JEWS AGAINST PREJUDICE: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties by Stuart Svonkin

JEWS AGAINST PREJUDICE: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties

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KIRKUS REVIEW

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 AJ Congress) ""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.

Pub Date: Oct. 9th, 1997
Page count: 350pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.