The American Jewish Congress, once a leading voice of grass-roots liberal activism, has experienced a wave of drastic personnel cuts, downsizing of key domestic programs, regional office closings, and the departure of the organization’s president and half its board.
Leaders of the 88-year-old organization portray the developments as part of a well-designed plan to create a more nimble and effective operation. Critics, including former employees who were dismissed, counter that a budget crisis prompted some of the cuts. They accuse the organization of betraying its liberal roots and its commitment to democratic governance.
At the center of the controversy is the organization’s chairman, businessman Jack Rosen, a major donor to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s who later embraced President Bush.
“We’re in a strong financial position; we have $25 million in the bank, and we raise the money we need to conduct our operations,” Rosen told the Forward. “We did not fire people because of money…. We just can’t have the same format and the same priorities that we had 20 years ago.”
According to Rosen, the domestic causes traditionally embraced by AJCongress members — such as fair housing, health care and civil rights — are not the ones that concern most American Jews today. The organization, he said, needed to focus on defending Israel and on combating terrorism and international antisemitism, as well as on its outreach to Muslim moderates here and abroad and on lobbying for energy independence from Middle East oil.
Since the beginning of his first two-term stint as president of the organization, which ran from 1998 to 2004, Rosen has been accused of attempting to dismantle its grass-roots, chapter-based governing structure. Critics point to the creation in late 2004 of the Council for World Jewry, an AJCongress offshoot chaired by Rosen that deals solely with foreign policy issues. The council’s most visible success was the establishment of a formal relationship with the Pakistani government, crowned by a dinner last year in honor of President Pervez Musharraf. Similar efforts are under way with Central Asian countries, as well as with Malaysia and Indonesia. Rosen recently returned from Libya, where he met with mercurial strongman Muammar Gadhafi. The council also has forged alliances with hawkish Jewish groups in France and in Russia.
“Jack has repeatedly said he wants an organization modeled on the World Jewish Congress, with only a small staff [that would worry] about Israel and foreign policy issues,” said one of several former and current AJCongress members and employees interviewed for this article. Most of those interviewed requested anonymity.
Rosen forcefully denied any plan to shrink or dismantle the organization. However, internal correspondence obtained by the Forward shows that drastic changes are being actively discussed, and that some of the leadership is concerned that publicly acknowledging the changes could be harmful.
A document titled “Strategic Plan for Bringing AJCongress Into the 21st Century,” authored by the organization’s executive director, Neil Goldstein, advocated a new structure that would abandon the bottom-up policy-making one on which AJCongress was founded. Among the recommendations are the elimination of substantive committees and the marginalization of regional offices. The document, circulated in recent months, proposes that AJCongress focus on three areas: supporting Jewish communities worldwide through the Council for World Jewry; standing behind Israel and fighting terrorism, and defending the interests and political power of the Jewish community in America in the face of changing demographic trends.
“We recognize that there is a split in our current membership between those whose interest primarily is toward parochial issues (ones that directly help the Jewish people) and those members who want to pursue a universalistic agenda of social justice issues,” the document states. In a footnote, Goldstein added that “care should be taken not to antagonize our traditional membership base to such an extent that it drastically cuts membership revenues, the size of our membership, and our potential reservoir for trust and estate income.”
In an e-mail response to the Forward, Goldstein insisted that the paper merely represented his own “musings” and that nothing had been presented to or even discussed with the board.
Evidence obtained by the Forward shows that publicly spelling out the narrowing of the AJCongress’s scope of activities, as well as the evolution toward a smaller, and less accountable leadership structure, is creating unease among various people in the organization’s leadership.
In recent years, local chapters in Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia were spun off AJCongress due to a combination of funding and policy disagreements. The L.A. chapter has since reopened with a more conservative leadership group. The Chicago office recently shut down, and the Seattle office could be next.
Lois Waldman, who co-chaired the organization’s commission on law and social action and worked for years on civil rights and women’s issues, told the Forward that she had “essentially” been fired as a result of the organization’s decision to forswear “almost all” of its domestic agenda, including women’s empowerment, combating anti-Israel divestment and launching a new interfaith initiative.
