The American friends of the Alliance Israelite Universelle: a study in American-Jewish Intraethnic Relations, 1947-2004.

Author:Malinovich, Nadia
Position:Essay
 
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After 1948, several upheavals--the creation of the State of Israel, decolonization and Arab nationalism--forced the vast majority of Jews from the Middle East, North Africa and the former Ottoman Empire to leave their lands of origin. While most of these Sephardic Jews went to Israel, and a substantial minority--especially those from the former French colonies in North Africa--resettled in France and Canada, a small number made their way to the United States. (1) While Sephardim still comprise only a small fraction of an overwhelmingly Ashkenazic American Jewish population, their numbers have increased considerably in the post-World War II era. (2)

The American Friends of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a non-profit organization created in New York City in 1947 to garner funds for the AIU's then extensive network of schools in the Arab world, provides a window into the evolution of Sephardic integration, identity and self-representation in the post-World War II United States. While it was primarily a fundraising group, the Friends also functioned as a vehicle for Sephardic expression and community building in the United States, as well as a space where Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews worked together--and were sometimes at odds with one another. As such, a study of the Friends--the personal histories and perspectives of the people who founded and maintained it, the tactics it used in its attempts to solicit funds, as well as the reasons for its limited success and its ultimate demise--is a particularly interesting vantage point from which to explore the evolution of both Ashkenazic-Sephardic relations and each groups' perceptions of each other in the United States over the past 60 years.

Scholarship on immigration to the United States in the postwar era has emphasized the diversity of geographical, religious, cultural and class backgrounds of the "new new immigrants." This diversity, combined with a shift in American popular culture and government policy away from assimilation and toward multiculturalism, argue sociologists Ruben G. Rumbaut, Alejandro Portes and others, has splintered the notion of what it means to "become American." Rather than integrating into an undifferentiated "America society," post-World War II immigrants have experienced "segmented integration" into any number of particular American subcultures. (3)

In a similar vein, rather than using terms such as "Jewish culture" or "Jewish diaspora" in the singular, scholars such as Moshe Rosman and David Biale have used these terms in the plural, thus drawing our attention to the range of Jewish experiences in a wide variety of historical contexts. (4) This focus on diversity has been particularly important within the field of Sephardic studies, as scholars such as Jonathan Ray and Aviva Ben-Ur have pointed out that "Jewish" has often been equated with "Ashkenazic" among contemporary historians. They have suggested that the Sephardim have functioned as a "subethnic" group in the contemporary Jewish world. (5) As a "minority within a minority," American Jews of Sephardic origins have thus faced not only the challenge of integration into American life in general, but also that of integration into an overwhelmingly Ashkenazic Jewish mainstream community. (6)

The story of the American Friends of the AIU is a story of competing and overlapping identities. On the one hand, the Sephardic Jews who were the driving force behind the organization saw the group as an opportunity to forge a new network of Sephardic Jews in the United States and, in so doing, to educate both American society as a whole and American Jews in particular, about the history, culture, and material needs of Jews in the Arab world and the former Ottoman empire. On the other hand, these individuals naturally sought out connections with members of the larger American Jewish community as they integrated into American society and moved up the economic ladder. As we shall see, this "push and pull" of post-World War II Sephardim toward the American Jewish majority shaped the motives of Sephardim who joined the Friends, as well as relations between Sephardim and Ashkenazim within the organization.

Sephardic Jews who became involved with the Friends represented a particular stratum within the modern Sephardic--and Sephardic American--world. Most were French-speaking graduates of AIU schools who had transitioned with relative ease from their countries of origins into the American middle class. It was from the perspective of their successful integration into American society that most of these individuals became involved with the Friends. Feeling that their own success was directly linked to their AIU education, they wanted to "return the favor" and help the Alliance. Ironically, as we shall see, the very success of these individuals' integration into American society contributed to the relative weakness of the organization and to its eventual demise.

A confluence of factors led to the effective disappearance of the American Friends of the AIU by the turn of the millennium, and it was when the group moved out of its New York office in 2.004 that the decision was made to send its archives to the AIU in France. (7) Those archives, as well as interviews with former members and leaders of the organization in New York, Los Angeles and Paris--plus an analysis of the Friend's publication. The Alliance Review, provide a rich terrain for analysis.

The Rise And Fall of the American Friends: A Brief History

The AIU opened several branches in the United States immediately after its creation in 1860, and by 1872 counted 730 delegates on American soil. The group attracted the attention and approval of the B'nai Brith leadership, and was represented at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. In 1901, the AIU sent educator Nissim Behar to New York to further support for the organization among American Jews. Behar was a Sephardic native of Jerusalem who had founded and directed a series of Alliance schools in Aleppo, Istanbul, Bulgaria and Jerusalem. He was also a pioneer in the movement to revive Hebrew as a spoken language. (8) Behar created a group called "Alliance Israelite en Amerique," an independent association intended to raise money for the AIU and publicize its works in the United States. That alliance was very much a one-man show, and it died out after Behar's death in 1930. (9) With Europe in ruins after World War II, developing a strong relationship with American Jews became more important than ever for the Alliance. In August of 1944, when the AIU's Central Committee held its first meeting after the liberation of Paris, the majority of the surviving members of the committee were residing in New York. One of the main issues on the agenda at this meeting was how best to tap into the United States as a source of potential revenue for the impoverished Alliance. (10) It was in September of 1945 that Jules Braunschvig, who would become vice president of the AIU the following year, suggested creating a non-profit organization in the United States that would enable American citizens to make tax-deductible contributions to it in American dollars. (11)

Almost immediately, however, the AIU delegation that arrived in New York in February of 1946 came into conflict with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or Joint) and its parent organization, the United Jewish Appeal. These organizations objected to the AIU doing any independent fundraising that would conflict with their own annual drives. Recognizing the AIU's need for funds, however, the Joint agreed to grant them an annual subsidy through an American-based affiliate organization, to be called the American Friends of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. In return, the AIU--represented by the Friends--would refrain from doing any direct fundraising in the United States. Once this agreement was ironed out, the French delegation, headed by Braunschvig, went about recruiting a group of American citizens interested in incorporating such an organization. (12)

The most obvious target group for the Friends were graduates of AIU schools who had immigrated to the United States, and Braunschvig was particularly well positioned to penetrate this community, since he had lived for many years in Morocco and he moved comfortably in Sephardic circles. (13) Furthermore, Braunschvig himself married into a Sephardic family at the same time that he created the Friends, having celebrated his wedding to Gladys Toledano in New York in July of 1947. (14) Gladys Toledano's' father, Haim, a native of Morocco who had studied at the Alliance Normal School in Paris before moving to the United States, was recruited as the Friend's first treasurer, (15) while Marcel Franco, a graduate of an AIU school in Turkey who had immigrated to the United States in 1944, served as vice president. A number of other prominent members of the American Sephardic community were also on the Friends' original board of directors. These included both Simon S. Nessim, who served as president of the Central Sephardic Jewish Community of America and as chairman of the World Sephardi Federation and David de Sola Pool, the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest (Sephardic) synagogue in the United States. (16) Braunschvig and his colleagues also actively recruited members among Ashkenazim, targeting both French Jews living in New York at the time as well as prominent members of the American Jewish establishment with no particular French connection. Alan M. Stroock, a prominent New York lawyer known for his wideranging activism in various Jewish charitable causes, was the Friend's first president, and he stayed on the board of directors until his death in 1985. Investment banker Andre Meyer, who had fled France following the Nazi occupation and who remained in the United States after the war, was one of the original incorporators. (17) Both banker Alain...

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