American Jewish Historical Society

“Responsible for the Future of the American Jewish Past”

The American Jewish Historical Society provides access to more than 20 million documents and 50,000 books, photographs, art and artifacts that reflect the history of the Jewish presence in the United States from 1654 to the present. Among the treasures of this heritage are the first American book published in Hebrew; the handwritten original of Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus, which graces the Statue of Liberty; records of the nation’s leading Jewish communal organizations and important collections in the fields of education, philanthropy, science, sports, business and the arts. Founded in 1892, AJHS is the oldest national ethnic historical organization in the nation. AJHS is one of five partner organizations at The Center for Jewish History in Manhattan and has a branch in Boston

Internship Spring 2011

Dennis Riley: Processing a collection of material from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League concerning the John Birch Society, spanning the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

The history of the 1960s conjures up images of civil rights marches and non-violent protests, the impassioned energy of anti-war demonstrations, and the psychedelics of hippie be-ins and free love music festivals heralding the Aquarian Age.  However, the history of the decade is not just that of civil disobedience and the colorful counter-culture.  If the 1960s represented a revolution in American society and culture, it was accompanied by a counter-revolution embodied by a surge in right-wing conservatism.

The collection of materials held by the American Jewish Historical Society assembled by the Anti-Defamation League to track and counter the right-wing John Birch Society helps reveal a relatively unknown history of the 1960s.

Welch organized the Birch Society to spur conservative activism and counter what he saw as a vast communist conspiracy.  He named the organization after an American Baptist missionary and U.S. military intelligence officer killed by Chinese communists in 1945, who Welch labeled the first casualty of World War III.  The program advocated by the Birch Society focused on educating the public about the true nature and extent of the communist conspiracy and manifested itself most commonly in letter writing campaigns and similar grassroots activities. Birch inspired campaigns ranged from opposing fluoridation in drinking water, to supporting local police, from attempting to influence Parent Teacher Associations to combating the importation of communist goods, or linking the civil rights movement to Communist agitators and efforts impeach the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or opposing U.S participation in the United Nations.

With cyclical surges in national conservative movements, from the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s, to the Republican Revolution of 1994, to today’s Tea Party movement, a closer examination of the John Birch Society would prove instructive on how and why such movements gain prominence.


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