American Jewish Congress (1918 – 1994)

The American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) is the only mainstream American Jewish organization to have vigorously advocated for two states. From 1987 through 1994, the organization endorsed and publicly advocated for separation of Israel from the Occupied Territories, bringing it unprecedented international attention and influence.

The organization has a long history of commitment to a Jewish homeland in Israel. Many of the founders of AJCongress were prominent Zionists including Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, and Henrietta Szold.

AJCongress was founded in 1918 to develop a body representative of a broad base of American Jewish interests at the Versailles Peace Conference following World War I. Its agenda included winning international support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. It would go on to become a pillar of the Jewish community as one of the three major “defense” organizations together with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

In the 1930s, AJ Congress organized anti-Nazi boycotts and protest rallies and raised funds to rescue Jewish children orphaned by the Nazis. Following WWII, AJCongress vigorously advocated for the establishment of the State of Israel.

For many decades, AJCongress was a strong advocate for civil rights, fair housing, the separation of church and state, free speech, and women’s rights. Internationally, the group was involved in protesting against apartheid in South Africa and ending persecution of Soviet Jews, among other issues.

Inn 1987, the AJCongress leadership under Executive Director Henry Siegman and President Ted Mann organized a Middle East mission to explore whether or not the group should support separation from the Occupied Territories as part of its, longtime commitment to Israel. According to then president-elect Robert K. Lifton,, two of the most influential meetings were with Ephraim Sneh, then administrator of the Occupied Territories and Arnon Sofer a highly respected Israeli demographer. Upon their return, the AJCongress board voted on two issues: what position to take and to what extent the organization should publicize its position out of concern that Israel would be in danger of either losing its status as a democratic state or as a Jewish state unless it separated itself from the Occupied Territories.

For the following six years AJCongress publicly advocated for separation. Within the Jewish community its leadership spoke out as a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the Executive board of AIPAC. As president of AJCongress, Robert K. Lifton wrote Occasional Letters on a variety of issues they were involved in, many on the organization’s position on Israel. AJCongress leadership advocated for their position in conversations with then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and members of his administration.

As a result of its positions, AJCongress was the first American Jewish organization invited to visit Saudi Arabia. The organizational leadership visited twice over the next six years as the guest of the King. In their meetings with major figures in the government and clerics, they engaged in substantive conversations on Arab relations with world Jewry and with Israel. In their frequent trips to the Middle East, AJCongress leaders also met with a broad range of Israeli officials, King Hussein of Jordan, Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Hassan of Morocco as well as with other world heads of state. It was also valuable for the United States administration that there was a Jewish organization that could communicate informally with the Arab governments.

In 1990, when President George HW Bush sought to link loan guarantees for resettling Soviet immigrants to a commitment by Israel not to use the money to expand settlements in the Occupied territories, some in the Jewish community branded him as anti-Semitic. On behalf of AJ Congress, Lifton condemned that allegation as false and was personally thanked by the President.

After the Oslo Accords were signed, both Siegman and Lifton resigned from AJ Congress and subsequently formed the Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations. They had expected that the work they had done to promote two-states was now going to be carried to its fruition by the Israeli administration of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Unfortunately, Rabin was assassinated and his successor Binyamin Netanyahu, did not actively support a two state resolution. The new leadership of the AJ Congress did not pursue the two state issue. The brief but intense era when AJCongress did strongly support two states stands out in American Jewish history.