Today the American Jewish Congress is a sorry image of what it was many years ago. As Gary Rosenblatt has written here, it is “a shell of its former self.” As a former national executive director of the Congress, I say this with the heaviest of hearts. In its earliest days it was a major player in the Jewish world. It was one of the first Zionist organizations that fought for the existence of Israel even as other Jewish organizations were silent or opposed it. It was the first organization to hold a major rally at Madison Square Garden bringing to the attention of the public the horror of Adolf Hitler.
And it was the American Jewish Congress that developed and made popular the idea that law and legislation can be an important tool in the fight against racism, discrimination, and anti Semitism. It worked closely with the NAACP in carrying out its mandate, “full equality in a free society for all Americans.” With that goal, it brought some of the first cases against the Jim Crow laws in the south, even while other Jewish organizations said that this was not an area of concern for the Jewish community and would antagonize the Christian Community.
In its early days, too, it has some of the great Jewish leaders: Rabbis Steven Wise, Joachim Prinz, Israel Goldstein, Arthur Lelyveld, and Arthur Hertzberg. It had other leaders like Justine and Shad Polier, Horace Kallen, Howard Squadron, Will Maslow, Leo Pfeffer, and Phil Baum.
Phil Baum, who died March 27, was clearly one of the important intellectual leaders of the American Jewish Congress for more than 35 years. He worked with the NAACP on the first cases that fought the Jim Crow laws in the South, such as the Sweatt case, the McLauren case, and later Brown against Topeka. It was his brilliance in writing these briefs that helped win these cases in the Supreme Court. We worked on the briefs against MetLife, which at that time prohibited blacks from living in Stuyvesant Town. He was a leader in the campaign the American Jewish Congress ran in New York State that resulted in the enactment of fair housing and education laws – the first kind of laws in this country. And together with Leo Pfeffer, hey wrote the book on separation of church and state and brought the first cases involving school prayer and other religious practices in the public schools. While he was active in all of the American Jewish Congress’ domestic programs, his heart and soul was in Israel. He was the voice of the American Jewish Congress on the international scene. He helped developed our Arab boycott program and our program on the Soviet-Jewish campaign. He directed every program we had that involved Israel and the future of the Jewish people.
I worked with Phil for over 25 years. He was one of the smartest men I ever knew. But most important, he brought to his work the deepest passion and commitment to the survival of the Jewish people and Israel. He wrote like an angel, expressing difficult ideas with almost poetic simplicity. As a lawyer, he was extraordinary. I would be less than honest, however, if I didn’t say, too, he was not the easiest person to work with. He was an ideologue and supported his positions in the strongest and toughest way. But all of us who knew and loved him forgave him for the intensity of his arguments because we knew he based those arguments on brilliant analysis.
He never sought publicity and most of your readers today never heard of him. I write here in his honor because it is important today to understand the Jewish community and its priorities in the `40s, `50s, and `60s. Phil helped define those priorities. In expressing these sentiments, I know I am speaking for those of us who are still alive who worked with him: Sylvia Deutsch, Leona Chanin, Paul Berger, Lois Waldman, Helen Horowitz, and Betty Warshaw. I know that when I cried for him on learning of his death I also cried for the American Jewish Congress that he and I knew. It does not exist today.
Naomi Levine is chair and executive director of the
George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising
School of Continuing and Professional Studies at
New York University. She is former national executive director of the American Jewish Congress.