Conference Fails To Live Up to Name

Presidents Keep Minor Groups in Fold, Exclude Key New Ones

Popes and Presidents: Malcolm Hoenlein, right, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue meet with Pope Benedict XVI. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is supposed to be an umbrella group of the biggest communal organizations. But a closer look reveals that’s no longer really the case.
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Popes and Presidents: Malcolm Hoenlein, right, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue meet with Pope Benedict XVI. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is supposed to be an umbrella group of the biggest communal organizations. But a closer look reveals that’s no longer really the case.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 05, 2012, issue of March 09, 2012.
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When Jordan’s King Abdullah sought to reach out to American Jews recently, he invited a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to his Royal Palace in Amman for a lengthy discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Syria, Iran and all manner of weighty topics.

The Presidents Conference secured the high-level meeting at such a sensitive time because it has been the channel of choice for many national and world leaders wishing to communicate with American Jews. The Presidents Conference, a membership umbrella agency headquartered in New York, presents itself as representing all the heavy hitters in the organized communal world.

But it doesn’t. A Forward examination of its member organizations found that some of these “major” groups have less than a handful of employees, while others can show little financial activity and a few are all but defunct.

“It is the conference of major and minor Jewish organizations,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the larger groups represented in the Presidents Conference. “In fact,” he added, “it’s got more minor groups than major.”

The Presidents Conference was founded in 1956 at the request of the Eisenhower administration, which sought a single point of contact for the Jewish community. It has since grown to include 51 Jewish groups and is viewed by both Israeli leadership and America’s administration as the official voice of the Jewish community on policy issues, mainly those pertaining to Israel. In that capacity, the Presidents Conference meets regularly with kings, popes and presidents.

But as the umbrella organization has grown in size, its membership base has not always kept up with developments within the Jewish community. Many of the groups that now dominate the broader policy discourse are not in the Presidents Conference, while others that are no longer significant players are still in.

The Israel Project, an up-and-coming advocacy organization, is one of those left outside. The group was established 10 years ago, and in 2010 it employed 30 staffers and brought in nearly $7 million. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, its founder and president, has been invited to the White House and to the halls of power in Jerusalem, and is a frequent voice for Israel on Capitol Hill. The only place that her group has not been able to get a seat is around the table of the Presidents Conference.

“It’s disappointing,” she said in a recent interview, adding that the group began its application process after completing the five-year waiting period required of every new organization before being allowed to apply. But the only response TIP has heard is that its application is pending.

“There is a reason we want to be a member, and the reason is that I believe in cooperation and that there shouldn’t be duplicity in the Jewish world,” Mizrahi said. Not being a member means TIP is not invited to meetings the Presidents Conference organizes with visiting Israeli dignitaries or with officials of the United States. It also does not participate in the annual mission to Israel, such as the one that took place in February.

A look at the membership list of the Presidents Conference shows that organizations much smaller and less active than TIP are welcome guests at these events.

The list includes most of the traditional key players in Jewish advocacy — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the ADL, the American Jewish Committee — and service organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Hadassah. Most of the religious denominations are represented, including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.

But members also include some less likely players. Tiny groups with small budgets and few staff members, such as American Friends of Likud, Ameinu, the Jewish Labor Committee, The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and MERCAZ USA, are full members of the Presidents Conference. Organizations such as the B’nai Zion Foundation and AMIT, which have little to do with policy issues, also are members, as are many groups that are subsidiaries of larger organizations, such as the women’s affiliates of the Reform and Conservative movements. The American Jewish Congress, which has barely been active in the past year, is still a full member, as well.


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