In March 1999, the Los Angeles chapter of the American Jewish Congress closed its doors. According to the National Office, the chapter had not been fulfilling its financial responsibilities, but the outgoing regional leaders told a different story. In their telling, the closure was the result of a long simmering dispute over ideological differences. The Los Angeles chapter had charted a more aggressively liberal stance on domestic and foreign policy issues – being on the cutting edge of anti-sweatshop work for example, and supporting a two-state solution in the Middle East years before the issue became popular in the mainstream.
Immediately upon closing the AJ Congress chapter, the outgoing leaders (Patsy Ostroy, Douglas Mirell, and Steve Kaplan) announced the formation of a new organization, which they called the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). This new organization intended to pick up where the L.A. chapter of Congress had left off. The importance of the new organization for the history of American Jewish social justice activism lay in two important facts. First, the PJA was based in Los Angeles and not on the East Coast. The center of liberal activism had long since left the east coast cities that had birthed the classic Jewish defense organizations (ADL, AJ Committee, and the upstart AJ Congress). However, the centers of power for the Jewish establishment were still ensconced in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. PJA attempted to marry the cultural and political liberalism of the West Coast to an explicitly progressive Jewish political program.
Second, the PJA claimed as its mandate the traditional American Jewish social justice issues – worker's rights, anti-death penalty activism, feminism, gay and lesbian rights – and also embraced a two-state position in the Middle East. This latter position had sunk previous short-lived left and progressive Jewish organizations, such as New Jewish Agenda and Breirah, at a time when such views were heresy, not the policy – implied or actual – of the Israeli government.
In its first half-decade, PJA demonstrated that the West Coast could nurture a different model of Jewish social justice activism. By 2006 the two PJA chapters (Los Angeles and Northern California) had created cross-ethnic alliances on economic justice issues, inter-religious dialogue with both Christian and Muslim groups, and brought together Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews with its restorative justice project (the Jewish Community Justice Project). At the same time, the PJA has laid claim to the Jewish textual tradition by recruiting professors and scholars to its leadership. All the PJA education programs and organizing initiatives have a text component to them, from mediation training and teach-ins to support hotel workers to amicus briefs on the death penalty and affirmative action.
In its activism and organizing the PJA seems to have forged a new model of Jewish activism that borrows from both the mainly secular Jewish labor movements (which led to the left and new-left unaffiliated though heavily Jewish movements) and from the religious traditions that support progressive activism, which before had been found mainly in Israel in the writings of the religious kibbutz movement and the Po'alei Agudat Israel movement.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.