Jewish group fights - and wins - against religious bigotry

IRA SILVERMAN says there is good news about anti-Semitism in the United States. Mr. Silverman, head of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a prestigious but low-key group that has been fighting religious bigotry in the US for more than 80 years, reports that ``all our polls show absolutely unequivocal improvement in general American attitudes towards Jews.''

Silverman points out, however, that there is increased vandalism and desecration of Jewish synagogues and community centers and anti-Semitic ``pockets of hatred'' by ``fringe groups,'' such as Aryan Nation.

He places the former mainly in the category of youthful hooliganism, but stresses that adults must take the responsibility to remedy such acts.

The American Jewish Committee, although not specifically a pro-Israel lobby, assumes a role of interpreting Israel's problems to the US. On the Palestinian question, for instance, Silverman advocates support for negotiations between Israeli and Arab representatives based on some ``repartitioning through the exchange of territory for peace.'' He believes that other suggested options - such as ``transfer,'' keeping the residents in second-class citizenship status, under occupation, or conferring citizens' rights on residents - to be unwise.

The AJC, established in 1906, is for the most part a mild-mannered organization. And its executive vice-president, Silverman, reflects that calm countenance.

Both the organization and the man, however, are passionate in pursuit of a better and freer life for Jews both here and abroad.

But Silverman stresses that AJC's thrust is not only against anti-Semitism but against prejudice of all kinds. ``A society that has harmonious group relations and in which groups individually feel that they are treated equitably is a society in which minority groups are likely to flourish,'' he explained in an interview.

AJC, with a membership of about 50,000, has headquarters in New York, but representation across the nation. It is particularly active in New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami, and Philadelphia.

In the interview and at a recent meeting at the John F. Kennedy Library here, Silverman outlined the ``hallmarks of the American Jewish Committee'' he visualizes for the next five years. Among them:

Renewal of Jewish life in America. The group is committed to the recruitment and training of future Jewish leaders and to Judaism's role in providing guidance on such matters as ``what we put in our bodies,'' ``sexual ethics,'' and ``new financial ethics.''

Anti-Semitism. Despite reduced hostility between white non-Jewish groups and Jews, tensions remain high between blacks and Jews. There are now specific efforts to promote dialogues between these factions. For example, 40 blacks and Jews recently met at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wis., to search for shared interests, among them a social welfare agenda.

Gauging Israel's needs in the US. Support for this holy land is important, says Silverman, ``not just because Israel is a strategic asset to the US but because it remains, despite occasional lapses, the one outpost of democracy, sanity, and courage in its part of the world.''

Just recently, in the wake of criticism that prominent Jewish groups in the US were divided in their approaches toward Israel, AJC joined the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in pledging support to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation's most prominent, and often most hard-line, pro-Israel lobbying organization.

Helping Soviet Jews. AJC is pressing for US to accept more 'emigr'es who would come this country and for a greater number of Soviet departures. It is also working on supporting Jewish life in the Soviet Union by translating and distributing literature and sending regular emissaries.

Promotion of human rights. AJC places high priority on human rights, pluralism, and coalition with others on issues of mutual concern. Silverman says this ``derives not just from a liberal commitment, but from a recognition that this mode of operation is in the self-interest of our community.''

Concerned about the influence of extremist religious views on the public such as those advocated by the Christian right, AJC has just issued a policy statement that seeks ``a fair balance between individual religious values and the overall rights of society.''

Stressing that religious liberty and religious pluralism are ``indispensable supports'' for democracy, an AJC task force report recommends that public schools educate children for ``moral citizenship'' by teaching about the role of religion in history but not instilling specific religious doctrines. It also stresses the importance of religious groups' participating in the shaping of public policy. And it rejects any religious test or requirement for public office, including attempts by political candidates to polarize the electorate along lines of religious preference or theological doctrine.

Although Jews, in general, have been critical of what they see as anti-Semitic actions of the Rev. Jesse Jackson within the Democratic Party, this group will likely vote disproportionately for Michael Dukakis and other Democrats today. Silverman stresses that this is more out of ``the Jewish commitment to liberalism'' than a partisan leaning.

An AJC-sponsored study of the political and social attitudes of American Jews and non-Jews, recently conducted by sociology professor Steven M. Cohen of Queens College, New York, shows that among Jews, Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 1, and liberals outnumber conservatives almost two to one. The number of Democrats and Republicans was about even in this same sample among white gentiles.

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