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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Schonfeld noted that the group had made a recent statement supporting same-sex marriage. “We couldn’t ignore it,” she said, allowing that the line between what the organization will and won’t take on remains blurry.

As the AJC has pulled back on certain domestic issues, the public face of the organization has turned more and more toward Israel. The AJC chose four priorities to focus on at the beginning of this year; three of them — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israeli security and energy security — relate directly or indirectly to Israel.

Schonfeld said that this year’s Israel focus is not predetermined, but driven by events. “This year, [Israel] is the majority of our work, but it depends on what’s happening in the world,” Schonfeld said. “There’s some very key crises now. That’s why the focus is there. It really depends on where the most critical issues are.”

Each week, the AJC distributes a brief message read on CBS Radio stations by Harris. More often than not, those weekly messages are about support for Israel. Since April 2011, the AJC has aired commentaries with the titles “Israel, America’s Reliable Friend,” “America’s Most Reliable Friend in the Middle East,” “Israel Is America’s Reliable Friend” and “U.S.-Israel Friendship Ensures.” The earliest commentary quoted James Taylor’s song “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Harris also writes on Israel in a blog for The Jerusalem Post, the right-leaning English-language Israeli newspaper. In a February 2012 column warning of the threat posed by Iran, Harris implicitly criticized American Jews who are overly universalistic in their outlook, writing of a “Jewish campus center I recently saw that boasts exactly one advocacy sign — ‘Save Darfur.’ I assure you, space is not the issue should anyone wish to put up a second sign, ‘Stop Iran.’ Clearly, a lack of interest is.”

That attitude is not necessarily in line with the organization’s historical trajectory. “[The AJC] made a very deliberate shift after World War II from being solely concerned with Jewish matters,” said Marianne R. Sanua, a professor of Jewish history at Florida Atlantic University who wrote a book on the AJC. “After World War II they would work for the rights of everybody,” Sanua said, noting that the organization began moving back in the opposite direction after the 1967 Six Day War.

“It did used to be the think tank of the American Jewish people,” Sanua said of the AJC. “There’s limited resources now, and limited people, and the AJC wanted to concentrate on the things that it does best.”

Some Jewish academics have lamented the cuts to the AJC’s research programs. “Historically, the American Jewish Committee has played a vital role in promoting smart reflections on the major issues of the day in Jewish life and in America,” said Steven M. Cohen, a prominent sociologist of American Jewish life. “The sharpened focus of the AJC means that it may no longer be playing as vital a role in these critical areas that have meant so much to American Jewry.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @joshnathankazis


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