the issue is a dead letter. Charges of inaccuracy should be carefully documented.
  • 4. Whenever possible, statements to the press should be issued in written form. This reduces inaccuracies and assures that the information given is in the proper context.
  • 5. Organize special programs to encourage select media personnel to visit Israel. A first-hand view of the Jewish state is an excellent way to sensitize news people to Israel's problems and achievements.
  • 6. Use letters to the editor as a primary means of correcting newspaper inaccuracies. The letters column is the most widely read department in any newspaper. Similarly, reply editorials should be used to answer commentary on local radio and T.V. stations. Under government regulation, electronic media are required to provide opportunities for listeners to present opposing points of view. Wherever possible letter and op-ed banks should be established in anticipation of events.
  • 7. Establish national and local monitoring systems. Call the attention of Jewish community members to the importance of such activity by establishing formal task forces for this purpose.
  • 8. Since effective monitoring requires knowledgeable scanners, national organizations should use newsletter bulletins, hot lines and press releases to supplement material available to the Jewish community in local Anglo-Jewish newspapers.
  • 9. Identify effective spokesmen among the local membership who can be encouraged to prepare opted columns on particular issues and who can effectively appear on the electronic media.
  • 10. In flagrant instances of misreporting, imbalance or bias, seek, a meeting with news executives to ask for redress and to prevent recurrence. In such encounters remain calm and civil, be prepared with the facts, make certain the news official is someone in real authority rather than a surrogate assigned to run interference.
  • 11. Paid advertisements should be used sparingly and only when efforts to get letters, op-ed articles or other replies prove unavailable. Ads, however, should not be precluded altogether. They should be used when the message is important and other means of obtaining access fail.
  • 12. No matter how exercised a community may be about an inaccurate news item, care should be taken to avoid any inference that efforts will be made to apply pressure on the editorial side through recourse to advertisers. Except in unusually rare instances such efforts are likely to prove counterproductive and ought not to be employed. The AJCongress Israel work is more limited than that of other organizations by its lack of comparable funding; however, this constraint is compensated for in various ways. For one, the AJCongress draws on its liberal credentials in devising ‘programs targetted on specific groups in the community with which we have particular contact ... [the] Negro community ... [the] 'peace community' [anti-Vietnam War groups]’ [14]

Thus, when the issue of Israel's connection to South Africa was raised in the 1970s, the AJCongress published two studies detailing the trade relations of nineteen Black African states with South Africa and revealing arms traffic among Europe, the Arab states, and South Africa. Another report was published on Israel's aid programs to Black Africa. Regarding the peace movement, the AJCongress published and distributed, with the ADL, an attack on the American Friends Service Committee and has published criticism of such individuals and groups as Noam Chomsky, Jacobo Timerman, Vanessa Redgrave, and the National Council of Churches in the Congress Monthly.The AJCongress also supplements its own Israel support programs by working closely with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which it is a member, preparing many of its Middle East Memos and public statements; AJCongress president Howard Squadron was head of the Presidents Conference from 1980 to 1982.

The AJCongress and the ‘Arab Threat’

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, AJCongress began focusing on the Arab boycott of Israel and Arab oil. The ADL, AJC, AJCongress. For example, in a review of Jacobo Timerman's book on the invasion of Lebanon, The Longest War, Louis Rapoport charged

He is simply out to capitalize on his new Israeli identity. Like so many bleeding hearts who make their careers on the freedom circuit, he has an authoritarian problem of his own. [15]

Business Roundtable all cooperated on pushing through anti-boycott legislation. The AJCongress continues to monitor the Department of Commerce for enforcement of this legislation and issues its findings in a regular publication called Boycott Report. In one of its brochures, the AJCongress characterizes this work as ‘Fighting the Arab boycott’ and explains that it is deeply involved in efforts to protect the rights of American Jews from Arab attack and to defend the American principle of free trade as it affects commerce with Israel. [16]

Following the 1973 war and the Arab oil embargo, the AJCongress put out a number of publications about the oil crisis, including ‘Fact and Fiction about the Oil Crisis’ and ‘Towards a National Energy Program’. In recent years, there has been more emphasis on the specter of Arab wealth controlling America. A recent leaflet, ‘Why Join the American Jewish Congress?’ proclaims that ‘Arabs are buying influence over American policy.’

As the community relations agency most known for recourse to lawsuits and other forms of legal activities, the AJCongress has also turned to the courts to confront the ‘Arab threat.’ Major legal actions in the 1980s have included:

(1) A ‘sweeping Freedom of Information request to more than 100 agencies’ calling for the release of all ‘unclassified documents on the Palestine Liberation Organization and its personnel and supporters in this country.’ The FOIA request was a step in a suit filed on behalf of twentynine Israelis killed and sixty-five injured during a Palestinian operation in 1978; the suit seeks damages against the Libyan government, the PLO, and three U.S. groups: the Palestine Information Office, the National Association of Arab Americans, and the Palestine Congress of North America. [17]

(2) Another suit, based on the Freedom of Information Act, to compel the Treasury Department to disclose the financial holdings of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates in U.S. mainland banks. In 1982, the Federal District Court upheld the Treasury Department's refusal to divulge such information, but the AJCongress is currently appealing the decision. [18]

(3) The ‘Shareholders Project.’ Following the battle over the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia, the AJCongress initiated a campaign to force disclosure of pro-AWACS lobbying by corporations; through the use of shareholder proxy resolutions, stock owners sympathetic to AJCongress goals can bring the lobbying issue to a vote at the annual meetings of corporations. The strategic goal of the campaign is to prevent such arms sales in the future; as Will Maslow, general counsel of the AJCongress, noted, ‘The AWACS issue may be old, but the Jordanian arms issue is just coming up. About half the companies we've talked to said they will not be involved in a Jordanian arms deal. As far as we are concerned this was a success.’ A major article on the campaign published in The Christian Science Monitor was reprinted by the AJCongress under the heading, ‘This is one of the ways the American Jewish Congress challenges the pro-Arab lobby.... ‘ Ironically, the campaign is based on the very tactics it claims to criticize money and pressure. One targeted company filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commissiori, on the grounds that the campaign was intended ‘to harass the corporation so as to create a chilling effect deterring them from taking positions opposed to those taken by the American Jewish Congress.’ [19]


  1. This page is reproduced by permission of the Institute of Palestine Studies, granted on 25 February 2014. The Institute retains copyright of all material.
  2. AJCongress, Not Charity But Justice: The Story of the American Jewish Congress:" 6
  3. AJCongress, Congress Monthly, May 1948
  4. Maslow: 22
  5. AJCongress, A Program for the American Jewish Congress in 1983.
  6. AJCongress, Not Charity But Justice: 19
  7. Reprinted as an undated AJCongress flyer
  8. Jerusalem Post 111/Editorial, 7-13 December 1980
  9. AJCongress, Not Charity But Justice
  10. Jewish Telegraphic Article, 8 June 1982
  11. AJCongress, "AJCongress Update" Congress Monthly, September/October 1982
  12. Henry Siegman, Israel in Lebanon: Are American Jews Divided?; Henry Feingold, "How Israel Lost the War of Information"; Nancy Miller, "Years of Upheaval: The PLO in Lebanon," AJCongress, Congress Monthly, September/October 1982
  13. AJCongress, Not Charity But Justice
  14. Schiff: 18
  15. Louis Rapoport, A Man Whose 'Reflections' Cannot be Trusted, AJCongress, Congress Monthly', November 1982
  16. AJCongress, Not Charity But Justice : 15
  17. Washington Post, 12 March 1981
  18. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 7 October 1983
  19. Christian Science Monitor; 17 March 1983