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Dr. Stephen S. Wise Retires from American Jewish Congress Presidency

May 20, 1929
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Dr. Stephen S. Wise announced his firm decision to retire from the office of president of the American Jewish Congress in his presidential message which he delivered Sunday afternoon at the opening session of the Congress at the Hotel Breakers here.

Several hundred delegates and guests were present when the session, delayed on two previous occasions, was opened.

Stressing the need for democracy in Jewish life and urging a discussion on the Jewish Agency, Dr. Wise declared that he expects “that no one will venture to offer the suggestion that I be asked to repudiate my own solemnly uttered word,” referring to an understanding reached two years ago when the American Jewish Congress was in session in Washington that he was to accept the office of president for another term on the condition that he must not again be asked to serve in this capacity. “I was, I am, I will remain its servant. The Congress may use me as it will, save in its highest office. That office must be intrusted to another,” he added.

Dr. Wise in his message declared:

“It is no longer necessary to argue about the need for an American Jewish Congress. The Congress has entered into the consciousness of Jewish life in our land, even though it has not yet won the support of American Israel in its entirety. The question before us will be not whether we shall go on, but how we are to go on, not whether we are to survive but how we are to live and serve.

“And nothing is clearer than that the American Jewish Congress is to be something more than a committee on emergencies in Jewish life, whether at home or abroad. Emergencies may be met in part through emergency committees, but emergencies are more likely to be averted by organizations of permanent character and of scope which is not limited to the handling of emergencies. Committees or bodies, designed to meet with situations which arise out of emergent and panicky conditions can hardly be expected to meet problems which thus arise, with wisdom and foresight.

“Wide-ranging as the work of the Congress has become, I have often wondered and still wonder whether it does not perform one function in Jewish life wherein it has neither rivalry nor competition, and alas only a minimum of emulation. The American Jewish Congress is the one open forum in American Jewish life wherein there is unchallengable freedom to state facts and views regarding Jewish life without fear or favor. And this is the more needful because we are in the midst of some deeply undemocratic tendencies in Jewish life, tendencies which may prove infinitely harmful unless they are faced and the Jewish people be resolved to overcome them. What the Jewish people need, unless it is to renounce every instinct and tradition of our classic democratic idealism is a forum not for the sake of debate, but for the sake of free and unchallengable utterance of opinion, touching any and every problem as it arises in Jewish life. The need of American Israel is not a dictatorship, however benevolent and efficient, but a tribune in the European sense of the term, before which all Jewish causes and measures may be brought for appraisal and evaluation. The American Jewish Congress retains and, I trust, may never lose the unique distinction of being the one Jewish organization the sole commitment of which lies in its furtherance of Jewish well-being without partisanship of any kind whatsoever.

“Before what other body in American Jewish life would it be possible to discuss the Jewish Agency, as it may confidently be expected that the Jewish Agency will be discussed in the course of our deliberations. No ‘chose jugee’ in the sight of the American (Continued on Page 3)

“Reverting to my earlier thought, the Congress has at last, after ten years of honest, resolute, unafraid effort penetrated the consciousness of Jewish life, and now it remains for the Congress through the strengthening of its organization and the building up of its constituent bodies, to give what is most sorely needed to Jewish life in our time,-form, manner and dignity. No one associated with the Congress, as far as its President knows, has indulged in the pretense that the American Jewish Congress is completely representative of all groups in American Jewish life. It does not represent nor does it desire to represent non-Jewish Jews. These are intolerant of every organization which is not self-contemptuous in spirit and self-obliterative in purpose. It will endure non-Jewish Jews, will endure representation only provided that representation be autocratic in tone and un-Jewish in acquiescence in whatsoever may be devised or decreed for Jews.

