Founded November 11, 1906, the American Jewish Committee was the first organization established by American Jews to address the need to defend Jewish civil rights in the United States and throughout the world. Sparked by the large wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in czarist Russia, particularly the two massacres of Jews in Kishinev in 1903 and 1905, three American Jewish leaders–Oscar S. Straus, Jacob F Schiff, and Cyrus L. Sulzberger–undertook to raise funds for relief of the victims and thereby put in place the machinery for significant fundraising within the Jewish community, the first of its kind in the United States.
In early 1907, joined by Cyrus Adler, Louis Marshall, Judah L. Magnes, Simon Wolf, and other important American Jewish jurists and industrialists of the established German-Jewish elite, they formed a Committee of Fifty to establish a permanent organization
that aimed “…to prevent the infraction of the civil and religious rights of Jews, in any part of the world” and “…to render all lawful assistance” to those Jews whose rights were threatened.
Focus on Russia
In its early years, the American Jewish Committee acted to keep the doors of the United States open to Jewish immigrants and lobbied for the defense of the rights of American Jews traveling in Russia.
The latter project, following a key speech by Louis Marshall, resulted in the American government’s abrogation of the 1832 Russo-American Treaty of Commerce in 1911 because of Russia’s refusal to comply with an American demand for equal treatment of Jews. In arguing for the inviolability of American citizenship, Marshall invoked universal themes when he stated, “We can never suffer any question here concerning individual rights but such as relates to the entire American people.”
Expanding the Mission
Under Marshall’s leadership the American Jewish Committee expanded its mission to the defense of the rights of all Americans, regardless of race, creed, or religion. In 1913 the Committee was one of a number of groups that lobbied the United States government to press for human rights guarantees following the end of the Balkan Wars and supported the New York State Civil Rights Law, which prohibited the advertisement of discriminatory restrictions in hotels and other public places. During World War I the Committee was instrumental in the founding of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief organization, and the National Jewish Welfare Board, a social welfare organization devoted to the needs of American servicemen, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
In the post-war world the Committee’s agenda increasingly reflected American domestic concerns. In the 1920s the Committee, through an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, supported the right of Catholics to send their children to private parochial schools rather than to public school. Between 1933 and 1940, the Committee sponsored an educational campaign in the United States to counter Nazi and other anti-Semitic propaganda.
It also worked with the press, civic organizations, businesses, labor unions, veterans organizations, and church groups to promote its message of tolerance. In 1948 the Committee filed a brief with the United States Supreme Court opposing racially restrictive covenants and, in 1952, successfully advocated before the Court the position that damages were not applicable should such a covenant be broken.
“Champions of Liberty”
Beginning in 1956 the Committee began to sponsor conferences and studies by distinguished social scientists concerning Jewish continuity in the Diaspora, relations with Israel, and the present and projected role of religious and ethnic minorities in American life. As part of its mission to break down barriers separating groups from one another, the Committee invited Pope Pius XII to confer with them on issues regarding racial and religious persecution and the status of refugees in 1957.
Activities such as these, which remain ongoing today, led President Eisenhower to praise the Committee on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 1957. Saluting the Committee and its membership as “champions of liberty,” Eisenhower wrote: “They have helped to protect and strengthen the institutions of American democracy, they have helped to secure equal opportunities for all our citizens. By adding substance to our principles, deeds to our words, they help us make effective witness in the cause of world peace.”
Reprinted with permission from the American Jewish Desk Reference (The Philip Lief Group).