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  • Transformation Through Crisis: The American Jewish Committee and the Six-Day War 1
  • Lawrence Grossman (bio)

“As soon as the Arab armies began to mass on the borders of Israel,” wrote Arthur Hertzberg immediately after the Six-Day War of June 1967, “the mood of the American Jewish community underwent an abrupt, radical, and possibly permanent change . . . far more intense and widespread than anyone could have foreseen.” 2 Other observers at the time and historians writing later have echoed Hertzberg’s analysis. The wrenching fears about the possible destruction of the Jewish state in the days leading up to the war followed by the euphoria of quick victory moved Israel from the periphery of American Jewish consciousness to its center, awakened a new fascination with the Holocaust as the paradigm of modern Jewish vulnerability, and imbued many American Jews with unprecedented pride in being Jewish as well as a willingness to assert their Jewishness publicly. 3

Despite this consensus that the Six-Day War marked a watershed in American Jewish history, today, more than 30 years later, not only is there no scholarly study of this change but we even lack accounts of how [End Page 27] the transformation occurred within individual American Jewish organizations. 4 This analysis of the American Jewish Committee and the Six-Day War, then, breaks new ground. The Committee—self-consciously elitist, officially “non-Zionist,” and only reconciled to the creation of a Jewish state when the U.S. backed the partition of Palestine in 1947-8—was hardly representative of American Jewry. But precisely its original coolness, if not outright hostility, toward the notion of a Jewish sovereign state and its traditional insistence on resisting the centripetal forces in American Jewish life so as to maintain freedom of action make AJC’s extraordinary turnaround in 1967 so significant. Despite incremental changes in its views since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the AJC still was, at the beginning of June 1967, the major national Jewish body that was most self-consciously American, most reluctant to acknowledge links to other Jewish communities beyond those of religion and philanthropy, and least willing to subordinate institutional autonomy to the cause of Jewish communal solidarity. That it transformed itself almost overnight into a passionate defender of the Jewish state and, in so doing, shed old inhibitions to espouse Jewish peoplehood was itself a measure of the impact this crisis had on American Jewry as a whole.

The AJC, Zionism, and Israel 5

The American Jewish Committee, the oldest existing Jewish defense and community-relations organization in the United States, was founded in 1906 by a small group of successful American Jews of Central European background. While the immediate impetus was the need for some organized body to speak for the Jewish community to the U.S. government about pressuring Tsarist Russia to stop pogroms against Jews, the Committee took on other issues as well, fighting against limitations on immigration to the U.S. and combating manifestations of anti-Semitism. A self-constituted Jewish elite mostly associated with the Reform movement in Judaism, the AJC worked quietly, behind the scenes, utilizing the contacts its members had with government officials and other influential Americans. In the eyes of the Committee, American [End Page 28] Jews had no interests separate and apart from other Americans; what the AJC sought was simply to eliminate the barriers to full Jewish participation in American life and to secure, as far as possible, Jewish equality in other countries.

Committee members were conscious of their Jewish responsibility toward the large numbers of East European Jews entering the country but at the same time feared that these un-Americanized masses—bringing with them Old World customs and alien ideologies, holding public rallies and protest meetings instead of working patiently through the existing Jewish establishment—threatened to create the image in the public mind that American Jewry saw itself as a foreign culture transplanted artificially to American shores. Such an assumption might evoke an anti-Semitic reaction and endanger the status of all American Jews. Committee members, therefore, considering themselves the natural “stewards” of the community, took on the mission of educating the new arrivals...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 27-54
Launched on MUSE
1998-03-01
Open Access
No
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