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Conference of Jewish Presidents Divided

A new controversy shines a light on the tough reality facing American Jewish cohesion

Sometimes the umbrella isn’t big enough for everyone. And sometimes the umbrella turns inside out in the storm.

The question becomes: Is it worth fixing the umbrella or is it time to toss it in the trash?

That appears to be the dilemma that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations faces.

Founded in the mid-1950s to consolidate the growing number of Jewish policy groups and speak with one voice to the White House, the Presidents’ Conference can’t unify around very much of anything anymore. The 53-member organization includes Zionists, social justice warriors, socialists, women’s groups, peaceniks, rabbis, hasbarists, bond dealers, educators, fundraisers and groups representing the four main American streams of Judaism. And a fight for leadership of the organization in recent weeks brought to the forefront what has been simmering for some time: that the Jewish community is not immune to the political and cultural polarization that has swept up the rest of America.

“The Conference of Presidents has no meaning anymore,” claims Bruce Abramson, a co-founder of Jexodus, a right-wing political campaign aimed at encouraging Jews to leave the Democratic Party.

“If it existed as a forum for the exchange of ideas, then great,” Abramson told The Media Line. “But, if its mission is to come to a consensus, then it doesn’t matter anymore. If its drive was for true unity, then yes, but its drive is to the lowest common denominator.”

Dianne Lob, the former chair of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, survived a brutal fight to become the next chair of the Conference of Presidents, but a compromise arrangement will have her serve a year in a chair-elect role. The Conference may be better off, as HIAS’s battles with the Trump White House on immigration could very well make Lob persona non grata at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Lob’s former helming of HIAS proved controversial, with right-wing opponents accusing the group of now focusing heavily on Muslim immigration and questionable partnerships with organizations deemed anti-Semitic by many on the Right. Despite running unopposed, Lob garnered the support of just 30 of the 53 member organizations. Final candidates generally have brought support across the Conference.

“The mission of the Conference of Presidents is to advocate for Israel and Jews. HIAS’s mission is to resettle non-Jews in America. … This is not the type of organization that should even be in the Conference,” Mort Klein, the fiery leader of the Zionist Organization of America, told The Media Line.

“Under Lob’s watch, HIAS collaborated with terrorist-affiliated groups like Islamic Relief USA, whose parent organization is on Israel’s and the UAE’s terrorism list,” said Klein, whose family was aided by HIAS in resettling to America after surviving in World War II Germany.

“Listen, we never presumed the American Jewish community was of one mind,” countered Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, North America’s largest Jewish movement.

“What the Conference needs is smart, respectful debate – not character assassination. We all believe in fighting anti-Semitism. We all believe in a democratic, Jewish State of Israel. We just have major disagreements on how to keep it that way,” Jacobs told The Media Line.

“But, Lob was not the wrong choice. US Jewry is liberal. The current US executive branch is not. The Israeli government is not. But US Jewry isn’t changing,” said Jacobs.

On that and many other points, he and Abramson disagree, and it goes to the heart of the divide in the Conference.

“American Jewry has changed and is changing. There is no more American Jewish community,” Abramson told The Media Line. “There are two distinct communities: A mainstream that dominated through the 20th century, by all measures is nontraditional and nonreligious and sets its goal to be indistinguishable from its non-Jewish neighbors, except on the margins, with a Jewish component serving as a moral directive. The other community is emphatically Jewish, dynamic, growing and views its Judaism as being its distinguishing characteristic. It would be strange if these two communities saw eye to eye.”

So, if these two communities don’t see eye to eye, and with other organizations taking on the topic of anti-Semitism, what now is the role of the Conference?

“There is so little consensus anymore,” Zachary Schaffer, Council of Young Jewish Presidents executive director, told The Media Line. “Is the Conference going to put out a consensus position on annexation? No. Can it agree that it is a pro-Israel, Zionist entity? Yes, but what is that worth? I think the Conference needs to move on from trying to reach a consensus. Make it a forum for an exchange of ideas. At the end, you tally up where each member organization stands and you put out a majority opinion, signed by the members who agree and a minority opinion from the members who don’t, explaining clearly where the difference lies. No, everyone isn’t in agreement. But, it will give a much more accurate pulse of where American Jewry stands on a given issue, rather than an all-or-nothing approach.”

“The Conference needs to decide if it is mission-driven or membership-driven,” said Abramson. “If it’s the former, then put it all down: Here are the goals, the mission, etc. If we can coordinate resources between all of the organizations to meet those goals, then that’s a great thing. If the Conference served as a think tank, if it built a grassroots movement, if it focused on education, then OK, maybe you have something. The other reason to go forward is on consensus, and that just isn’t there anymore, not even on anti-Semitism. So if you’re on the Right, you’re in the minority and will be for a while. And you need to ask yourself what’s really important: Is it about being a member of the team and saying that you’re fighting the good fight? Or is it to be in a permanent minority, knowing you’re going to lose all the time? If that’s the case, what the hell are you doing?”

Jacobs takes a different tack, bringing up the legendary Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the former Conference chair and giant of Reform Judaism who was notoriously difficult to pigeonhole. Schindler’s path crossed with that of Menachem Begin, who came to power in Israel shortly after Schindler ascended to the leadership of the Conference. Schindler, widely viewed as a dove, backed the hawkish Begin, saying unity on Israel’s behalf was critical.

“Begin rarely hosted any dinner guests late in his life,” recalls Jacobs. In fact, Begin rarely left his apartment in his final decade on earth.

“But, one of the few people he had over was Rabbi Schindler. It tells you what’s possible. It tells you what is at the core of all of our values, our commitments, our aspirations,” Jacobs said.

With the incoming Israeli government planning to apply sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria in the coming weeks, though, the Conference assuredly will not be rallying behind them. There is no figure there who can muster consensus on anything resembling a contentious issue anymore. The American Jewish world has simply changed and the Conference may have to in ways unimaginable in Schindler’s time. The safe bet is that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will not be inviting Dianne Lob for dinner anytime soon.