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Merging Jewish Organizations

Part VII

When asked if each organization would consider merging into one single body for any activity, everyone explained their reason for joining the Council. The Jewish Labor Committee because “this was a new experiment of cooperating with non-labor groups in a united council.” Representatives from the Jewish Labor Committee were willing to forgo some traditional and conventional cooperation, believing that “in these trying days in Jewish life, our defense work could be conducted more effectively in a coordinated effort.”

Yet, the Jewish Labor Committee argued that it had a definite mission in the work of defense which it could “successfully perform only when it” acted “as a distinct labor group. Once it completely merged, its efficacy in its particular field in gone.” Therefore, “to merge all four organizations into a single body would mean to deny that the differences exist and to try to force everything into a single mold.”

The American Jewish Committee also rejected the idea of a merger since they did not believe in “a single Jewish voice,” added Naomi Cohen. The American Jewish Congress advocated “Jewish national consciousness and ethnocentrism.” They urged American Jews not to conceal their Jewish concerns. “I have been an American for all my life,” avowed Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, “but I have been a Jew for 4,000 years.”

Aside from appealing to those compelled to denounce Nazism and be counted as Jews, this widespread notion of cultural pluralism remained foreign to the AJC. Their leadership described Judaism as fundamentally a “spiritual legacy.” The idea of Jewish nationalism alarmed members of the AJC, who feared any suggestion of dual loyalty. Cohen added that the AJC “differed in background, ideals and interests [and] to impose consolidation by fiat was not only unrealistic, but also totalitarian.”

Another difference between the two organizations involved how best to respond to the Nazis. Nathan Schachner noted that the Congress believed the huge demonstrations, mass meetings, public protests, rallies and boycotting of German goods were the most effective means of countering the Nazis. The AJC viewed these public denunciations as futile, often nullified individual back-channel diplomatic efforts and cast the war as a “purely Jewish issue, with the result that Americans of other faiths would sit back and do nothing.” It was clear that the differences between the AJC and the American Jewish Congress were irreconcilable.

B’nai B’rith opposed consolidation for the same reasons as the AJC, according to Schachner. They joined the Council assuming that each group would adhere to the basic provisions, which called for the “immediate coordination” of activities to safeguard the equal rights of Jews, “but without affecting the autonomy of any of these organizations.” In his book “B’nai B’rith: The Story of a Covenant,” Edward Grusd, editor of B’nai B’rith’s the National Jewish Monthly, said B’nai B’rith had been unwilling to relinquish its independence.

The refusal of the Council to change its views did not deter the American Jewish Congress, according to articles in the Congress Bulletin on September 27, 1939 and October 10, 1939. With the approval of their affiliate organizations, the Congress attempted to persuade the JDC to allow the Jewish masses greater involvement in relief campaigns, and allow a wider representation of Jewish groups within the JDC’s official structure.

Although the negotiations ended in failure, the Congress hoped the JDC could still be persuaded to change its view. American Jews, the Congress reasoned, would make the final decision through its power of the purse. “All classes and elements” of the American Jewish community gave annually to the JDC and this entitled them to a voice in the decision-making process.

The American Jewish Committee countered that the JDC had already been cooperating with the United Jewish Appeal for Refugees and Overseas Needs. The “effectiveness” of this arrangement was “attested by the fact that shortly after this exchange of correspondence, the United Palestine Appeal and the National Refugees Service was renewed for another year.”

The role that the Jewish masses should assume in relief activities and the question of consolidation of relief efforts were issues that had been raised during WWI as well. Since these questions were “really part of a latent war for rule within [American] Jewry,” they were never resolved to the complete satisfaction of all concerned. The Congress and the JDC had been locked in a struggle over these matters since the mid-’20s, and this was just one more round in their battle, observed the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s YIVO Annual.

The recurrent debate over the effectiveness and goals of the Council ultimately led to the American Jewish Congress withdrawing from the Council in April 1941. In 1944, the Council formally disbanded. The Council’s leaders and four founding organizations joined the Council of Jewish Federations to establish a new umbrella organization, the National Community Relations Advisory Council.

By Alex Grobman, PhD


Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, has written extensively on the Shoah and Israel including:License to Murder: The Enduring Threat of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened, and Why Do They Say It? with Michael Shermer; Battling For Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe; Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust; BDS: The Movement To Destroy Israel.; Nations United: How The UN Undermines Israel and West. He is a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

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