“It’s not the same organization I loved and grew up with, and it hurt a lot when it stopped being the Congress I cherished,” said Theodore Mann, president from 1984 to 1988. Mann said that while the shift had begun before Rosen’s arrival, the current chairman was “certainly no Stephen Wise,” referring to the legendary founder and longtime liberal leader of AJCongress.
“Why the AJC has stopped pressing the domestic agenda, especially in the last six years when it was badly needed, is beyond me,” Mann said. “It probably reflects the political leanings of the current leadership.”
Rosen called the perception that he was pushing to abandon the domestic agenda a “real mistake,” pointing to the group’s continuing involvement in church-state issues as well as to its advocacy of energy independence in Congress and its outreach to moderate Muslims in America - the latter two being issues with a clear foreign policy dimension.
“If I would have wanted to stop our domestic agenda, I could have done it,” he said. “We felt we needed to become more involved in political work and be more nimble to effectuate change.”
Much of the current upheaval dates back to 2004, when Rosen completed his maximum two terms as president and was succeeded by Paul Miller, a former officer of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Rosen set about launching the Council for World Jewry as a spin-off organization. Shortly afterward, he was given the newly created title of AJCongress chairman.
Rosen said the council was created as a body that could attract foreign supporters - who are barred from sitting on the AJCongress board - as well as more conservative ones.
“We felt we needed to create a body that could bring Jewish leaders from around the world to a well-honed program that is not focused on domestic issues they are not interested in and allows us to bring in some conservative voices who do not share the AJC’s traditional focus,” Rosen said.
In short order, however, tensions arose between Miller and the man who had brought him on board, executive director Goldstein. According to several sources who requested anonymity, Goldstein was upset by Miller’s plan to bring in Alon Pinkas, Israel’s outgoing consul general in New York, as the organization’s top professional.
“Alon was Paul’s idea to put his stamp on the organization, and it turned out to be an embarrassment,” a former AJCongress official said. The plan collapsed when Pinkas was forbidden by Israel from taking a local job in the city in which he served.
In response to the perceived snub, several sources said, Goldstein teamed up with Rosen against Miller, eventually prompting Miller and most of his board allies to leave AJCongress earlier this year, officially for personal reasons. They have since been replaced by people close to Rosen, sources said.
Rosen and Goldstein both denied any involvement in the Miller episode. “He did not tell me why he left,” Rosen said. “Being president of a not-for-profit is sometimes difficult because you are not in full control; there are many public appearances, and some people just don’t enjoy it.”
Miller did not respond to several requests for comment.
A former general counsel with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Miller had been brought on board because of his fundraising abilities. His departure, announced to the board in January, and the departure of most of his moneyed allies on the board reportedly provoked a budget crisis, prompting Goldstein to slash payroll. Goldstein said that the episode had an impact of about $200,000 - out of a total annual budget of $6 million. According to Goldstein, the organization already has made up the loss by finding new sources of revenue, and it is likely to end the year in the black.
“I am cutting staff — but that cut is not motivated by deficits,” Goldstein wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “Rather, our board insists on our cutting ineffective, unproductive programs that could distract us from our main mission.”
Rosen “absolutely” rejected the notion that the episode had hurt the organization’s finances.
Most of the “$25 million in the bank” evoked by Rosen comes from the sale of the organization’s headquarters in founder Wise’s former mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side of Manhattan, which netted more than $16 million.
The proceeds have been placed in a trust, and only the interest can be used for the operating budget unless the board votes to let the executive director draw from principal. Similar restrictions exist for two other trusts supporting the organization, set up by the estate of the Steinberg family (the Lillian and Martin Steinberg Trust) and aimed at social programs in America and in Israel.
Rosen stressed that it would be easy for him to get board approval to tap into the principal of the trust holding the revenue of the building sale.
“We don’t need money,” he said. “We just feel we need a new direction.”