The JDC at 100: A Cen­tu­ry of Humanitarianism 

  • Review
By – July 22, 2019

A new vol­ume of col­lect­ed essays offers a fresh mod­el to write insti­tu­tion­al his­to­ry and reflect on the accom­plish­ments of a far-reach­ing agency. Edit­ed by Avi­noam Patt, Ati­na Gross­man, Lin­da G. Levi and Maud S. Man­del, JDC at 100: A Cen­tu­ry of Human­i­tar­i­an­ism presents 13 deeply-researched chap­ters that explore the impact of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee from its found­ing in 1914 to the Cold War period.

Read­ers inter­est­ed in the for­ma­tion of the Joint and its Amer­i­can con­text will con­tin­ue to rely on Yehu­da Bauer’s and Tom Shachtman’s sub­stan­tial books. The authors in the present vol­ume spend lit­tle time dis­cussing the ori­gins of the JDC, its rela­tion­ship to Amer­i­can Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, or its U.S. diplo­mat­ic rela­tions. Instead, JDC at 100 explores the Joint from a transat­lantic per­spec­tive, exam­in­ing how this piv­otal orga­ni­za­tion pro­vid­ed agency and sup­port to var­i­ous Euro­pean regions, as well as com­mu­ni­ties in Asia, South Amer­i­ca and, Israel. Each chap­ter draws heav­i­ly upon the JDC’s insti­tu­tion­al archives, now dig­i­tized for the ben­e­fit of fur­ther research. Schol­ars and stu­dents will find new infor­ma­tion con­tained in the vol­ume and be able to iden­ti­fy cita­tions with a help­ful dig­i­tal resource.

By ori­ent­ing this book as case stud­ies of oper­a­tives and oper­a­tions in for­eign” locales, the edi­tors make the impor­tant point that insti­tu­tion­al his­to­ries ought to be stud­ied in terms of their impact. For the JDC, this meant car­ry­ing out a charge to sup­port Jew­ish life (or in Morde­cai Kaplan’s terms, Jew­ish Peo­ple­hood) in places plagued by endur­ing crises or insta­bil­i­ty. In each instance, the JDC lead­er­ship sized up the sit­u­a­tion and deployed strate­gies that best fit the area. To accom­plish this, the JDC oper­at­ed some­times as non­par­ti­sans, nego­ti­at­ing the pol­i­tics of, for exam­ple, the Sovi­et Union so that it might pro­vide relief and immi­gra­tion sup­port in ways that U.S. diplo­mats could not. In Antwerp, the JDC facil­i­tat­ed the ref­or­ma­tion of Bel­gium Jewry’s edu­ca­tion­al and civ­il infra­struc­ture by link­ing Antwerp’s Ortho­dox Jew­ish Dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ties. In Aus­tralia, the Joint grap­pled with nation­al anti­semtisim and a local Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that lacked an estab­lished fundrais­ing net­work. In all cas­es, the com­mon link was that the JDC agents sought to deliv­er the resources need­ed to exe­cute a Jew­ish human­i­tar­i­an mis­sion. The means to make that hap­pened var­ied, near­ly always.

The focus of the book, while not on the Amer­i­can­ism” of the Joint, demon­strates the shift­ing cen­ters” — as Simon Dub­now would have put it — of the Jew­ish Dias­po­ra. In tan­dem with World War I and the Wilson­ian Moment,” the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the U.S. assumed an unprece­dent­ed lev­el of respon­si­bil­i­ty to serve as the cus­to­di­an for the dis­en­fran­chised Jew­ish groups in Europe and else­where. I found this theme par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing, won­der­ing how the JDC helped social­ize Amer­i­can phil­an­thropy to this ambi­tious cause. In addi­tion, what future his­tor­i­cal labors might these his­to­ries sug­gest about the Joint’s role in gal­va­niz­ing Amer­i­can Jews to sup­port and think about Jew­ish val­ues around social jus­tice and the broad­er con­cept of Jew­ish peo­ple­hood? Both top­ics will be sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the field, as is this fine and mod­el-break­ing insti­tu­tion­al history.

Zev Eleff is the chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer of the Hebrew The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege, Chica­go. He is the author of five books, includ­ing Liv­ing from Con­ven­tion to Con­ven­tion: A His­to­ry of the NCSY, 1954 – 1980, and edi­tor of Men­tor of Gen­er­a­tions: Reflec­tions on Rab­bi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He has also authored more than thir­ty schol­ar­ly articles.

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Discussion Questions