Changes afoot — and critics appear — at AJCongress

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NEW YORK — There's an old joke about the three Jewish defense agencies: Upon finding anti-Semitic graffiti, the American Jewish Committee commissions a sociological study, the Anti-Defamation League holds a news conference, and the American Jewish Congress files a lawsuit.

But the distinction of the AJCongress as the American Jewish organization most willing to roll up its shirt sleeves and duke it out over civil liberties and the pursuit of peace in the Middle East is long gone, according to many Jewish observers.

As Phil Baum steps down as executive director, the direction of the AJCongress, once one of the most liberal of American Jewish organizations, appears to be more fluid than ever.

Neil Goldstein was named last week to take over for Baum.

Goldstein had been serving for the past year as the AJCongress' director of national affairs, and previously served as assistant executive director in the mid-1980s.

In an interview, Goldstein said he will work closely with the "strong lay leadership" of AJCongress in setting a course for the organization.

"I am certain that we will continue to be at the cutting edge of issues that affect the Jewish community" and others, Goldstein said, citing AJCongress' work on sectarian issues such as Israel and anti-Semitism and nonsectarian ones including civil liberties and education.

Baum will remain associated with the AJCongress as its senior adviser on world affairs.

Baum's departure comes on the heels of a controversy over the firing of the director of the AJCongress' New England chapter, Sheila Decter, after more than 20 years of her service to the group.

Critics say Decter was one of the most beloved and well-respected leaders in Boston and blame her termination on the organization's ideological shift to the right. Additionally, the Forward in New York reported last week that Decter plans to file an age- and gender- discrimination suit against her former employer.

But Jack Rosen, the group's president, say it was a matter of financial accountability, and said there is no basis to Decter's charges.

Apart from the Decter firing and whether it represents a change in direction for the AJCongress, one thing is for sure: the organization is in the midst of an extensive restructuring.

It had a hard time finding someone to replace Baum, who indicated his intention to retire a few years ago.

In addition, the AJCongress has fired the director of its New York office, closed its San Francisco and Los Angeles offices and hired new directors of its Washington and Philadelphia offices — both of whom hail from politically conservative backgrounds.

The AJCongress has since reopened its office in Los Angeles, where its old lay leadership has founded a new organization, the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

A similar group has been started in Philadelphia.

The regional office changes, according to Rosen, are part of a responsible effort to reverse the financial crisis that has long plagued the organization.

As to the question of liberal fires and conservative hires, Rosen said, "Where they come from is irrelevant. They're employed by the organization to carry out its programs."

"I can say, unequivocally, there's been no change on our domestic liberal agenda," Rosen said.

But he acknowledged a policy shift on Israel and the peace process, saying that times have changed.

"In the past, AJCongress supported the policy of land for peace and the Oslo accords," he said. "But as a result of the terrorist attacks by suicide bombers killing innocent civilians, we support the Sharon government in their policy of not negotiating with [Yasser] Arafat until he takes necessary measures to end terrorist activities."

But a former president of the AJCongress, who was active with the organization for nearly 50 years, said he believed both fronts have been abandoned.

"I'm very sad, very sad," said Theodore Mann, a Philadelphia attorney and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"In a way it's heartbreaking that it no longer seems to be following either the assertive pursuit of civil rights and civil liberties that it once did or the belief that a peace process was absolutely essential and could not be abandoned."

Mann pointed to the AJCongress' acceptance of some of Bush's recommendations for countering terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, such as "rounding up people with questionable due process."

He said "the American Jewish Congress nationally immediately approved that kind of approach without careful examination and over the objection of surely some of its chapters."

Asked about the perception that the organization had shifted right, Goldstein said, "I believe that everyone here shares a set of progressive values…and ideas."

"There has been no change in those values or ideals," he continued, but the methods for achieving them, such as an increased focus on legislative action, have changed.

Rosen too said the AJCongress' stance on the delicate balance between protecting civil liberties and implementing counterterrorism measures is one that has adapted to the times.

"Today we have a world where terrorism places priorities on what programs we're going to pursue," he said.