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December 15: The American Jewish Congress

December 15, 2015

World_Jewish_Congress_War_Emergency_Conference_Atlantic_City_1944The American Jewish Congress held its first meeting on this date in 1918, which was also the anniversary of the 1791 ratification of the Bill of Rights, a document that AJCongress in its hey-day expended much of its energy and legal expertise defending and expanding. As a membership organization with local chapters, AJCongress aimed to expand the secular leadership of the American Jewish community beyond the dominion of wealthy German-American Jews and to help represent Jewish interests at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. From 1922 to 1949, AJCongress was led by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who built the organization into a strong voice for anti-Nazi protest and pro-Zionist activism in the 1930s. In the 1950s and ’60s, AJCongress was strongly identified with the civil rights movement, but it turned sharply rightwards in the late 1970s and ’80s with its opposition to affirmative action and in reaction to the hostility of some leftwing forces to Israel. It also saw a drop-off in membership during these decades, with several chapters transmuting themselves into separate organizations. Early in the 21st century it lost most of its $24 million endowment through the shenanigans of Bernard Madoff.

“[I]n 1933, Louise Waterman Wise founded the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress. Like her husband, Stephen, Louise Wise was a leader of the AJCongress and a progressive reformer.... The Women’s Division she established and led was dedicated to the same objectives as the general division of the American Jewish Congress: the protection of Jewish rights at home and abroad, the advancement of American democracy, the elimination of racial and religious discrimination in the United States, the enhancement of Jewish identity, and the promotion of Zionism.” —Stuart Svonkin, Jewish Women’s Archive