The Rise and Fall of the American Jewish Establishment





Jack Ross is the author of Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, and is presently at work on a complete history of the Socialist Party of America.

It has now been a year since the publication of the widely discussed essay in the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.”  Among the useful functions of this essay was to provide a more precise term for the pro-Israel lobby as described in the work of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, a large and interconnected bureaucracy of several organizations and not merely a single Washington lobbying outfit.  In historical terms, then, how do we define the “American Jewish establishment”?

Throughout the 1930s, the politically ambitious Rabbi Stephen Wise had been seeking to achieve the political consolidation of the American Jewish community through his World Jewish Congress, claiming it would be a “democratic” expression of the will of American Jewry as opposed to the elitist American Jewish Committee, founded by wealthy German Jews in 1906.  Elitist though it was, the AJC was opposed as a matter of principle to the presumption that it spoke for all American Jewry.  Adherents to the classical doctrine of Reform Judaism—which significantly was also strongly anti-Zionist—they viewed with alarm any notion of an established “Jewish collective” as a throwback to the civil authority granted to Orthodox rabbis by princes of the old order.

From August 30 to September 1, 1943, an “American Jewish Conference” was convened which for the first time presumed to speak as a representative body of all American Jewry, and which constitutionally committed them to the Zionist program.  This conference was not convened by Wise, however, but by the American Zionist Emergency Council, the direct ancestor of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which was established by the World Zionist Organization upon the outbreak of World War II to ensure its survival in the U.S.,, which contained the largest Jewish population of any neutral country.

Dissent from the presumptions of the American Jewish Conference at the time was considerable.  Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, was one of the most outspoken opponents.  The Jewish Labor Committee, founded a decade earlier by veterans of the anti-Zionist Jewish Socialist Bund, was also highly critical of the conference.  And while the leadership of Reform Judaism was increasingly dominated by acolytes of Stephen Wise, several rabbis of the classical school formed the American Council for Judaism, which would be the most active resistance organization to the new American Jewish establishment for the next generation.

The other major consequence of the establishment of the American Zionist Emergency Council was the formation of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) by a merger of the United Palestine Appeal with the philanthropic arm of the American Jewish Committee.  The American Council for Judaism, though it actively participated in the debate over the establishment of the State of Israel, saw its primary purpose as preserving the independence and integrity of American Judaism against the dominating influence of Zionism.  This was identified first and foremost with the UJA, and the financial control it exerted over all American Jewish organizational life by refusing to separate its Zionist funds from general philanthropic funds.

As late as the 1970s, American Jewish life was in great measure dominated by the frenzy stirred up in the American Jewish grassroots to fulfill the annual quotas of the UJA, with fundraising drives even quite often dominating High Holiday services in this era.  When the principled refusal of the American Council for Judaism to give to the UJA combined with its expressed concern for the plight of the Palestinian refugees, the organization was effectively excommunicated.  When the governing bodies of Reform Judaism concluded this process in 1956-7, the first charge listed was having “impaired the vital work of the United Jewish Appeal in a time of dire emergency.”

But the process began as early as 1950, under the direction of the National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC) which emerged out of the American Jewish Conference, constructing itself on the basis of the stated program of the Zionist Organization of America after the founding of the State of Israel to “capture the communities.”  Rather than resist, the two organizations most inclined to sympathize with the American Council for Judaism—the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Labor Committee—affiliated with NCRAC with the apparent hope of being a moderating influence.  But the American Jewish Committee became totally Zionist by the middle of the decade, helped along by the boring from within of their young charge, Commentary magazine.  The Jewish Labor Committee remained deeply divided between Zionists and anti-Zionists throughout the 50s, while the Forward, which exhibited Zionist sympathies as early as the late 1920s, vigorously enforced the Zionist line in the aging ranks of the Jewish old left.

When the Eisenhower administration came to office in 1953, it looked on the American Council for Judaism as a valuable ally.  Officials hoped that Israel could be recognized by the Arab states within the 1949 armistice lines in exchange for a reasonable settlement of the refugee problem and that Israel could become, in the words of John Foster Dulles, “a part of the Middle East community and cease looking upon itself as alien to that community.”  In practice, this meant that Israel would have become integrated into a regional anti-Communist bloc that came into a brief dubious existence as the Baghdad Pact.  The American Council for Judaism also closely collaborated with the CIA-backed American Friends of the Middle East.  But the Israel lobby, in its early gestations, protested these policies vigorously.

The turning point in the history of an American Jewish establishment came in 1958, when the very thing feared by its opponents from the outset came to pass.  The Eisenhower Administration, bowing to the premise that Zionists spoke for all American Jewry, requested the merger of the the governing bureaucracy of the various Jewish organizations to represent the American Jewish community as Zionists.  The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was formed, taking over the functions of the NCRAC.  If the status of the Conference of Presidents as an ecumenical body should strike the casual observer as absurd, it was taken with absolute seriousness by its leaders.  The leader of AIPAC in this era, Philip Bernstein, would describe the American Council for Judaism in all necessary statements as having arisen to oppose “the united program of the American Jewish community adopted in 1943,” as though this carried something like the force of law.

