American Jewish Relief Committee

From Powerbase
Jump to: navigation, search


The American Jewish Relief Committee (AJRC) was established in October 1914 to fundraise for relief efforts for Jewish communities in Europe and Palestine devastated by World War I. It became a constituent body of the Joint Distribution Committee, which in turn became a constituent body of the United Jewish Appeal.



Prior to World War I, American aid to Palestine was mostly religious, supporting Orthodox practice in the Yishuv. Other channels were the Jewish National Fund, whose funds went primarily into purchasing land for settlement; the Zionist Organisation's (WZO) Palestine Office established in 1908 under Arthur Ruppin; and the WZO's Shekel sales. More generally, American Jewish fundraising had reflected communal divisions "between Zionists and non-Zionists, Russian and German Jews, Reform and Orthodox, and so forth."[1]

None of these traditional funding mechanisms, however, were sufficient to cover European Jews' increased needs during the war.[2]


In August 1914 Henry Morgenthau, American Ambassador to Constantinople, asked his friend Jacob Schiff (a wealthy American Jewish banker) to raise $50,000 from American Jews, as a matter of urgency, to alleviate the crisis facing Jews in Palestine, whose supply routes had been severed by the war. The money was raised within a few days by the American Jewish Committee ($25,000), Louis Brandeis's Provisional Committee for General Zionist Affairs ($12,500) and Schiff himself ($12,500).[3]

On 25 October 1914, facing increasing appeals for aid from Jewish communities across Europe and in Palestine, Louis Marshall's American Jewish Committee (AJC) convened a conference of all national American Jewish organisations to establish an umbrella body to rationalise fundraising for war relief. The Zionists, led by Louis Brandeis, were among them.[4] The conference charged a five-member committee "representing the various trends in the Jewish community" with nominating 100 "leading American Jews"[1] to constitute a new organisation: the American Jewish Relief Committee.[5] Prominent American Jews were elected to head the new organisation: Marshall (president); Cyrus Sulzberger and Oscar Straus (secretaries); Felix Warburg (treasurer); and Brandeis, Schiff, Julian Mack, Judah Magnes, Cyrus Adler and others on the Executive Committee.[6] The AJRC was an "early prototype" for the United Jewish Appeal.[6]

A further meeting one month later, on 27 November 1914, saw the AJRC join with the Orthodox Central Relief Committee to found the Joint Distribution Committee of the American Funds for Jewish War Sufferers (JDC).[5] The AJRC from this point functioned as a fundraising arm of the JDC.[7] A year later the socialist People's Relief Committee of America, established in August 1915 to fundraise from labour organisations, joined the JDC.[5]

After WWI, the JDC persisted while its component groups faded away.[6]


During WWI the AJRC developed "an effective campaign organization" combining professional staff with "local volunteer branches".[6] Figures like Brandeis and Stephen Wise went on speaking tours to raise funds for devastated European Jewish communities and the Yishuv.[8] A New York Times front page described a public meeting for Jewish relief at Carnegie Hall in December, 1915, where Judah Magnes had worked the crowd into a frenzy of generosity:

"The very first person to make a gift... strode down a long aisle to the stage, turned his trouser's pocket inside out and deposited several bills and some silver at the speaker's feet. He turned away, but in doing so put a hand into another pocket, and, finding money in it, turned back and emptied its contents upon the stage also... One man sent a dollar bill, with a note saying that he had with him only $1.05, and needed the 5 cents for carfare home... [Never] was such a scene witnessed in Carnegie Hall."[9]

Gifts were secured from wealthy American Jews (Julius Rosenwald, Herbert Lehman, Nathan Straus) and non-Jews alike. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed 27 January, 1916 a day for contributing to the Jewish Relief Fund. This raised the profile of the campaign and donations flooded in, but the AJRC was unprepared to capitalise on it fully. They drew from this failure an important lesson regarding

"the weakness of street collection, and the vital necessity of a carefully planned effort, which laid special stress upon the wealthy."[10]

As related by Cohen, Schiff led fundraising efforts and left the "mechanics of administration" to Warburg, his son-in-law.[11] By July 1917 Schiff had personally contributed more than half a million dollars.[11]

WWI relief

By 1915 the AJRC had collected $1.5 million for overseas distribution by the JDC.[6] By the war's end, it had collected more than $16.5 million.[12] This was significantly more than the Federation of American Zionists' separate Emergency Fund, which had raised $170,000 by 1915.[13]

Between November 1914 and 30 June, 1921, the JDC distributed a total of $38 million abroad. Of this, $11.5 million was spent in Poland; $5.4 million in Romania and $5 million in Palestine. Palestine was thus given vastly disproportionate weight: at the time some 70,000 Jews lived there, as against roughly three million in Poland.[14]

Strained neutrality

AJRC relief to Europe was politically sensitive: if the Zionists or the AJRC were viewed as favouring a particular side in the war, the relief operations would be threatened. However, a number of wealthy donors were of German descent and "openly supported" the Central Powers, while at least up to 1917 "the bulk of American Jewry... passionately hoped the Central Powers would triumph": those of German ancestry out of ethnic and cultural loyalties, and Eastern European immigrants out of hatred for Russia.[15]

American Jewish Committee vs. the Zionists

Urofsky describes the formation of the AJRC as a "facet in the struggle for dominance and leadership between the newly organised Zionists and the established powers of the American Jewish Committee."[16] Although the AJRC, and then the JDC, had been established precisely to transcend communal divisions in the interests of effective fundraising,

"by the end of the war... the Zionist/non-Zionist dichotomy within the American Jewish community had become the most divisive factor in fundraising and the distribution of funds, pitting committed Zionists against those they called 'social service barons' - the wealthy, philanthropic elite of the Jewish establishment."[1]

In August 1914 Brandeis informed AJC President Marshall that the Zionists would cooperate in fundraising for Jewish in Europe and Palestine.[17] Schiff saw the Zionists as "self-advertisers" and "fanatics," but advocated cooperation so long as it was on the AJC's terms.

