Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties

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Set against the backdrop of some of twentieth-century America's most divisive issues - bigotry, anticommunism, and cultural survival - Jews Against Prejudice traces the political evolution of Jewish defense organizations from their initial incarnations as groups concerned primarily with defending American Jews against the virulent anti-Semitism of the 1920s and 1930s to their leading role in the fight against all forms of prejudice during the middle-half of this century. The absorbing story of American Jewry's courageous campaign for tolerance - and the shifting conceptions of prejudice that drove it - is a landmark addition to the literature on civil rights in U.S. history.
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Editorial Reviews

Leonard Dinnerstein
A well-written, informative, and sophisticated analysis.
Deborah Dash Moore
The first serious history of these organizations during this era, a truly pathbreaking account. Svonkin gracefully leads us through the complex but fascinating terrain of civil rights and civil liberties in the aftermath of World War II.
Boston Book Review
An extravagantly-researched, tightly-focused survey of the internal development of three important Jewish organizations fighting discrimination at a crucial time. . . . There is a fascinating story behind the bureaucratic history Svonkin has recounted.
Utilizes the archival records of America's three major Jewish defense groups<-->the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, and the American Jewish Congress<-->to provide a comprehensive account of organized Jewish political activism against bigotry and for human rights. Discusses the impact of these groups, the tactics they employed, and the forces which turned the universalistic liberalism of the 1940s and 1950s to the cultural assertion and political neoconservatism of the late 1960s. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Examines the seminal role played by American Jewish organizations in what participants during the 1940s and 1950s called the intergroup relations movement, which enlisted social scientists and social reformers in a collaborative battle against prejudice and discrimination against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A detailed study of how, during the 1940s and '50s, three major American Jewish organizations—the American Jewish Committee (AJC), American Jewish Congress, and Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—fundamentally broadened their mission and then partly subverted it by becoming caught up in the era's anti-communist hysteria.

Historian Svonkin traces how all three national agencies shifted their focus from defense against anti-Semitic groups to opposing prejudice of all types and promoting the new ideal of intergroup relations. They did so using a broad and often innovative strategy involving research, radio and TV ads, curricular materials, and human-relations workshops. In the process, their staffs and the social scientists associated with them played down the socioeconomic causes of discrimination; influenced by Freudianism, they tended to see prejudice in terms of individual pathology. Svonkin also demonstrates how the agencies' intergroup-relations agenda was undercut when they embraced (though very reluctantly in the case of the AJCongress) "a constrained and defensive cold war liberalism" that denied civil liberties to "avowed communists, and even some suspected communists." In a concluding chapter Svonkin analyzes how, beginning during the 1960s, "a reassertion of ethnoreligious particularism" characterized Jewish leaders, who were already coming to view assimilation as at least as much of a threat to Jewish life as anti-Semitism. Clearly written and extremely well documented, Svonkin's book could have benefited from more exploration of the American historical and sociological context.

A bit dry and targeted toward the specialist, this is, however, an informative and at times absorbing exploration of the roots of both the human-relations movement that characterized the civil-rights era and of current Jewish communal ideologies and policies.

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Stuart Svonkin received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and will complete his J.D. from Harvard Law School in the Spring of 1999. He has taught American History and Jewish History at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Intergroup Relations and the Fear of Fascism 1
1 From Self-Defense to Intergroup Relations 11
2 Propaganda Against Prejudice 41
3 Teaching Tolerance 62
4 Law and Social Action 79
5 The Adoption of Liberal Anticommunism 113
6 The Contradictions of Cold War Liberalism 135
7 The Anticommunist Campaign in the Jewish Community 161
8 Return and Renewal 178
Notes 195
Bibliography 307
Index 333
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