Social Change Through Unified Action

A Look at the Historical Impact of the American Jewish Congress

By Ruby Johnstone
Archivist, American Jewish Historical Society

When the American Jewish Congress (AJC) was founded in 1918 it represented the unified interests of American Jewish organizations at the Paris Peace Conference following the end of World War I. The original Congress disbanded upon completion of their mission in 1920, but a small group of delegates led by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise quickly reconvened to establish a new American Jewish Congress, which would represent the interests and challenges of American Jewry to this day.

Formally established in 1922, the Congress emerged as a central force in uniting organizations in order to strengthen their shared goal of defending the American Jewish community. AJC expanded its agenda internationally in the early 1930s, raising its voice against Nazism and victims of persecution in Germany. When Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, the American Jewish Congress immediately mobilized its resources in an effort to unite all Americans in the fight against anti-Semitism and bigotry across Europe. The AJC organized anti-Nazi protests and rallies throughout New York City beginning in March of 1933, and the AJC Women’s Division, then newly formed, established the first ban on Nazi goods in the country. In 1936, the AJC played a pivotal role in the formation of the World Jewish Organization (WJO), to which Rabbi Wise was elected President.

New York Jews in Mass Protest against Hitler, 1933. Original photograph found in Box 760, Folder 21 of the American Jewish Congress records. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Stephen S. Wise addressing crowd during Mass Protest against Hitler.
Stephen S. Wise addressing crowd during Mass Protest against Hitler, 1933. Original photograph found in Box 760, Folder 21 of the American Jewish Congress records. Image courtesy of AJHS.

In his capacity as the American Leader of the WJO, Rabbi Wise received the Reigner telegram on August 29, 1942, alerting America to Hitler’s plans for the extermination of European Jews. An emergency committee was created to seek an alliance among Jewish organizations to urge the Roosevelt administration to take action. The AJC held a rally on March 1, 1943 at Madison Square Garden, drawing roughly 80,000 attendees, and gathering the support of many prominent Americans. In an open letter following the rally, the AJC proclaimed, “Judea does not want war. It desires peace with all the world. There can be no peace, however, […] as long as anti-Semitism flourishes.”[1]

Mass Rally at Madison Square Garden. American Jewish Congress, Records I-77. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Mass Rally at Madison Square Garden, December 13, 1939. American Jewish Congress, Records I-77. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Newsletter distributed by the American Jewish Congress, 1943. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Newsletter distributed by the American Jewish Congress, 1943. Image courtesy of AJHS.

The AJC’s work naturally evolved from the fight against anti-Semitism to taking on wider issues of bigotry and racial discrimination in the United States. In May of 1945, the AJC announced a goal of “full equality in a free society for all Americans” and created the Commission on Law and Social Action (CLSA) to bring together a team of lawyers including: Shad Polier, Alexander Pekelis, Leo Pfeffer, Joseph Robison, Phil Baum, Naomi Levine, Lois Waldman and Howard Squadron. The AJC made it its mission to work with other groups serving marginalized people in a unified front against discrimination. Under the leadership of Will Maslow, the AJC cooperated closely with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its Legal Defense Fund to submit amicus curiae briefs in virtually every racial segregation case brought before the United States Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education. The AJC became deeply involved with the civil rights movements of the 1960s, its members attending protests, marches and sit-ins across the country.

Brief of American Jewish Congress as Amicus Curiae in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, 1952.
Cover of Amicus Curiae brief submitted by the American Jewish Congress in Brown v. Board of Education, 1952. Image courtesy of AJHS.

President of the Congress, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, was a founding chairman and one of the key organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. AJC members attended the march, and Rabbi Prinz addressed the crowd from the same podium where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech just moments later. In his address Prinz declared that “America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely Black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us…”[2]. Rabbi Prinz and members of the AJC were also active participants at the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.

American Jewish Congress takes part in ‘Solidarity Day’ March in support of Poor People’s Campaign, Washington D.C. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
American Jewish Congress takes part in ‘Solidarity Day’ March in support of Poor People’s Campaign, Washington D.C., 1968. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Members of American Jewish Congress picketing Woolworth Store.  American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Members of American Jewish Congress picketing Woolworth Store,
1960. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
The Issue is Silence: An Address by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
The Issue is Silence: An Address by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Joachim Prinz speaking at the March on Washington with Bayard Rustin pictured, 1963. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Joachim Prinz speaking at the March on Washington with Bayard Rustin pictured, 1963. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Joachim Prinz, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Wechsler. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Joachim Prinz, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Wechsler, 1963. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Image courtesy of AJHS.
American Jewish Congress member holding sign at Montgomery March. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Courtesy of AJHS.
American Jewish Congress member holding sign at Montgomery March,
1965. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Courtesy of AJHS.
Rosa Parks holding hands with other demonstrators at Montgomery March. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Courtesy of AJHS.
Rosa Parks holding hands with other demonstrators at Montgomery March.
American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Courtesy of AJHS.
Demonstrator holding American Jewish Congress sign at Montgomery March. Original photograph found in Box 744, Folder 41 of the American Jewish Congress records. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Demonstrator holding American Jewish Congress sign at Montgomery March, 1965. Demonstrator holding American Jewish Congress sign at Montgomery March. Original photograph found in Box 744, Folder 41 of the American Jewish Congress records. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harry Belafonte near podium. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Courtesy of AJHS.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harry Belafonte near podium, 1965. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Courtesy of AJHS.

While the CLSA’s first notable victory in the fight for Women’s rights was their call for the elimination of restrictive abortion laws in 1964, the AJC Women’s Division had been rallying for equal rights among the women of the American Jewish community since its inception in 1933. Women were officially integrated into the organization in the early 1970s and Naomi Levine became the National Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress in 1972, making her the first woman to serve as an Executive Director of a national Jewish organization. The Commission for Women’s Equality (CWE) was established by the AJC in 1984 and chaired by a number of prominent feminists including Betty Friedan and Ann Lewis, with members such as Cynthia Ozick, Bella Abzug and Francine Klagsbrun. The CWE confronted issues of reproductive freedom, gender discrimination, and education regarding the hereditary genetic conditions among Jewish women. Through collaboration with the most influential women of the feminist movement, the CWE was able to establish a voice for Jewish feminism.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Justine Wise Polier at membership event; undated. American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Courtesy of AJHS.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Justine Wise Polier at membership event; undated.
American Jewish Congress records, undated, 1916–2006. Courtesy of AJHS.
Bella Abzug speaking at the first International Jewish Feminist Conference: The Empowerment of Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1988.
Bella Abzug speaking at the first International Jewish Feminist Conference, The Empowerment of Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1988. Image courtesy of AJHS.
Jacqueline Levine speaking at the first International Jewish Feminist Conference: The Empowerment of Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1988.
Jacqueline Levine speaking at the first International Jewish Feminist Conference, The Empowerment of Jewish Women in Jerusalem, 1988. Image courtesy of AJHS.

The lasting impact of the American Jewish Congress’ work echoes clearly throughout the social movements of today. Preserving this collection will allow its stories to continue informing and empowering those working to enact social change, and will ensure that the hard-won victories of the past are not erased by an uncertain future.

This exhibit is an extension of a grant-funded project to complete the processing of the Records of the American Jewish Congress, an archival collection housed at the American Jewish Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Works Cited

  1. American Jewish Congress. An Open Letter to the Public. New York: American Jewish Congress Emergency Fund, 1943. Print.
  2. Prinz, Joachim, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963, Washington, D.C. New York City: American Jewish Congress, 1963. Print. Digitized by the American Jewish Historical Society.

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