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Changes Afoot at Ajcongress Have Both Defenders and Critics

January 15, 2002
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There’s an old joke about the three Jewish defense agencies: Upon finding anti- Semitic graffiti, the American Jewish Committee commissions a sociological study, the Anti-Defamation League holds a news conference, and the American Jewish Congress files a lawsuit.

But the distinction of AJCongress as the American Jewish organization most willing to roll up its shirt sleeves and duke it out over civil liberties and the pursuit of peace in the Middle East is long gone, according to many Jewish observers.

As Phil Baum prepares to step down as executive director, the direction of AJCongress, once one of the most liberal of American Jewish organizations, appears to be more fluid than ever.

Baum’s departure comes on the heels of a controversy over the firing of the director of AJCongress’ New England chapter, Sheila Decter, after more than 20 years of her service to the organization.

Critics say Decter was one of the most beloved and well-respected leaders in Boston and blame her termination on the organization’s ideological shift to the right.

But Baum and Jack Rosen, the group’s president, say it was a matter of financial accountability.

Apart from the Decter firing and whether it represents a change in direction for AJCongress, one thing is for sure: the organization is in the midst of an extensive restructuring.

The organization has had a hard time finding someone to replace Baum, who indicated his intention to retire a few years ago.

One current contender is Neil Goldstein, a former director of the New York office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who was recently hired as AJCongress’ director of national affairs.

In addition, AJCongress has fired the director of its New York office, closed its San Francisco and Los Angeles offices and hired new directors of its Washington and Philadelphia offices — both of whom hail from politically conservative backgrounds.

AJCongress has since reopened its office in Los Angeles, where its old lay leadership has founded a new organization, the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

A similar group has been started in Philadelphia.

The regional office changes, according to Rosen, are part of a responsible effort to reverse the financial crisis that has long plagued the organization.

As to the question of liberal fires and conservative hires, Rosen said, “Where they come from is irrelevant. They’re employed by the organization to carry out its programs.”

“I can say, unequivocally, there’s been no change on our domestic liberal agenda,” Rosen said.

But he acknowledged a policy shift on Israel and the peace process, saying that times have changed.

“In the past, AJCongress supported the policy of land for peace and the Oslo accords,” he said. “But as a result of the terrorist attacks by suicide bombers killing innocent civilians, we support the Sharon government in their policy of not negotiating with Arafat until he takes necessary measures to end terrorist activities.”

But a former president of AJCongress, who was active with the organization for nearly 50 years, said he believed both fronts have been abandoned.

“I’m very sad, very sad,” said Theodore Mann, a Philadelphia attorney and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“In a way it’s heartbreaking that it no longer seems to be following either the assertive pursuit of civil rights and civil liberties that it once did or the belief that a peace process was absolutely essential and could not be abandoned.”

Mann pointed to the AJCongress’ acceptance of some of Bush’s recommendations for countering terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, such as “rounding up people with questionable due process.”

He said “the American Jewish Congress nationally immediately approved that kind of approach without careful examination and over the objection of surely some of its chapters.”

Rosen said AJCongress’ stance on the delicate balance between protecting civil liberties and implementing counterterrorism measures is one that has adapted to the times.

“Today we have a world where terrorism places priorities on what programs we’re going to pursue,” he said.

In light of Sept 11, Rosen said, AJCongress felt “the government needed to have the tools in place to go after terrorists in this country.”

He also said that the major issues of the 1950s and 1960s, such as civil liberties “may not be as critical today — although one still needs to defend against” violations.

Current regional leaders also defend the group’s positions.

Stewart Weintraub, president of AJCongress’ Pennsylvania region, said he has heard accusations that the organization has veered off course, and he doesn’t understand them.

“To say the organization’s philosophy has changed because of these actions, I don’t buy that,” said Weintraub.

“Our position is still the same, but the situation has changed,” he said, referring to the situation in Israel.

Yasser Arafat was just “caught with his hand in the cookie jar,” he said, in reference to the recent shipment of weapons to the Palestinian Authority.

Weintraub also said that on the domestic front, in an area AJCongress has long distinguished itself, the group is “still aggressively advocating the separation of church and state.”

Indeed, many of AJCongress’ harshest critics say it has continued to preserve its heart and soul — its legal work on church and state separation.

And Marc Stern, the group’s assistant executive director who spearheads that division, says the “changes and upheavals and disputes” at the organization have not affected his work.

Stern, who also serves as co-director for the legal department and has worked at AJCongress for more than 24 years, is currently at work on a report about military tribunals.

“It’s a report which I would have done six years ago and 10 years ago and 20 years ago,” he said.

Still, some former staffers say it has changed.

AJCongress had a “uniquely profound voice” from a “secular, humanist perspective,” said one former staffer.

Although the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement has assumed much of AJCongress’ mission, the former staffer said, it does so from the vantage point of a religious stream.

“If we lose AJCongress from the seam, there will be no representation from their classic perspective,” he said.

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