Cover image for Jews against prejudice : American Jews and the fight for civil liberties
Jews against prejudice : American Jews and the fight for civil liberties
Svonkin, Stuart.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [1997]

Physical Description:
xi, 364 pages ; 24 cm.

Format :


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E184.J5 S896 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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America's dark history of anti-Semitism, racism, and ethnic bigotry--and many of the efforts to combat such prejudice--has received growing attention in recent years. Yet one of the most important stories in America's struggle to overcome ethnic and religious hatred has gone largely untold. From the Depression to the late 1960s Jewish organizations--working as the leaders in a broadly based social and political movement--waged a determined campaign to eliminate all forms of discrimination and prejudice from American society.

Stuart Svonkin delves into 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 offer the first comprehensive account of organized Jewish political activism against bigotry and for human rights. Jews Against Prejudice chronicles American Jewry's political ascendance, from the era before World War II, when Jewish defense groups first organized to fight mass anti-Semitism, to their emergence as the leaders of a liberal movement determined to address the nation's most pressing political and social problems.

Svonkin explores the impact that these Jewish groups had in the fight against racial and ethnic stereotypes. Beginning in World War II Jewish social scientists and other intellectuals began a concentrated effort to investigate the social and psychological bases of prejudicial attitudes, outlooks, and behavior. By the end of the war these social scientists became convinced that all forms of prejudice, including anti-Semitism, shared the same social and psychological causes, which, if discovered, could be successfully treated and eliminated. For over twenty years Jewish intellectuals and activists worked hand in hand to formulate practical programs to combat prejudice. They pioneered tactics--including educational programs in the schools, appeals for tolerance broadcast through the mass media, and legal challenges in the courts--that remain among the principal weapons of today's civil rights activists.

Svonkin shows how ideology and the shifting models of prejudice greatly influenced the means that each Jewish group used in its fight against bigotry and racism.

He considers the far-reaching effects of anticommunism in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Jewish political groups moved to support liberal anticommunism as well as to oppose the demagoguery of such figures as Senator Joseph McCarthy and the leaders of the John Birch Society. Exploring the tensions between American and Jewish identities, Svonkin argues that the revelations of the Eichmann Trial, the growing concern over Israel's security, and the persistence of anti-Semitism all shaped Jewish activism-- driving the shift from the universalistic liberalism of the 1940s and 1950s to the cultural assertion and political neoconservatism of the late 1960s.

Author Notes

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.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Historian Svonkin examines American attitudes toward anti-Semitism, prejudice, and discrimination during the late 1940s and 1950s and how key Jewish organizations (the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Jewish Congress) spearheaded the struggle against discrimination in this country. These organizations achieved some success in breaking down political barriers for Jews and other minorities and in confronting anti-Semitism. In many ways they even secularized the message of Judaism. But they never fully succeeded because, the author points out, "even as Jews were increasingly `at home in America' they still felt `uneasy at home.'" The irony is that during the radicalized 1960s these organizations seemed passé and no longer attracted young Jews involved in liberal social and political causes. Academic in nature, this work is recommended for libraries with strong American Jewish history collections.‘Paul M. Kaplan, Lake Villa Dist. Lib., Ill. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Svonkin's study of three leading Jewish intergroup relations organizations (the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, and the American Jewish Congress) offers readers a fascinating look at issues affecting Jewish America after WW II as well as at topics that engaged the liberal Christian community. Although the AJC and the ADL shared a perspective, the American Jewish Congress maintained a more independent liberal position, particularly during the McCarthy era, when the former organizations took a strong anticommunist stance to separate Jews from communists and communist sympathizers. The Congress preserved its civil libertarian views, though it also joined the other two organizations in condemning communism. Among the many interesting issues Svonkin discusses is how these groups became leading voices for tolerance for all minorities during the 1940s and 1950s. They instituted educational programs and media campaigns to fight bigotry against African Americans and all vulnerable peoples; during the 1960s and since, however, they refocused their activities on their own communities as anti-Zionism and antisemitism again reared their ugly heads. Highly recommended. All levels. J. Sochen Northeastern Illinois University