Phil Baum, who died March 27 at age 94, was one of the last of the giants of Jewish public affairs. Permit the overused cliché, but his death truly marks the end of an era. Baum’s work was representative of an approach to public affairs in American Jewish life that characterized an era forgotten by most — to say nothing of the unique organizational structure, the American Jewish Congress, in which Phil spent his entire career.
The son of immigrant parents — Phil’s father kept a bar in Chicago — Baum won a scholarship to Northwestern University and went on to the University of Chicago Law School, at the time a Midwestern haven of a Wasp elite.
Baum’s arrival at the American Jewish Congress was in an era of the professional gedolim, the giants of the field: Alexander Pekelis, Naomi Levine, Joe Robison, Lois Waldman, Will Maslow and the incomparable legal mind of Leo Pfeffer; and of great lay leadership, that of Shad Polier and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg.
The American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) in the late 1940s was an exciting place for the young Phil Baum, a lawyer with social-justice and Zionist ideals who went on to become executive director. The group had already, for decades, played a pioneering role in American Jewish life, often over the objections of other groups, and helped shape the contours of the American Jewish communal enterprise.
The AJCongress was idiosyncratic from its very beginnings in 1918: It consistently broke the mold of the “quietism” that characterized the early work of American Jewish agencies. It was the only agency that was Zionist from its very beginnings, in a time when anti-Zionism (or at best non-Zionism) was the regnant ideology in our community. It pioneered the use of law and social action — engaging the courts and the legislatures in an activist agenda — in order to pursue its public affairs goals in church-state and discrimination, and in this incurred the wrath of other Jewish groups who were concerned about Jews being too “visible” in their advocacy.
AJCongress was a pioneer in the unvarnished support of free speech, in a time when this view was not a popular one. Moreover, AJCongress was the first national Jewish organization to have a woman — Naomi Levine — as executive.
I go into detail about AJCongress because Phil Baum exemplified the organization. Brilliant, idiosyncratic, passionate about social justice and Israel and captive Jewish communities, he was shaped by, and in his more than 50 years there, helped shape, AJCongress in the second half of the 20th century.
Phil Baum was more than a creative public-affairs professional; he was a trailblazer. As early as 1948, when President Harry S. Truman was undecided on the question of supporting a new Jewish state, Baum wrote the first memo making the legal case that Israel constituted a “state” under international law. He wrote the seminal legal memorandum arguing in favor of Israel’s jurisdiction in the capture of Adolf Eichmann. He was one of the first to design public demonstrations as central to the advocacy strategy on behalf of Soviet Jews.
Baum was an early player in the American Jewish response to the Oberammergau Passion Play, with its anti-Semitic strains. He was intimately involved in the crafting of dozens of briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court on church-state, civil liberties, and civil rights. And his work was not limited to public policy; he made a mark in Jewish culture as well.
Baum convened the American-Israel Dialogues — forgotten by most — a watershed series in the 1970s and ’80s that brought together in sophisticated conversation leading lights from the arenas of government, academia, international politics, and literature.
In 1957, after the Sinai war the previous year, Baum began managing international affairs for AJCongress, and it was in this arena — Israel, Soviet Jewry, Ethiopia and other captive communities — he truly made his mark. Boycotts and loan-guarantees, Jackson-Vanik and Awacs, arms sales and glasnost—he put his stamp on the international agenda.
In the mid-1990s Baum became executive director of the American Jewish Congress, and served as exec until 2001. His five-decade tenure was one of major change in the Jewish public-affairs arena nationally and around the globe. He had perfect pitch for the issues, and equally important for the complex, indeed arcane, dynamics of the organizational structures of the Jewish community.
Phil was a big man, sometimes gruff in demeanor — if you said something foolish, you knew that you were going to be skewered. But he was always generous and helpful, and he had a ready laugh. Phil loved a good story, and he loved jazz. Most of all he loved the Jewish people.
Yehei zichro baruch. May his memory be a blessing.
Jerome Chanes, a frequent contributor, was for 15 years the national affairs director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. A fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, he is the author of four books on American Jewish history and public affairs.