Sunday, September 12, 2010

The American Jewish Congress Is No More

Fifty years ago I wrote an article on church-state separation for an Agudath Israel publication. About the American Jewish Congress, then American Jewry’s fiercest advocate of total separation, I wrote that it was scarcely Jewish and certainly not a congress. What I wrote about the American in its name is another question. While this early exercise in scribbling arose from my commitment to government aid to parochial schools, my view of the AJC was also shaped by an incident a year or two earlier when as a graduate student at NYU and working in the new field of judicial behavior under the guidance of my beloved teacher, Joseph Tanenhaus, whose son is the noted writer and editor of the Sunday Times Book Review, I analyzed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in civil liberties cases to determine whether they added meaningfully to the legal arguments advanced by the counsel for the parties. My conclusion was that they did not, that they were essentially interest group pronouncements.

In the course of this research, I arranged to meet at the AJC with Leo Pfeffer, its then legendary general counsel – he is now all but forgotten – who was the country’s most prominent proponent of absolute separation. When I arrived and he saw the black yarmulka perched on top of my then curly black hair, the great civil libertarian sputtered and said that the meeting was a mistake. He was hostile throughout the meeting. Later, in the 1960s, when I was teaching at Hunter College and representing the Orthodox Union at what was then called the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), Pfeffer and I debated the government aid question a number of times.

In the 1950s, NJCRAC had commissioned Robert MacIver, the eminent sociologist, to examine the organizational structure of American Jewish life, an assignment that resulted in a report that received much favorable attention but no action, as MacIver recommended agency consolidation, bemoaning the duplication and the waste. Our communal response was to create additional groups, in fulfillment of the paramount American Jewish imperative, “Organize, Organize and Organize.” As I have written over the years, each day when the sun sets there are fewer American Jews than there were when the sun rose, yet there are at sunset more Jewish organizations than there were when the sun came up.

What advocacy could not achieve, economics has wrought. The American Jewish Congress is no more, another Madoff victim it said and also the victim of poor lay leadership. Presumably, we should celebrate, if only because at long last we are capable of organicide. I do not celebrate because although it was severely weakened over the past decade before Madoff took it to the cleaners, the AJC played a creative and moderating role in Jewish public affairs, moving away from the fantastic and fanatic notion that this great nation would be endangered if church and state would interact. The absolutists pounce whenever they scent an even tiny breach in their sacred wall of separation. The AJC has cautioned a more cautious approach.

What is left of the organization may now be incorporated into the American Jewish Committee, from which the AJCongress emerged nearly a century ago. We are left with the Committee and the Anti-Defamation League as the defenders of our faithless faith.

The AJCommittee is a study in organizational dissonance. In its research and scholarly activities, as well as in its publications, notably Commentary which remains a bastion of neo-conservatism, it has articulated a nuanced approach to public issues, including the place of religion in the public square. When engaged in litigation or advocating legislation, it invariably veers far to the left, leaving the impression that one part of the organization does not know what the other part is doing. This dualism may be a sign of tolerance. When it comes to legal and legislative issues concerning church and state, however, the Committee lines up with the absolutists.

Over the past two decades, the Anti-Defamation League has surged past the Committee in size and prominence. Adept and aggressive at public relations and fundraising which are far and away its major activities, the ADL feeds abundantly on our fear of anti-Semitism and the seeds of paranoia embedded in the psyche of many Jews. For all of its success, the ADL is astonishingly bereft of any intellectual instinct. It has made no contribution to Jewish thought and it has not produced as much as a single publication of lasting significance.

In line with its anti-intellectualism, the ADL is characterized by a high degree of internal discipline, which alone should make it suspect as a Jewish organization. Its boss is at least as much in control as the typical chassidic rebbe is in control of his flock. None of this would matter were it not for the antipathy to religion that is an ADL hallmark, contributing substantially to the defamation of American Jews as a people who are hostile to religion.

The AJCongress’ closure raises the question of whether other organizations will follow suit, particularly since economic conditions remain unfavorable. Unlike people, organizations often have a life after they are functionally dead. In the aggregate, younger Jews do not identify with the organizations that were critical in the lives of their parents and grandparents. New organizations reflecting their interests are coming into being. What about the old organizations? What about the vast and expensive Federation network? Change is overdue, as there is an urgent need to consolidate and to rethink the Federation concept.

There will be changes in our organizational life because life always brings change. We cannot be confident, however, that the death of the American Jewish Congress is a harbinger of other major organizations calling it quits.