Group Vows Return to Liberal Roots

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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Washington - One of America’s most storied Jewish organizations is making a policy U-turn as it re-embraces an aggressively liberal domestic agenda.

Last Sunday, the American Jewish Congress elected a new president, who vowed to change course and refocus the group on domestic policy, including abortion rights, separation of church and state separation, and outreach to other ethnic communities.

The new president of the AJCongress, Richard Gordon of New Jersey, was elected in a unanimous vote and will replace Jack Rosen, who will stay on as the group’s chairman, a job that was created for him when he first left the organization’s presidency three years ago. But Rosen, who in the past seven years has shifted the organization’s focus to foreign policy while forging strong ties with President Bush, is expected to have less influence on the direction of the AJCongress in future years. At times, Rosen’s efforts appeared to boost the sagging national profile of the AJCongress, but they also alienated many of the group’s liberal members and chapters across the country.

In his acceptance speech Sunday night, Gordon said that the organization needs to “reclaim its place as the attorney general of the Jewish people” — a reference to its championing of mostly liberal causes in the court system. The AJCongress has focused in recent years on promoting energy independence in the United States, forging ties with moderate Muslim countries and fighting antisemitism around the world. Now, the new president said, the goal is to make the organization a leader on issues of social justice.

Gordon comes to the leadership post of the AJCongress after a long career with Democratic lawmakers. Now a lawyer in the private sector, Gordon was director of policy for Indiana’s former governor and current senator, Evan Bayh, and he also worked with Mario Cuomo and Walter Mondale. Gordon is a close friend of Bayh, who, when congratulating him on his election as president of the AJCongress, said, “I don’t have a better friend in this world.”

After Rosen’s election as president, with the AJCongress facing financial difficulties and a decline in membership, the organization put domestic issues on the back burner and focused more on foreign policy. In recent years, the AJCongress was the first Jewish group to forge ties with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf. The highlight of the group’s legislative efforts this year was a congressional resolution passed last month deploring terrorist groups’ use of civilians as human shields.

According to officials at other Jewish organizations, the shift in focus was clear. “They’re not with us on education, on hate crimes or on immigration,” said a Jewish organization’s senior official who deals with legislative issues.

Even with the shift in focus, the AJCongress has continued to lag behind other organizations. According to tax filings, two years ago the AJCongress raised $3.2 million and reported revenue of $5.7 million, compared with $43 million and $50 million for the American Jewish Committee.

Both organizations, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, held major conferences this week — underscoring what many observers view as the wide gap in terms of fundraising and influence between the ADL and the AJCommittee on the one hand, and the AJCongress on the other.

“The American Jewish Congress was like a Chrysler, facing Jewish Toyotas that are attracting the public,” said Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University professor.

According to Sarna, with its renewed liberal focus the AJCongress is returning to its roots, but it will face tough challenges in the increasingly conservative federal court system.

“They are caught on the horns of a significant dilemma,” Sarna said. AJCongress leaders “can either change their views and undermine their own heritage, or they can stick to their old approach and face a difficult time in court.”

In his speech Sunday, Gordon said that the main issue at stake is the separation of church and state, which he said has “taken a beating” in recent years. Referring to attempts by the Bush administration, Congress and courts to allow more involvement of religion in the public sphere, the new AJCongress president vowed to fight the “steady creep” of programs such as faith-based initiatives, prayer in public facilities and school vouchers.

In a letter Sunday to delegates of the AJCongress’s annual convention, which took place in Washington this week, Gordon wrote, “Over the years that focus has shifted somewhat to other areas and we have lost track of our association as defenders of the first amendment.”

The agenda unveiled by Gordon also includes a call for action against government measures that limit privacy and due process in the name of homeland security. Gordon has made it clear that he intends to reinvigorate the organization’s legal department, which is in charge of issues relating to human rights and personal liberties.

Sources in the organization said that the need for a change of course in the AJCongress was felt for a while, and that leaders of the group believe that it is time to move away from the more hawkish and foreign-policy-focused agenda promoted by Rosen, the outgoing president.

At the same time, the organization has sought to balance Gordon’s liberal-leaning agenda with the election of Herb London as chair of the group’s council of governors. London is president of the Hudson Institute, a leading conservative think tank, and was described by officials in the AJCongress as being close in his views to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Also, the group does not intend to give up programs that were initiated by Rosen, such as the focus on energy independence and fighting terrorists’ use of civilians as human shields.

Though he will not have the same influence as before, Rosen will still continue to lead projects he began as president, mainly those dealing with Pakistan.

When handing over the presidency to his successor, Rosen made clear he does not believe that the AJCongress should give up on foreign policy issues. “To be secure, our people have to have a say on global events,” Rosen said.

An anecdotal tale, told during the AJCongress conference in Washington this week, helps illustrate the major role Jack Rosen plays in the group and the perception that he has managed to secure national and international recognition for the organization.

Roberta Seid, a convention delegate, stood up and told the crowd about the cab ride she had from the airport. After telling the taxi driver, who was of Pakistani origin, that she was heading to the conference of the AJCongress, the driver seemed extremely pleased.

“Is Jack Rosen still there?” the taxi driver asked. “He is a very important person in Pakistan.”






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