Head­er pho­to cred­it­ed to the World Jew­ish Con­gress.

Men­achem Z. Rosen­saft, edi­tor of The World Jew­ish Con­gress, 1936 – 2016, will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil this week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribes series.

In order to place the dif­fer­ent essays that make up The World Jew­ish Con­gress, 1936 – 2016 in their his­tor­i­cal con­text, it is impor­tant to under­stand the ori­gins of the organization.

While the WJC for­mal­ly came into being at its first ple­nary assem­bly in Gene­va in August 1936, its roots actu­al­ly lie in an ad hoc body called the Comité des Délé­ga­tions Juives Auprès de la Con­férence de la Paix – the Com­mit­tee of Jew­ish Del­e­ga­tions at the Peace Con­fer­ence – that was formed in 1919 to advo­cate at the Ver­sailles Peace Con­fer­ence for minor­i­ty rights – that is, pri­mar­i­ly, Jew­ish rights – in east­ern and cen­tral Euro­pean coun­tries in the after­math of World War I.

The Comité des Délé­ga­tions Juives was an anom­aly at the time in that it includ­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Jew­ish groups in Cana­da, East­ern Gali­cia, Poland, Roma­nia, Rus­sia, and Ukraine, in addi­tion to B’nai Brith and Amer­i­can Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions such as the new­ly found­ed Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress and the 13-year old Amer­i­can Jew­ish Committee.

This was lit­er­al­ly the first time that such an umbrel­la body rep­re­sent­ing at least a mean­ing­ful seg­ment of world Jew­ry had come into existence.

The par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee in the Comité des Délé­ga­tions Juives was par­tic­u­lar­ly note­wor­thy since it was oth­er­wise cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly against any asso­ci­a­tion with oth­er Jew­ish groups in any endeav­or that could be inter­pret­ed as an inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish polit­i­cal­ly ori­ent­ed ini­tia­tive, as opposed to one that was strict­ly Amer­i­can and phil­an­thropic in nature.

Fol­low­ing the end of the Peace Con­fer­ence, the Comité des Délé­ga­tions Juives remained in exis­tence under the lead­er­ship of a promi­nent Paris-based Russ­ian Zion­ist named Leo Motzkin, and con­tin­ued to make rep­re­sen­ta­tions on behalf of East­ern Euro­pean Jews before the League of Nations and oth­er inter­na­tion­al bodies.

At the same time, through­out the 1920’s and ear­ly 1930’s, Rab­bi Stephen S. Wise, one of the founders of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress, called for the estab­lish­ment of a world Jew­ish Con­gress – over the fierce objec­tions of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish estab­lish­ment, in par­tic­u­lar the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Committee.

In August of 1927, 60 del­e­gates from the US, 12 oth­er coun­tries, and Manda­to­ry Pales­tine gath­ered in Zurich for what was billed as the World’s Con­fer­ence on Jew­ish Rights. Again, the pur­pose of this con­fer­ence was to find some means of coor­di­nat­ing efforts to help Jew­ish minori­ties in cen­tral and east­ern Euro­pean coun­tries where they were being dis­crim­i­nat­ed against if not active­ly persecuted.

Wise con­tin­ued his quest for a world Jew­ish con­gress over the next sev­er­al years, as Hitler’s Nazi Par­ty was becom­ing increas­ing­ly pow­er­ful in Germany.

In August of 1932, the first of three World Jew­ish Con­fer­ences took place in Gene­va, this time with 94 del­e­gates from 17 coun­tries, but with­out the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mit­tee, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, or the Hil­fsvere­in der deutschen Juden, the umbrel­la body of Germany’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. By then, Wise had enlist­ed a young Russ­ian-born Ger­man Zion­ist leader, Dr. Nahum Gold­mann, to orga­nize the event. It was the begin­ning of a friend­ship and polit­i­cal asso­ci­a­tion between the two that would last until Wise’s death in 1949.

Two more such world con­fer­ences fol­lowed, both tak­ing place in Gene­va after Hitler’s rise to power.

By the third World Con­fer­ence in 1934, Wise and Gold­mann were plan­ning the for­ma­tion of a World Jew­ish Con­gress, mod­eled on the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress, as a mech­a­nism to counter Nazi anti-Semi­tism, and in August of 1936, the WJC for­mal­ly came into being as an organization.

This was the first time that Jew­ish lead­ers from dif­fer­ent coun­tries joined togeth­er as a decid­ed­ly polit­i­cal, rather than phil­an­thropic, body, for the express pur­pose of rep­re­sent­ing Jews around the world. And over the fol­low­ing sev­er­al years, the fledg­ling orga­ni­za­tion rapid­ly became the most out­spo­ken defend­er of Jew­ish rights, both pub­licly and in behind-the-scenes diplo­mat­ic negotiations.