As a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress (1971-‘78) and someone who spent 25 years as a lawyer and administrator at the organization, I would like to add some comments to Tamar Snyder’s July 23 article “AJ Congress Rides Off Into the Sunset?”
The AJCongress was the first Jewish organization to state unequivocally that in a country that discriminates against any groups, Jews could not be safe. It was that philosophy, in addition to the group’s deep-seated commitment to equality, that lay behind its role in the struggle to defeat segregation and discrimination. It was that philosophy that lay behind seminal briefs that the group wrote in two of the earliest, and in some ways the most important, civil rights cases: Sweat v. Painter (1950) and McLauren v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950). Both of these cases attacking segregation in graduate education lay the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and demolished the effectiveness of the “separate but equal doctrine” of Plessy v. Ferguson.
The landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education was not based solely on legal precedent, but rather of several psychological studies that were the basis for the Supreme Court decision. Two of these studies were the work of Isadore Chein, a staff member of the AJCongress.
The AJCongress was the first Jewish organization to appoint a woman as its executive director. I succeeded Will Maslow in 1971.
Maslow also appointed two women out of five or six lawyers on the Commission of Law and Social Action, including Lois Waldman, a brilliant civil rights lawyer who in addition played a key role in developing the strategy regarding the Arab boycott and was responsible for developing the Commission on Women’s Equality at the AJCongress, which Snyder’s article mentioned.
It was Maslow, not Leo Pfeffer, who “initiated an aggressive strategy of using the legal system to benefit the Jewish community.”
The great failure of the leaders of the AJCongress, including myself, is that we ignored or only paid minimal attention to our fundraising. We were the “smart” and “creative” lawyers for the Jewish community and looked upon fundraising as something relegated to an unimportant department that did not have within it the “smarts” of the program staff. That attitude was the AJCongress’ death knell.
School of Continuing
and Professional Studies
New York University