The American Jewish Congress (AJC) was created in December 1918 by various Jewish religious, Zionist, and immigrant community organizations. At the time, political leadership in the Jewish community of the United States was dominated by an elite of German Jewish descent. The AJC was founded to broaden leadership from that elite and to present a unified American Jewish position at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The AJC disbanded later in 1919, but reorganized in 1922. It became effective as a pressure group in 1928 under the leadership of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who remained the president and chief spokesperson of the AJC until his death in 1949.
Throughout the 1930s, Rabbi Wise, a dedicated liberal, was vocal in his warnings about the dangers of Nazism. When Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Wise organized a mass protest rally at Madison Square Garden, in New York City. He accomplished this despite the opposition of the German government, the US State Department, and conservative Jewish organizations. The American Jewish Congress continued to organize protest rallies throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
In August 1933 the American Jewish Congress led a general boycott of German goods. Although active in protesting Nazi mistreatment of German Jews, the AJC abstained from publicly calling upon the US government to admit additional refugees from Germany. In this stance, they shared the views of other American Jewish organizations, which feared that such a demand would lead to further restrictions on immigration and an increase in American antisemitism.
In 1936 the American Jewish Congress was instrumental in establishing the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Maintaining his position as president of the AJC, Rabbi Wise was also elected president of the WJC. During World War II, the AJC acted as a liaison between the US government and the WJC on issues relating to rescue attempts made on behalf of European Jews.
In August 1942, Rabbi Wise received a cable from Gerhart Riegner, the WJC representative in Switzerland. Riegner reported that the Nazis had planned and were implementing a policy to murder the Jews of Europe; the cable also referred specifically to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
After the State Department confirmed the accuracy of the information in the cable, now known as the "Riegner telegram," the AJC convened a Joint Emergency Committee. The committee sought to coordinate the major Jewish organizations in the United States to lobby the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt to take more steps to rescue European Jews.
In December 1942 the American Jewish Congress established a Planning Committee, which sought support for a variety of rescue proposals. The committee was never more than marginally successful in mobilizing American public support for rescue efforts. The most impressive of these projects was another rally at Madison Square Garden. Held on March 1, 1943, the rally drew a crowd of 70,000. Similar rallies were subsequently held in a number of cities throughout the United States.
The American Jewish Congress was pro-Zionist in its platform. Its leadership overlapped with that of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). As a result, the two organizations agreed to concentrate on different tasks during the war. The American Jewish Congress dedicated itself to rescuing European Jews, while the ZOA worked to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. This arrangement continued after the war, although its significance decreased after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.