“The American Jewish Congress does not and would not wield autocratic power. Autocracy and democracy are irreconcilable terms. Autocracy, as has been seen in recent years, can be achieved through one or another of the acts of force and violence which are known as coups d’etat. The democratic governance of life can never be achieved save through ceaseless and self-less effort. The American Jewish Congress will grow stronger in the measure in which it evokes the discipline and loyalty of such as assent to the necessity of the method of cooperation as valid in the self-direction of American Jewish life. Discipline and loyalty involve the acceptance of the truth that if wrong be done to Jews in Roumania or Poland, the sequent problem is not to be solved by a number, large or small, of Roumanian or Polish Jews, who are become part of the American citizenship. Wrong done to a Jew anywhere becomes a problem and the challenge to Jews everywhere. Every Jewish question lies within the province of the whole Jewish people. Again I say that no need is more urgent than that of a deliberate rather than panicky, emergent, episodic coordination of Jewish organizations and instrumentalities for the strengthening of Jewish life in the highest sense of the term.

“The time has come for the American Jewish Congress to face the truth that Jewish effort must not remain negative in its implications, that is to say, alleviative and remedial rather than prophylactic. Inevitable it has been that during the decade that has passed since the adoption of the Minority Rights Clauses of the Versailles Peace Treaty, we have occupied ourselves largely though not solely with questions which have grown out of the status of minorities in central and east European lands. It may be years and even decades before the vigilance of organizations such as our own, the Conjoint Committe of the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Board of Jewish Deputies and the American Jewish Committee can be relaxed in respect to violation of minority rights. But our vigilance touching the actual or potential violation of minority rights in east European lands ought not be suffered to conceal from us the truth that all our problems are bound up with the minority status of Jews everywhere. The time is come to cease to limit ourselves to the correction of wrongs and to dedicate ourselves to the maintenance and the magnifying of rights in so far as these are become part not only of the law of the nations, but of the conscience of humankind. The surest way to avert wrongs anywhere is scrupulously to safe-guard rights and to magnify the right everywhere. It is too late when the hour is come to correct or even to redress overt wrongs; a people wise and understanding will address itself to the more hopeful and worth-while task of so lifting up the standard of human rights, which include Jewish rights, as to make it more and more difficult for wrongs to be attempted.


“It may be the practice of organizations which in a sense parallel to our own to indulge in such a recital of achievements as can never quite lose the savour of boastfulness and vulgarity-a vulgarity that becomes more or less than vulgarity, when the recital is found up with omission of due and just credit to organizations and individuals which have had a large and sometimes decisive part in bringing about those

“Nothing in the last two years in Jewish life has been more significant than the establishment through the determination and the action of the American Jewish Congress at Zurich in the summer of 1927 of the Jewish Committee on the Rights of Minorities, and, as a part of its program, the establishment of the Geneva Bureau, attached though of necessity unofficially to the League of Nations. Time and again, within the past two years, the attention of American Jews has been fixed upon actual or threatened invasion of the legal status of Jews by the reports of the representative of the Congress and the Jewish Committee on the Rights of Minorities, who holds a watching brief for the Jewish people.

“With respect to the affairs of the Jews of Roumania, it is not too much to say that the vigorous and decisive action of the Congress has made itself beneficently felt throughout Roumanian Jewish life, as witnessed by the solemn declarations to us of representatives of the Russian Jewish community. We would not claim responsibility for the initiating of that commission which investigated minority conditions in Roumania, but it is not too much to say that, far from obstructing and interfering as was urged by organizations other than our own, we gave our deepfelt sympathy and our earnest cooperation to the movement out of which grew the Commission that once and for all established the truth with respect to the Jewish status in Roumania. We have avoided every commitment to one or another group of party in the government of Roumania. Our business is not to decide in favor of one or another group in Roumanian life or in Jewish life. The American Jewish Congress has felt it to be its business solely to make clear through all permissible and legal channels that American Israel and, in truth, the entire American people would find it difficult to reconcile complete American sympathy with and respect for the new and larger Roumania, with grave and lawless infringement upon the rights of the Roumanian Jews.


