Remembering Irving Levine, an AJC official who saw the future of identity politics


(JTA) — When I joined the American Jewish Committee as a relatively junior staffer in 1982, I found myself surrounded by many of the “living legends” who led each of its major program departments. It became my privilege to have known and worked together with the likes of Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, who virtually created the field of interfaith relations; Hyman Bookbinder, the fabled “Bookie,” who served as AJC’s Washington representative; Milton Himmelfarb, AJC’s director of research and unofficial “scholar-in-residence,” and my own supervisor and mentor, Yehuda Rosenman, the director for contemporary Jewish life and of its William Petschek National Jewish Family Center.

Irving M. Levine, director of AJC’s Institute for American Pluralism and later its director of National Affairs, was a key member of this august leadership team. A creative and visionary thinker able to think “out of the box,” Levine — who died Jan. 11 at age 94 — defined the Institute as AJC’s “R and D” arm, or, as he put it more informally, “an institute able to experiment and explore unconventional ideas and then bring them back to the agency for program and policy consideration.”

Levine brought to this project experiences and a sensibility he honed as a teenager in the late 1940s, when he served variously as president and athletic director of the Brownsville Boys Club. As Gerald Sorin explains in a chapter on Levine in the 2001 anthology “Jews of Brookyn,” the club was the first Jewish-led boys club and the first boys club to integrate racially.

Levine left Brooklyn in 1955 to study for a master’s degree in social work at the University of Wisconsin. After various stints in Jewish communal work and social justice activity, he became AJC’s Ohio area director in 1961, eventually returning to New York to become director of community relations for AJC’s New York chapter.

In his later role heading its Institute for American Pluralism, Irving in large measure discovered the issue of “white ethnics,” presciently warning that if their legitimate grievances were overlooked by social policy thinkers, the backlash to integration and racial justice would become only more fierce.

The grievances of “white ethnics” merited Jewish communal consideration, both for reasons of shared interests and for reasons of potential coalition-building. AJC lay leaders and professional staff admired Irving’s capacity to reach out in his inimitable and amiable manner to establish relationships and lay the groundwork for coalitions. He greatly valued the importance of heritage and encouraged all groups to explore their own ethnic and religious traditions, often reminding people, “You are what you were.” Conversely, he harbored no illusions about the reality of ethnic tensions and conflicts, calling out antisemitism when warranted.

Levine was selling to consider alternate approaches to long-established custom, coupled with his hope to build new coalitions based upon shared interests and common pride in respective heritage. This situated him in what he termed the “creative center” of Jewish communal relations thinking and intellectual leadership. For example, while advocating freedom of reproductive choice, he simultaneously argued that Jewish communal interests necessitated pro-natalist policies, such as child allowances as incentives for families having three or more children.

Similarly he believed strongly in the dialectic between universalism and Jewish particularism. Thus he likely was the first AJC department head to employ a non-Jew in a program capacity, a pathbreaking hiring practice followed many times since and one that has served the agency extremely well.

At the same time Irving argued that the AJC benefited greatly from employing Orthodox Jews in professional positions working cooperatively alongside Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and secular Jews in a spirit of true pluralism and with shared goals of enhancing the Jewish people and American society generally.

Irving also valued diversity of thinking. He was proud that during his time on staff the AJC sponsored both Commentary and Present Tense, two magazines with opposite perspectives on questions of the day. His “creative centrism” did not always prevail, but his voice was always a critical and respected one within AJC councils. In many ways he modeled how AJC could both foster loyalty and pride in the agency as a leading Jewish organization — what he fondly termed “the Harvard of Jewish agencies” — while allowing for dissenting and critical opinion to be voiced within those very same councils.

Irving prided himself on being able to spot young talent and gave generously and indefatigably of himself to nurture and develop upcoming professionals. Together with the late Rabbi Steven Shaw, he established the Radius Institute, once described as a “government in waiting” of young professionals for the Jewish community. In 1979 he hired my closest friend, Gary Rubin of blessed memory. At the time Gary knew little if anything of immigration, the key priority of Irving’s Institute. Recognizing Gary’s brilliant and persuasive intellect, Irving taught him both substance and process. Within two years Gary had become a nationally recognized expert on immigration policy.

After Gary left the agency, Irving wisely lured him back to the AJC, and within a few years Gary succeeded Irving as AJC’s director of national affairs.

Irving similarly envisioned me as part of the AJC’s “bright future” and went out of his way to engage me, at times offering praise, at times criticism, and occasionally both simultaneously. To be sure, we disagreed from time to time. At a staff seminar in the early 1980s, he argued that the AJC ought to become the “peace party” in the Arab-Israeli conflict at a time when there was little if any evidence that the other side actually desired peace.

Notwithstanding our occasional disagreements, I valued the support he gave me as a junior colleague. “You know, I have been reading more of you,” he told me at one point, “and I find myself nodding in agreement more often than not.”

Viewed retrospectively, Irving clearly foresaw many of the trends that emerged in the final decades of the 20th century and the opening decades of the 21st. He correctly identified immigration and ethnic politics as ascending issues within American society. He understood the importance of ethnicity to group identity and survival, although perhaps he over-emphasized its capacity to secure future Jewish continuity.

Moreover, history often surprises its most perceptive analysts. Irving’s hopes that immigration and family would bridge divides between liberals and conservatives largely went unrealized, and surely he was disappointed that efforts to rebuild the Black-Jewish alliance of the 1960s fell well short of expectations.. And, like many others, he seriously underestimated the intensity and depth of Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. As Yogi Berra allegedly once put it, “Predictions are very difficult, especially about the future.”

A larger-than-life personality, one who filled up the room yet who could mock his own penchant for exaggeration, Irving and his wise counsel will be sorely missed. But his legacy will be cherished and fondly remembered by those privileged to have known him and to have recognized his enormous impact.

retired from AJC in 2020 after decades as director of its William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department.

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