On 19 June 1940, Morris Raphael Cohen received an upsetting letter. The Russian-born philosopher, who ranked among the most respected Jewish scholars in the United States, was on a trying mission. Driven by the outbreak of World War II, which put the survival of the Jews of Europe in jeopardy, he wanted to play his part in the fight for the future of his people.
Out of the limited options American Jews could choose from to defy the Nazis, Cohen viewed research as the most promising – and the most suitable for a scholar like himself, who had made the »scientific method« the center of his philosophy. In 1933, he had founded the Conference of Jewish Relations (CJR), which conducted studies on the social conditions of American Jews in order to ameliorate their situation amidst a climate of growing antisemitism. Now, facing new problems resulting from the current war, he sought to use his experience to help Jews across the Atlantic. Various private and governmental organizations in the USA had already begun to develop roadmaps for the coming peace. None of these, however, were paying particular attention to the main targets of the »Third Reich.« Their general ignorance towards the situation of the Jews motivated Cohen to ensure that a Jewish voice would be heard in the emerging debates about the postwar world. Since the beginning of 1940, he poured much energy into the founding of a Committee on Peace Studies under the sponsorship of his CJR and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which would gather leading scholars to study the problems Jews might encounter after the end of the war.
This was why Cohen contacted his old friend Oscar Isaiah Janowsky, a historian and expert of minority rights, to win him over as a leading member for his committee. Like Cohen, Janowsky was born in Eastern Europe and taught at the City College of New York. In the late 1930s, he had written a study on Nazi Germany’s racial policies for the CJR. Since early May 1940, Janowsky and Cohen were exchanging views about a Jewish peace studies program. Both shared the opinion that such an initiative was absolutely necessary – it would help to prepare the ground for Jewish demands at a future peace conference and shape the opinion both of policy makers and the general public.
Janowsky had made it clear from the beginning that such a program »must not serve to divide the Jews.« He pointed to the dilemma that Jewish political organizations like the AJC were »not as yet ready for unity,« but a small research group like the CJR lacked the necessary resources to get the program off the ground. A cooperation with the AJC would, however, only be acceptable if the study group represented »the different viewpoints of American Jewish organized life« and refrained from formulating political recommendations. Cohen agreed with his friend and assured him that these stipulations should be met.