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Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2002 / 2 Shevat, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Is there life after liberalism?

AJCongress gains ground by moving to the center -- IN the 2001 American Jewish Year Book published by the American Jewish Committee, groups that fit under the rubric of "National Jewish Organizations" take up 63 pages of extremely small print in the directory.

But despite the continued proliferation of Jewish organizations, anyone who is paying attention to the way American Jews actually live has to wonder how most of them will ultimately survive.

Rates of assimilation and affiliation are down, while philanthropic and arts groups that were once off-limits to American Jews now welcome Jewish support with open arms.

Moreover, Jewish organizations founded on a concept of Jewish identity based on secular political ideology are finding that younger Jews are no longer interested in bagels-and-lox Judaism.

In particular, the old-line liberal membership organizations that once dominated Jewish life are finding life in the 21st century particularly challenging.

A few years ago, billionaire philanthropist Samuel Bronfman gave a speech at a session of the General Assembly of Jewish Federations that called for a merger of three of the most prominent and venerable of national Jewish membership organizations: the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress. Continuing to support all three was, he said, a waste of time, energy and money.

Needless to say, the three groups didn't take the advice of a man who had used his presidency of yet another member of the Jewish alphabet-soup brigade - the World Jewish Congress - as a personal platform for the last two decades.


But egos and fundraising issues aside, there was some sense to Bronfman's appeal, at least when it came to the two AJCs. ADL had staked out turf as the premier anti-Semitism and hate monitor in the country. But the other two have struggled nationally in the last generation to find their identities and a constituency.

Though AJCommittee and AJCongress were once bitter rivals with very different philosophies and tactics, by the 1990s, in the eyes of the Jewish layman, there was little to differentiate the two.

Both advocated policies that were predictably politically liberal on domestic issues and supportive of the peace camp in Israel overseas. Each had its strengths: AJCommittee in publishing and AJCongress in Washington-based legal advocacy. But unless you were an insider, their similarities seemed to outweigh any differences.

Like many groups created in an era when the struggle was about Jewish rights and fighting anti-Semitism, a quick listen to their platforms told us more about the mindset of American liberalism than of American Judaism.

Jews were still likely to be more politically liberal than almost any other sector of the population. And it is possible -- if debatable -- to define items of the liberal social-policy agenda, such as gun control or abortion, as "Jewish issues."

Organizations such as these, whose philosophy seemed to cry out "Judaism equals liberalism equals Judaism," have too much competition nowadays from secular organizations that aren't burdened by the Jewish stuff.

And those who still think that Judaism is the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in are more likely to be satisfied by the newly energized advocacy arm of the Reform movement.

Lacking a clear Jewish consensus on many domestic issues and trying to raise members and funds from a Jewish population that is increasingly diverse in its makeup, groups like AJCongress struggled to be heard as well as to survive financially.

The truth is, the age of knee-jerk American Jewish liberalism is in decline, even if it's not yet over.

The apothesis of such loyalty for AJCongress came in August of 1998 when, alone of all national Jewish groups, they spoke out in defense of President Clinton when it was revealed that he lied about Monica Lewinsky. Echoing the White House spin, AJCongress issued a press release lauding Clinton and demanding that critics cease to waste his time with questions about the scandal.

Leaving aside the debate about the rights and wrongs of the actions of Clinton and his accusers, what struck me as most absurd was the idea that taking a stand on this tawdry issue was the business of a Jewish defense organization.

AJCongress' blatant political partisanship seemed to demonstrate not only bad judgment, but befuddlement as to what the mission of the organization actually was.

But those, including this writer, who underestimated its ability to adapt to the times are noticing that there are new signs of life in the 83-year-old group. In the last couple of years, AJCongress has begun a subtle, yet discernable, shift to the political center.

Eschewing a partisan tilt toward the Democrats, AJCongress hired Chuck Brooks, a former Republican lobbyist, as its Washington representative. Here in Philadelphia, Joseph Puder, an Israeli-born writer whose sympathies are clearly on the right of the Jewish state's political spectrum, was engaged to run the local chapter. Old-line liberals were eased out in some other places.


And national president Jack Rosen, who only three years ago was fighting alongside Clinton until, in the president's own words, "the last dog died," is now praising President Bush and talking about the group's obligation to be pragmatic.

Though AJCongress officials are at pains to still portray themselves as liberals (and indeed, many of their positions remain depressingly similar), the point here is that the group seems to be more interested in listening to a changing American Jewry than in dictating liberal ideology to them.

On Israel and the peace process, AJCongress likewise seems to be listening and drawing conclusions from events. Though it still claims to be backing the idea of the Oslo peace process, statements coming out of local and national offices reflect a greater realism about Palestinian intransigence and Israel's security needs.

All of this has outraged some of the group's members, who don't like the idea that their old liberal club is evolving into something more mainstream. That is understandable, but there are other more ideological outlets for them.

Yet rather than hurting AJCongress' viability, the effort to bring in new blood and new ideas seems to have energized some of the chapters, especially here in Philadelphia. Far from being a sellout, AJCongress' shift to appeal to a younger, less narrow constituency means not only a chance to live on, it gives them the ability to advocate with greater authority - not less - when they do speak out.

The ability of AJCongress or any of its rivals to prosper well into the 21st century is far from assured. Deeper questions of Jewish continuity and demography will continue to limit its donor base the same as any other group.

But as much as I disagree with the group on many issues, you have to give AJCongress credit for at least trying to adapt. Too many of its counterparts are blindly going forward without seeking a new purpose, even if the issues that once defined them are long since relegated to history books.

Rather than go quietly into the night as yet another irrelevant Jewish dinosaur, this old warhorse is trying to find a purpose and role for itself in a changing American Jewish world. Whether it succeeds or not, we should all wish them luck in the endeavor.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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