Local AJCommittee reflects on 50 years of activism

When Louis Heilbron returned from the ruins of post-war Europe in 1946, he joined the fledgling San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

As a U.S. Army major stationed in Austria after World War II, Heilbron had seen the aftermath of the Nazi concentration camps and the unrelenting problems for Jewish refugees. So joining an organization "concerned with international affairs affecting Jewish interests" was crucial for him, he said.

Heilbron went on to serve as chapter president from 1958 to 1960. At age 88, he remains a member and considers AJCommittee's battles for Israel and against anti-Semitism as relevant today as they were decades ago.

Heilbron will be among the 21 past chapter presidents honored at a Wednesday, Sept. 20 dinner celebrating the chapter's 50th anniversary. AJCommittee's national president, Robert Rifkind, will speak.

The national AJCommittee was founded in 1906 by a group of prominent New York businessmen who hoped to use their political weight to ease conditions for Jews suffering under Russian pogroms.

The organization remained small — about 400 members nationwide — until 1944 when AJCommittee decided to broaden its base by opening chapters in major U.S. cities.

"There was a sense that although the Nazis were crushed and defeated, the tragedy…had awakened American Jews to the devastating possibilities that anti-Semitism could create," said Ernie Weiner, executive director of the AJCommittee's San Francisco chapter for the past 24 years.

Founded in 1945 with 23 members, the San Francisco group was among AJCommittee's first 20 chapters. Today, about 1,000 members make up the chapter, which covers all of Northern California. AJCommittee has expanded to about 50,000 members nationally.

Since World War II, AJCommittee has worked to help Holocaust survivors, support Israel, battle anti-Semitism, promote Jewish continuity and fight for human rights.

During the 1950s, when Sen. Joe McCarthy's red-baiting campaign was in full swing, the local AJCommittee chapter responded by sponsoring a class at 12 high schools, University of San Francisco and the then-San Francisco State College for Teachers, Weiner said. The class gave an unbiased view of communist ideology and taught that Jews were loyal Americans even if some were communists.

Heilbron also recalled that lawyers in the chapter defended local doctors accused of communist sympathies before professional administrative review boards.

In the fight against anti-Semitism, the San Francisco chapter acted as a bulwark against the so-called "executive suite" discrimination in corporations that lasted until the late 1970s, Weiner said.

With few exceptions, qualified Jews weren't being hired for top corporate jobs, excluded largely by unwritten rules that kept Jews out of the city's top social clubs where many unofficial corporate deals and job offers were made, Weiner said. The discriminators included the Bohemian Club, Pacific Union Club and University Club, Weiner said.

Edward Bransten, 89, an AJCommittee chapter member since the 1950s and president from 1968 to 1970, said it took years before "quiet" meetings with influential San Franciscans ended the Jewish bans in social clubs and corporate offices. "It took a long time because social discrimination lasts a lot longer than other types of discrimination," said Bransten.

During the 1970s, Weiner said, the chapter also fought the Arab boycott and propaganda against Israel. The chapter mobilized Bay Area Nobel laureates to write a "rational analysis" of the oil shortage that showed Israel was not to blame, Weiner said. The chapter also organized Israeli students at Bay Area universities into a speakers' bureau; over a decade, they gave more than 300 speeches telling Israel's side of the Middle East story.

The chapter also built coalitions with Asian Americans, helping deflect anti-Asian sentiment in the 1970s, Weiner said, and publicly supported government redress for Japanese-Americans interned in World War II.

More recently, the AJCommittee protested to the World Affairs Council for inviting Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky here to speak last November. The chapter met with Polish President Lech Walesa, who was visiting the city in June, to demand he condemn a Polish priest's anti-Semitic remarks.

Such actions convince Heilbron that AJCommittee is as vital today as when he first returned from the war.

"I think it's just as important as it ever was," he said.