The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is a nonprofit advocacy organization and publisher promoting the interests of American Jews. It was founded by wealthy Jews (mostly of German background and active in the Reform movement) in 1906 in the face of murderous pogroms in Russia. It is the oldest and one of the most important voices of Judaism. Working quietly behing the scenes, it sought primarily to eliminate the barriers to full Jewish participation in American life and to secure, as far as possible, Jewish equality in other countries. It opposed Zionism until 1967, then did a total turnaround and joined other major groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, and B'nai B'rith in vigorous and vocal support of Israel.
The goals are:
- Combating anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry;
- Promoting pluralism and shared democratic values;
- Supporting Israel's quest for peace and security;
- Advocating for energy independence (as opposed to oil from the Middle East;
- Strengthening Jewish life.
Its headquarters are in New York, with its Office of Government & International Affairs in Washington, AJC has 29 chapters and 3 independent affiliates in the U.S. and 8 overseas offices. It is not a mass membership organization. In 2007 it raised $57 million and spent $47 million on salaries and other activities; it had an endowment of $93 million. Its CEO is David Harris, the Executive Director.
The AJC was dominated for years by banker Jacob H. Schiff, who relied on his wealth, his power, and his single-minded certainty to shape the organization. a partner in Kuhn, Loeb and Company. He worked closely with corporate lawyer Louis Marshall and Cyrus Adler. the intellectual who headed the Jewish Theological Seminary. Also involved was Adolph S. Ochs, owner of the New York Times. Business, personal, and family relationships tied these AJC founders to a network of key supporters, inclufing the Warburgs (especially Felix Warburg), the Strauses and the Guggenheims, the Sulzbergers in Philadelphia, and to similar groups in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. The founders died out in the 1920s and were replaced by Judge Joseph M. Proskauer, Jacob Blaustein, and Irving M. Engel, who maintained ties with wealthy sponsors. Local chapters were established, which somewhat weakened the control of the central office in New York, which had become bureaucratized with a permanent staff of well-paid experts. By the 1930s they were supporting social science research into the causes and cures of prejudice. It learned that prejudice was indivisible, and that in the United States it was less desirable to argue in favor of the rights of Jews than to defend the equality of all Americans, including Jews. Alliances were sought with other ethnic and religious groups.
Philanthropy was always a very high communal value among Jews, and AJC leaders in the early days were mindful of their responsibility toward the large numbers of poor Yiddish-speaking East European Jews entering the country. Nevertheless they feared that these not-yet-Americanized masses--bringing with them Old World customs and alien ideologies, holding public rallies and protest meetings instead of working patiently through the existing Jewish establishment--threatened to create the wrong image in the public mind. The AJC did not want the American public to envision American Jewry as a foreign culture transplanted artificially to American shores. The profound fear, repeated over and over, was the risk of evoking an anti-Semitic reaction that would endanger the status of all American Jews. The AJC seeing itself as the natural "steward" of the community, took on the mission of educating the new arrivals in proper Americanism.
Louis Marshall (1856-1929) was a key founder and long-time president (1912-29). he made the AJC the leading voice in the 1920s against immigration restriction, but he could not stop passage of major limititations on the inflow of immigrants. He did succeed in stopping Henry Ford from publishing anti-Semitic literature and distributing it through his car dealerships; indeed, Ford appologized publicly to Marshall. At the same time, Marshall supported institutions working for the rapid assimilation of East European Jews, recognizing that mass immigration was creating many social problems in America's industrial and urban centers. After the World War, Marshall had some success in adding into the peace treaties provisions guaranteeing the rights of minorities. In the 1920s the AJC was actively concerned with dangers in Poland and Rumania, where violent outbreaks of anti-Semitism and the restriction of civil rights made the position of Jews precarious. In the 1930s it lobbied quietly for the entry of Jewish refugees from Hitler, but had little success. During the war it discouraged open talk of the Holocaust, lest a backlash lead to heightened anti-Semitism in the U.S. In 1945 it urged a human rights program upon the United Nations and proved vital in enlisting the support that made possible the human rights provisions in the UN Charter. The AJC before the Six Day War in 1967 was officially "non-Zionist." Indeed it had long opposed Zionism and only became reconciled to the creation of Israel in 1947-48, when the the U.S. backed the partition of Palestine. As 1967 began the AJC still was the major national Jewish body that was most self-consciously American, most reluctant to acknowledge links to other Jewish communities beyond those of religion and philanthropy, and least willing to subordinate institutional autonomy to the cause of Jewish communal solidarity. That it transformed itself almost overnight into a passionate defender of the Jewish state and, in so doing, shed old inhibitions to espouse Jewish peoplehood was itself a measure of the impact this crisis had on American Jewry as a whole.
Since 1945 it has published Commentary, focused on political and cultural commentary and analysis of politics and society in the U.S. and the Middle East. Originally liberal, Commentary has moved right and since the 1980s has been the voice of Neoconservatives. Since 1906 it has published the invaluable American Jewish Yearbook, a highly detailed account of Jewish life in the U.S., Israel and the world.
- Cohen, Naomi Wiener. "The Transatlantic Connection: The American Jewish Committee and the Joint Foreign Committee in Defense of German Jews, 1933-1937," American Jewish History V. 90, #4, December 2002, pp. 353-384 in Project MUSE
- Cohen, Naomi Wiener. Not Free to Desist: The American Jewish Committee, 1906-1966 (1972), a standard history
- Grossman, Lawrence. "Transformation Through Crisis: The American Jewish Committee and the Six-Day War," American Jewish History, Volume 86, Number 1, March 1998, pp. 27-54 in Project MUSE
- Handlin, Oscar. "The American Jewish Committee: A Half-Century View Commentary (Jan. 1957) pp 1-10 online
- Sanua, Marianne R. Let Us Prove Strong: The American Jewish Committee, 1945-2006 (2007). 495 pp. the standard scholarly history
- Svonkin, Stuart. Jews against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties (1997), covers AJC and other groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress