Dec. 26, 2004
Identity crisis plagues American Jewish Committee

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

In a sign of the changing times, one of American Jewry's largest groups-which bills itself as the State Department of the Jewish people-is considering changing its name and slogan to better reflect the shifting priorities of American Jews.

At board meetings in New York earlier this month, the top brass of the American Jewish Committee discussed changing the committee's name and slogan, "Advancing Democracy, Pluralism and Mutual Understanding," ahead of the group's 100th anniversary in 2006, the Jerusalem Post has learned.

Officials talked about whether the committee should scrap a slogan that touts human and civil rights-priorities, some suggested, of earlier times-for one that focuses on defending Israel and fighting anti-Semitism. Though they did not specify any alternative names for the committee, officials said the existing name is problematic, largely because of its longtime confusion with the very similarly named American Jewish Congress.

"First of all, what does 'committee' mean? People don't really get that," said one insider who was at the meetings. "And then there's the American Jewish Congress-people keep confusing them with that. They go into meetings with important political officials and get introduced as the American Jewish Congress. That bothers them."

The discussions at the AJCommittee reflect not only an organization struggling to better define itself as it approaches its centennial, but the efforts American Jewish organizations are being forced to undertake as they rethink their priorities and foci to adapt to the changing needs of Jews in America and around the world. The discussion also is a sign of the confusion among policymakers and Jewish leaders worldwide as they consider how the world has changed in the last three or four years and what they should do about it to safeguard the Jewish people.

"Nobody has real confidence about where things are going, and it is scary," said one AJCommittee official, noting the rise in Islamic militancy, growing European anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the world. "Do we look at the rise of Islamic fanaticism and see this as a potential Holocaust, or are we far less threatened than other ethnic groups around the country?"

"A lot of people sitting around table were saying, 'Oh my God, this is 1939, and will future generations say what was this generation thinking?'" he said. "The memory of the Holocaust was not only the memory of suffering, but the memory of leaders who failed to truly address the dangers."

The discussion of the name change at the AJCommittee, he added, is "telling you we're confused about where to go."

The AJCommittee has about 275 full-time staff members in 33 offices around the United States. It also has offices in Berlin, Brussels, India and Israel.

Robert Goodkind, the AJCommittee's president, confirmed that the 98-year-old group is considering changing its name, though he said he opposed it.

"There certainly are some very influential people at the committee who are discussing it," Goodkind said, noting that only about 10 to 15 people knew about the discussions. "These are just very early thoughts as we think about the centennial."

Part of the problem is the perennial confusion between the committee and the AJCongress, a far smaller and, many say, less influential group. Goodkind said the centennial "is a time when we can perhaps rectify some of that confusion."

Neil Goldstein, the executive director of the AJCongress, said he wasn't much troubled by people confusing the two organizations.

If it were to go through with it, the committee wouldn't be the first major US Jewish organization in recent memory to have changed its name. Last year, Reform Jewry's umbrella group changed its name to the Union for Reform Judaism from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Five years ago, the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal all merged to become the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella group.

Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna, an expert on American Jewry, said the discussion about changing the committee's slogan could mean the group wants to re-evaluate and "not feel hemmed in" by the priorities expressed by its current tagline.

But, Sarna said, "I would be astounded if the committee, about to celebrate its centennial, would jettison a brand name that has been very important for a long time. I would not be astonished if they decided somewhat to rethink and refocus."

The executive director of the AJCommittee, David Harris, said the committee always has been adept at anticipating in advance the needs of American Jewry and will not change its name or focus.

"The only question that comes up is how do we more effectively market our message and how do we more effectively convey the uniqueness of our activity," Harris said. "We're trying to figure out the best way of clarifying who we are and who we're not."