Jewish Movers and Shakers

[From Instauration May 1998]

A new book has just crossed my desk that has given me a fuller understanding of the role of Jews in pre- and post-WWII America. Titled Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties, it is written by Chosenite Stuart Svonkin, a history professor at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research.

The book centers around the successful efforts of three major Jewish organizations to eliminate all forms of discrimination and prejudice from the American social order. The trio is the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL), and the American Jewish Congress (AJC).

As Svonkin points out:

While the various intergroup field included representatives of various racial, religious and ethnic communities, Jewish organizations played the leading role in defining the movement's tactics and objectives.

The history of the Jews has been an unremitting effort to establish themselves as a separate entity. They then became more conspicuous as they prospered and the genetic xenophobia (fear and hatred of those who are different) of the host population manifested itself, leading to their expulsion or killing. This process has happened countless times through the ages in the countries and towns of Europe and the Near East.

Jewish leaders in the U.S., particularly in light of a reemergence of a strong anti- Jewish bias in threatening guises such as militant anti-Communists, anti-Zionists and a radical-right movement, were alarmed and determined not to let the age-old patterns of Europe repeat themselves in America. Professor Svonkin writes:

The primary objective of the Jewish intergroup relation agencies after 1945 was too prevent such an occurrence -- in effect, to prevent the emergence of an anti-Semitic reactionary mass movement in the United States.

Jewish leaders had reached the conclusion that "the elimination of anti-Semitism and the preservation of a vibrant Jewish culture in the U.S. depended upon the expansion of civil rights to all Americans."

The author devotes two chapters, "Propaganda Against Prejudice" and "Teaching Tolerance," to the efforts of the AJC and the ADL to fight prejudice and anti-Semitism. They launched a multimillion-dollar campaign of ads, radio programs and a number of movies, such as Crossfire, Gentlemen's Agreement, Home of the Brave and The Jackie Robinson Story. The biggest effort was directed towards schools, with materials and programs made available on a large scale. By the early 1960s the ADL's Benjamin Epstein estimated, "one out of every three teachers in the U.S. has at some time received our materials."

However, it was through the courts, Congress and state legislatures that vast social changes were put in place. Other intergroup organizations such as the NAACP, the ACLU and some labor unions pushed for civil rights, but it was the American Jewish Congress and its Commission on Law and Social Action (CLSA) that led the way to enact the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These acts prohibited discrimination in employment, education, certain public accommodations and voting. Duane Lockard, a leading social scientist, claimed, "Jewish religious and social organizations deserve much credit for the initiation of hundreds of civil rights campaigns."

The Jewish intergroup relations leaders still had a major challenge to meet and overcome in the '40s and '50s. It was the perception of many Americans that Jews and communism were synonymous. Many new immigrants from Eastern Europe were Communists and coalesced in such organizations as the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order (JPFO), described by Svonkin as, "the main vehicle of Communist influence in Jewish life." Eventually, Jewiswh anti-Communist leaders such as Rabbi S. Andhil Fineburg were successful in purging communism and its followers from most Jewish groups.

According to Svonkin, Jewish leaders nwo are worried that intermarriage and Jewish indifference to Jewishness may bring about changes that pogroms and expulsion failed to accomplish. He writes,

intergroup relations leaders were also confronting the problem of assimilation, a new and more immediate challenge to Jewish survival.

Jewish leaders have been exhorting American Jews to have more children and reaffirm their ethnicity in order to ensure the continuation of a Jewish culture here.

What the book proves is that a small band of competent, dedicated people, superbly organized and with unlimited finances, can drastically change the social framework of any country, regardless of size. Professor Svonkin has produced an excellent book on the Jewish input in American history. Well written, extensively researched (110 pages of notes), I recommend it highly.


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