The question soon arose of whether constituent organizations of the Conference of Presidents were required to register as foreign agents.  This question also threatened the tax-exempt status of the United Jewish Appeal, which was forced by the IRS to undergo a limited reorganization in 1961.  The revelations of this reorganization prompted a series of hearings by Senator William Fulbright, with the active support of the American Council for Judaism. The Justice Department also opened an investigation around this time.  But the organizations most directly impacted by this scrutiny, the American section of the Jewish Agency and the American Zionist Council, simply folded themselves into other existing organizations, the latter quite ingeniously into one of its own divisions, AIPAC.

These maneuvers set the stage for the transition which formed the American Jewish establishment as we know it today, but which would also plant the seeds of its currently ongoing destruction.  This occurred largely under the cover of the euphoria that swept American Jewry in the aftermath of the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, in which the last lingering dissent from the American Jewish establishment was effectively wiped out.  The American Council for Judaism simply imploded.  And the historic Jewish left was now in a vanguard role on the other side.  William Stern, the leader of the socialist Workmen’s Circle who had been an anti-Zionist ally in the 1950s, was now an ardent Zionist and a key architect of the foundation stone of neoconservatism known as Social Democrats USA.

The transition, in short, was away from a grassroots movement, typified by the UJA, toward a movement of influence-peddlers, typified by AIPAC.  With Israel an unambiguous Cold War ally in the aftermath of the 1967 war, AIPAC could have the run of Washington as long as all it wanted was massive military aid to Israel, the suppression of unfavorable UN resolutions, and the ability to get three-fourths of the House and Senate to sign a napkin, as one AIPAC operative was quoted in the book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.  It has only been in the last decade, when AIPAC began successfully agitating for actual foreign wars that this has even begun to change.

One very concrete consequence of the post-1967 transformation of the Israel lobby has been the withering of the UJA and the “federation” structure that it left behind, to the point where in many localities these federations have become dominated by critics of the American Jewish establishment, including not only J Street but groups well to their left.  This has become a point of great anguish for the neocons and other right-wing Israel partisans, as has the rise of a Jewish religious leadership decidedly hostile to Zionism.  Though the major Jewish denominations remain affiliated with the Conference of Presidents and thus directly implicated in its activities, unaffiliated congregations with origins in the new left and counterculture – that first emerged when the American Jewish establishment was at its zenith – have been the wave of the future for some time.

But the most fateful factor has been the alliance of the American Jewish establishment with the neoconservatives.  It has been said that with friends like the neocons, Israel does not need enemies, and this is if anything even more true of the American Jewish establishment.  Norman Podhoretz wrote frankly in his memoir Breaking Ranks that the opposition of the emerging neoconservatives to George McGovern was motivated in great measure by a concern that a less militarist America would be bad for Israel, and this was repeated at the time by many of his colleagues such as Irving Kristol and John Roche. 

In neocon polemics against their political near-neighbors who remained on the left in the 1970s and 80s, we can see the origins of their present unmitigated hysteria toward progressive Zionists such as J Street and Peter Beinart.  As early as this period, any suggestion by critics on the left that they cared more deeply about Israel and for that reason wanted it to make the necessary sacrifices to survive as a Jewish state touched a very raw nerve for the neocons.  The great irony, however, is that the deep commitment to Israel and to Zionist first principles by the democratic left of this era, reflected in the present day by J Street, may have been the very thing that ensured the marriage of the American Jewish establishment and the neoconservatives.  This commitment to Israel was not the only factor, but a critical factor, in the failure of principled non-interventionism to take hold on the left in the aftermath of Vietnam, thereby pulling American politics to the point where by the 1990s the left-most reach of political respectability was the Democratic Leadership Council. 

In short, the American Jewish establishment based so much of its program on the assumption that this would be the case indefinitely, and a generation later it is paying dearly for it.  The American Jewish establishment may still have all the friends it needs and more in the Democratic Party, but American liberalism has changed profoundly since the 1990s, to say nothing of the 1970s.  The writer Irving Howe, who came to bitterly regret his alliance with the neoconservatives in his final years, gave a speech in 1989 foreseeing that “because the religion of most American Jews is not serious, it has become almost totally defined by Israel, and a major crisis will erupt as Israel’s actions become less and less defensible.”  Or as Samuel Goldenson, then-rabbi of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, put it in a sermon blasting the original proposal of Stephen Wise for a World Jewish Congress in 1938: 

As long as the Jew feels he has a heritage worth cherishing, a heritage informed with the spirit of his lawgivers, prophets, psalmists, and sages, and that through this heritage he can realize the best in himself and make significant contributions to the moral and spiritual life of mankind, he can feel personally justified to carry on and can claim the right to remain a Jew in any society.  The moment he gives up these convictions, he abandons his special reason for existence and his warrant to survive as a member of a separate group.  Thereafter, every claim that he makes in behalf of Jewish life and Jewish identity becomes less and less intelligible to others and loses force in their minds.

For a host of complex political and historical reasons, the American Jewish establishment was able to persist on its own terms for over half a century.  But this gradual loss of intelligibility is precisely what has finally come home to roost in recent years, not least with the generation of American Jewish youth who were the subject of the Beinart essay.  It is not, as Beinart put it, that they have made the opposite decision from their elders and prioritized liberalism over Zionism rather than the reverse, but the first principles of Zionism and the American Jewish establishment simply strike them as incomprehensible if not absurd.


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