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Shakeup Reported in Jewish Group As It Prepares for Vatican Talks

September 8, 1989
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A major shakeup is occurring in the organization that represents the Jewish world to the Vatican, just as relations between Catholics and Jews have reached a crisis point over the convent at Auschwitz and recent anti-Semitic remarks by Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp.

Leaders of major Jewish organizations, who asked not to be identified, have confirmed to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that an alternative group to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations is in the planning stages.

The American Jewish Committee, whose representative is presently IJCIC’s chairman, is seriously considering pulling out of the umbrella organization before the end of the year and forming an alternative to IJCIC, along with the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Congress, neither of which are currently IJCIC members.

Leaders of the three groups met Thursday morning to discuss the plans.

“No comment. That’s all I’m authorized to say,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, who holds the dual roles of director of interreligious affairs for AJCommittee and chairman of IJCIC.

Henry Siegman, executive director of AJCongress, did not return telephone calls to his office.

Abraham Foxman, national director for the ADL, would only say that “the subject has been discussed.”

He said that the organizations involved have been contemplating this plan “for a number of years.”

ADL withdrew from IJCIC four years ago over what Foxman termed “an issue of sovereignty.”

The absence of ADL and AJCongress from IJCIC has been conspicuous. As one Jewish leader put it, IJCIC is “an umbrella organization, but the umbrella has a couple of holes.”

The official added that it was the turmoil surrounding the convent which hastened the decision to implement the plan.

“Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring along a serious reassessment,” he said.


Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, strongly criticized the proposal, saying that the new organization would “not fully represent the Jewish communities worldwide or here.

“There would be no representation for Jews of Latin America, no representatives for the Jews of Europe, no representation to Jews in the far-flung communities of the Pacific and it would not represent the religious groupings of the United States, which are represented in the Synagogue Council of America,” Steinberg said.

The timing of the breakaway move is critical, as IJCIC is now coordinating with the Vatican for a meeting this autumn at which the volatile issue of the Catholic convent at Auschwitz would be discussed. The IJCIC delegation is to be led by Rudin.

Foxman said plans by the organizations “would not have an impact” on the projected meeting with the Vatican.

IJCIC has served as the primary channel for Jewish dialogue with the Vatican since its establishment in the 1960s.

In 1974, Pope Paul VI issued an official declaration establishing the Vatican Secretariat on Religious Relations With the Jews and naming IJCIC as the official organization the Vatican would recognize as representing world Jewry.

IJCIC presently comprises the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, World Jewish Congress, Synagogue Council of America and Israel Interfaith Committee.

Longstanding tensions between the WJC and other member groups appear to be partially responsible for the discord within IJCIC.

Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who previously held Rudin’s posts in both the American Jewish Committee and IJCIC, said the situation within the umbrella organization has become “a kind of anarchy that has led to frustration.”


He blamed “the New York representatives of the World Jewish Congress” for frequently undermining the organization’s agreed-upon consensus on a number of issues.

“We would form an agreement, and then one member agency would go to the press contradicting the consensus we had arrived at,” Tanenbaum said.

Tanenbaum held up as an example what he called a public threat by the WJC of a “boycott” of the Vatican by world Jewry, which he said reflected badly on IJCIC as a whole.

“People in the Vatican but also the Catholic Church believed what the WJC said about the boycott of pope was the position of world Jewry. In fact, we at IJCIC had voted against it. But there were headlines such as ‘Jews Around the World to Boycott Pope.’ “

Tanenbaum said that such actions made it “increasingly difficult to arrive at a consensus with all the member agencies agreeing and adhering to the consensus.”

The difficulty of reaching consensus has been a stumbling block in other umbrella groups, such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

“Problems occur in umbrellas that try to do too much,” said Foxman of ADL. “They have to be more realistic in terms of what it is they try to achieve.”

Another source within IJCIC said that theological tensions as well as political conflicts exist within the group.

The source speculated AJCongress, AJCommittee and ADL were forming their own organization, “so they can engage in theological dialogue with the Vatican, which the Orthodox groups who are part of the Synagogue Council of America say they will not engage in.”

The Synagogue Council of America is the umbrella organization for the rabbinic and congregational arms of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism.

Tanenbaum said that if the new organization is formed, involvement by religious bodies would be crucial in order to deal successfully with the Vatican.

“My personal hope would be that before any public move is made, that the issue of the involvement of major Jewish religious bodies is addressed,” Tanenbaum said. “It would be very critical to the effectiveness of a group relating to the Vatican.”

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