“In our own country, we have been concerned with a goodly number of problems, a discussion of which will grow out of reports to be submitted by the chairman of the several committees that have occupied themselves with such problems. But it cannot be unfitting to call attention to the woeful affair at Massena, New York, in which, following upon the charge of ritual murder by an officer of the State, the American Jewish Congress so intervened as to move the then Governor of the State of New York, the Hon. Alfred E. Smith, to demand an immediate trial of the offending officer of the law, which trial brought down upon his head severe, though not too stern, judgment. The intervention of the Congress, and the instant response of the Chief Executive of the State of New York served to make clear to the American people that this hideous thing must never be suffered to renew itself in the midst of American life.


“For some time, the Executive and Administrative officers of the oCngress, on behalf of whom I speak, have found it inevitable to occupy themselves with a problem which alas is looming larger and larger upon the horizon of American life. The problem of discrimination is making itself felt in many, many fields, but most obviously and hurtfully in two fields which must be central to the life of a people such as our own, the fields of employment and of higher education. Until the most careful and exhaustive survey shall have been made of the facts, not fancies, in these two fields, nothing should be said, save that we are not unmindful of the economic hurt and the spiritual perils which are bound up with what seems to be an ever increasing measure of discrimination in these fields.

“No one will maintain that there is operative against the Jewish youth of America a ‘numerus clausus’ in any legal or technical sense, in American universities. But that the Jewish youth of America faces very grave and far-reaching problems must be manifest to all save such as are contemptibly comfortable or self-contemptuously indifferent to their own fate. The time is never rife for unconsidered, precipitate and disorderly action in relation to a Jewish problem, but it cannot be too much to say that the time is come for an orderly investigation, and after that consultation, and after that if needs must, agitation and action with respect to a very great wrong which is threatened against the status and the self-respect of the Jewish youth of America. The time to intervene is not when the only hope that is left is to secure more favorable quota figures; then it is too late as we have come to learn in relation to the immigration problem, the solution of which at the hands of a fanatical group has brought about the imposition of an intolerable status upon the non-northern groups of European immigrants.

“The American Jewish Congress can do nothing more important than to face the fact that the truth must be learned, and that the truth must be faced. We are not yet prepared, and I hope we never will be prepared, to surrender our fundamental faith in the sense of fair play of the American people, in the will of Christendom not so much to do good to the Jew as to suffer no continuance of hurt and injustice and wrong to the people of Israel.


“This report of the President of the American Jewish Congress cannot be concluded without a personal word. Little more than two years ago, at the Washington session of the Congress, I yielded to the insistent and honoring will of the Congress that I accept for another term the office of president. But my acceptance was bound up with the clear statement that I must not again be asked to serve as president. That statement and the assent of the American Jewish Congress thereto make it unnecessary for me to state again that I can no longer serve as president, and I have the right to expect that no one will venture to offer the suggestion that I be asked to repudiate my own solemnly uttered word.

“But even if I were not under the self-imposed ordinance of withdrawal from the office of President. I should still insist that my successor be elected and my insistence would be based upon my long-time faith that one of the serious evils in Jewish life grows out of all the perpetual tenure of Jewish office. Organizations and persons must not become interchangeable terms,-however valuable persons may become to organizations. We might, in truth have another and a finer type of leadership in American Israel, if life-long tenure of Jewish office cease to be in vogue. I find little evidence on any side of the will to fit and train men for the possibility of leadership. The assent for decades and even for a generation in leadership, however goodly, is the worse possible preparation for succession to leadership. The Congress is not my instrumentality, I am not the master or owner of the American Jewish Congress, nor have I ever willed to be. I was, I am, I will remain its servant. The Congress may use me as it will, save in its highest office. That office must be entrusted to another and , in truth, at this moment, if it were pertinent to do so, I could name a number of men any one of whom could safely be entrusted with leadership. Whoever my successor may be, I pledge him my constant and loyal cooperation in relation to the affairs and problems of the American Jewish Congress.

“With gratitude to my associates, with undimmed faith in the possibilities of service to be rendered by the American Jewish Congress, with unfaltering trust in the power of the Jewish people to achieve justice for itself and to contribute to the well-being of the family of nations, I submit this my report as President of the American Jewish Congress,” Dr. Wise concluded.

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