At the October 1914 meeting of national Jewish organisations that established the AJRC, Jacob Schiff and Oscar Straus, speaking for the AJC, proposed an organisation that would "have access to the monied Jews" and be dominated by the AJC. Stephen Wise and Judah Magnes demanded something "more representative and democratic." Brandeis was largely silent, letting Wise present the Zionist position. The subsequent November planning meeting again centred on the issue of the power of the AJC. Many suspected the name of the new relief body, the AJRC, had been chosen to "emphasise the importance of the AJC."[17]

The AJC won the battle: the president, treasurer and 17 of 25 Executive Committee members of the new AJRC were AJC members.[17] This did not surprise Brandeis, who recognised that Zionist fundraising would inevitably be eclipsed by the AJC, since of the wealthy Jews only one (Nathan Straus) was a Zionist. "Jacob Schiff could give more individually than could thousands of Zionists combined."[17] Hence, the Zionists resigned themselves to taking a backseat on relief.

During 1914-15 the Zionists fundraised energetically for their own Emergency Fund for Palestine and for the AJRC. Brandeis himself headed the AJRC's New England branch.[17] The Zionists cooperated with the AJRC in dispatching a relief ship to Palestine, with the Zionists meeting 20 percent of its $125,000 cost.[18] Even then, however, Zionist and non-Zionist fundraisers "worked separately" to secure assistance from the State Department.[11]

Over the course of 1915 tensions grew, as Zionist officials felt the AJRC did not give them due credit for fundraising and Brandeis urged that a greater proportion of AJRC relief be directed to Palestine.[19] Zionists also disliked the AJRC's close relationship with the Hilfsverein schools, which they viewed as leaning excessively pro-German and anti-Zionist.[20]

Recognising that funds for Palestine remained insufficient the Zionists considered centralising all relief operations under the AJRC, reserving for themselves responsibility for disbursements in Palestine. But the group around Marshall would not agree to this, while Felix Warburg refused to guarantee a fixed percentage of funds for Palestine.[21]

With almost no access to the richest class of Jewish donors, the Zionists were left with no option but to turn control over all relief operations to the AJRC.

Although the AJC retained control over relief, Cohen argues that the very formation of the JDC, which while dominated by the AJC also included other groups, "proved that elitist control [over American Jewish communal life] had slipped another notch."[22]

During the war, the JDC confined itself to war-related relief and reconstruction; despite "generous appropriations" for the Yishuv, it "could not take the place of a fund designed to finance the new immigration and settlement opportunities opened up by the Mandate". Indeed the JDC leadership at this point saw the body as "transitory", to be dissolved once its "war-imposed tasks" were complete.[23] The anti-Zionism of a number of JDC officials meant, according to Urofsky, that "little more than bare relief funds would be allocated" for Jewish settlements in Palestine during the war[24] — although cf. the figures cited in "WWI" above, which indicate that the Yishuv did receive a disproportionate share of JDC funds.




  • Lee O'Brien, American Jewish Organisations & Israel (Washington DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1986)
  • Ernest Stock, Partners & Pursestrings: A History of the United Israel Appeal (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987)
  • Melvin I. Urofsky, American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1976)
  • Naomi Weiner Cohen, Jacob H. Schiff: A Study in American Jewish Leadership (Hanover, NH: Brandeis UP, 1999)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Lee O'Brien, American Jewish Organisations & Israel (Washington DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1986), p. 110
  2. Ernest Stock, Partners & Pursestrings: A History of the United Israel Appeal (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), p. 7
  3. Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, pp. 3-5. More precisely, Morgenthau wrote that Jews in Palestine needed $100,000, and pledged half of it if the other half could be raised in the US. (Melvin I. Urofsky, American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1976), p. 157)
  4. Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 157
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 "The Creation of JDC," American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives, accessed 19/10/2013
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Partners & Pursestrings, pp. 5-7
  7. Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, p. 43
  8. Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 141
  9. New York Times', cited in Naomi Weiner Cohen, Jacob H. Schiff: A Study in American Jewish Leadership (Hanover, NH: Brandeis UP, 1999), p. 211
  10. Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, p. 8
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Cohen, Jacob H. Schiff, p. 213
  12. Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, p. 7. A lot more, if Cohen's figures are correct. She writes that the AJRC raised $5 million in 1916 and $10 million in 1917. (Cohen, Jacob H. Schiff, p. 212)
  13. Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, p. 7. Urofsky counts the Zionist fundraising performance "exceedingly successful". (Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 158)
  14. Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, p. 8
  15. Urofsky, American Zionism, pp. 186-87. The AJC comprised mainly "Reform Jews of German background". ("The Creation of JDC," JDC Archives, accessed 19/10/2013)
  16. Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 157. Stock, in Partners & Pursestrings, presents the initial period of the AJRC as more amicable, with tensions developing later.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 157-58
  18. Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 158; Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, p. 207n10
  19. Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 158; Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, p. 7
  20. Cohen, Jacob H. Schiff, p. 214; Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 186
  21. Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 159
  22. Cohen, Jacob H. Schiff, p. 211
  23. Stock, Partners & Pursestrings, pp. 8-9
  24. Urofsky, American Zionism, p. 159; cf. O'Brien, American Jewish Organisations, p. 110