Ajcommittee and Ajcongress Agree Remaining Separate is Best for Now

Merger talks between the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress came to an unsuccessful end last week, with the two organizations agreeing to remain separate.

A merger had promised to reduce overhead, administrative expenses and overlapping programs of the two groups, which have similar goals of protecting Jewish interests around the world and promoting American democracy at home.

Similar talks had taken place in the early 1970s. Given the general decline of money available to Jewish organizations, as well as specific budget crises undergone by the two groups in the late 1980s, this round of talks was seen as potentially more fruitful.

But the once-bitter differences between the two groups remain manifest in their distinct governance systems, and they could not be overcome despite six months of talks.

A central obstacle to the merger, though one not officially raised in the talks, was the political stances of the groups. AJCongress is strongly liberal on domestic issues and Israeli politics. AJCommittee is more centrist on Israel and publishes the neoconservative magazine Commentary.

AJCongress was founded in 1922, in large measure out of anger and frustration among Eastern European immigrants that they were excluded by the German-Jewish elite which founded AJCommittee in 1906.

The ethnic gap was reflected in ideology, as well, with AJCommittee distinctly cool toward Zionism in its early years and AJCongress embracing it.

While all that is history, and both sides agree that little separates the AJCommittee membership from that of AJCongress, the residue of the original differences remains entrenched in the organizations’ bylaws.

In keeping with its original aspirations to be a democratic congress, the AJCongress leadership is elected by its members; in keeping with the original self-selection of AJCommittee, some AJCommittee leadership positions are reserved for those who contribute at least $5,000 to the organization.

‘DIFFICULT GAP TO BRIDGE’

Trying to contain both groups within a new organization is “an enormously difficult gap to bridge,” said AJCongress President Robert Lifton. “That’s not culture; that’s hard, practical common sense.”

AJCommittee President Alfred Moses also dismissed talk of cultural differences.

“We’re as grass roots as you can be. We’re the people who have the daily minyan at our meetings,” he said.

Also at issue was the proportionate weight the two groups would have in a merged body.

Weighing by membership would give parity to AJCongress, which claims 50,000 members against the 40,000 reported by AJCommittee.

But as measured by size of operations, the $19 million budget of the AJCommittee budget far outweighs that of AJCongress, which is $7 million.

Had the merger been based on anything less than an equal footing, it would have been likely that the distinctive AJCongress political position would have been lost.

The political differences between the two organizations were highlighted in March, when the admission of the left-wing Americans for Peace Now into the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was debated.

AJCongress strongly favored Peace Now’s admission. AJCongress had been one of the few organizations bringing a dovish perspective to the communal consensus, as voiced by the Conference of Presidents.

AJCommittee, however, supported an unsuccessful effort to table the issue.

At the time, one observer described the Peace Now vote as “the deathblow for the merger,” because it made clear that “it would be an absorption” of AJCongress.

In a joint statement this week, the presidents of both groups said the talks had “given us a renewed appreciation and respect for the traditions and accomplishments of both organizations, something that will undoubtedly result in continued close cooperation on matters of mutual concern.”

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