AJC Turns Towards Israel, Global Advocacy

Century-Old Group Plans To Shift From Domestic Issues

Changing Focus: The American Jewish Committee is moving away from research and domestic advocacy. Part of the plan involved phasing out its famed library.
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Changing Focus: The American Jewish Committee is moving away from research and domestic advocacy. Part of the plan involved phasing out its famed library.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published December 17, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
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The global advocacy effort has become the organization’s trademark. The AJC’s tagline, which appears at the top of the group’s website and on official materials, reads “Global Jewish Advocacy.” The group has staff in nine foreign countries, including Brazil and India.

It’s a different model from groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which focuses on outreach to American legislators, and The Israel Project, which focuses on outreach to the media. The AJC has the added benefit of shoulder rubbing, which some outsiders suggest has proved a fundraising boon to Harris. “David Harris had spent many, many years abroad, and many of the leaders of AJC took great excitement from the opportunity to meet world leaders, and that’s the direction they moved,” said Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history. Sarna said that he regretted what he saw as the AJC moving away from its role as a convener of a broad spectrum of Jewish thinkers.

Besides an affirmation of the AJC’s new focus, the strategic plan also brought cuts. The AJC closed its library, ceased publishing the American Jewish Yearbook and trimmed staff to 227 people today from 245 people in 2008, according to Schonfeld.

The AJC has also limited the range of issues in which it will engage. Each year, Harris now identifies a small number of priorities that are approved by the group’s executive committee and serve to steer the entire organization’s efforts over the following 12 months. Some issues receive less emphasis than they may have in the past. As examples, Schonfeld offered gun control and the separation between church as state as areas to which the AJC could no longer afford to devote resources.

“Whether or not gun control is a good thing — and I think it is a good thing — it’s not something that the AJC,” adds value, Schonfeld said. Of church-and-state issues, Schonfeld said: “You get dragged down a very long rabbit hole if you get into all the church-state issues. We want to be mindful of our resources and the priorities we [identified] at the beginning of the year.”

The AJC has worked for decades on church-state issues, filing amicus briefs on high-profile cases with the Supreme Court, and backing a law that exempts houses of worship from zoning rules, among other efforts.

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