'Broken' Presidents Conference Faces Powerful Rebellion After J Street Debacle

Reform and Moderate Groups Say Change Must Come Now

j street

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 07, 2014.
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But reforming the Presidents Conference will be anything but easy. A recent attempt by Americans for Peace Now to initiate a discussion on Presidents Conference procedures has dragged on for months and has yet to be granted even a first hearing. The group sent a letter to Presidents Conference leaders in late December 2013, complaining about a statement issued by Presidents Conference Chairman Robert Sugarman and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein that welcomed a Senate bill aimed at increasing sanctions against Iran. This bill was strongly opposed by the White House and by several liberal Jewish organizations. APN argued that this statement did not reflect a consensus view of the community. The organization requested that the Presidents Conference adopt procedures that would ensure that views expressed reflect a consensus opinion. The request was referred to a committee, but no discussion has been held in more than five months since it was initially presented. While the tone of the debate may seem sharp, none of the Presidents Conference critics is challenging the need for a communal umbrella organization.

“We believe it is important to be part of a Klal Israel,” Jacobs said, using the Hebrew term describing the entire Jewish community. Gutow added that he did not see “any diminution of desire for representativeness.”

In practice, the Presidents Conference is far from filling the role it played in its early days as the communal voice and a single address for officials in Washington and in Jerusalem seeking to reach out to the American Jewish community. Several current and former officials in both governments told the Forward the Presidents Conference is not viewed as an exclusive representative of the community and that major organizations, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, have their own contacts and ties and do not communicate with the administration or the Israeli government through the Presidents Conference.

This, in fact, could explain the major group’s acceptance of the Presidents Conference’s current representation structure, as it views the umbrella organization as only a supplemental and not an exclusive channel for communications.

For other groups, the Presidents Conference still plays a significant role in opening doors and in harnessing the collective power of the community to change policy. A recent letter sent in May by heads of Hadassah to Presidents Conference leaders demonstrates this need. In their letter, President Marcie Natan and Executive Director Janice Weinman asked members of the Presidents Conference to intervene on the group’s behalf with the Israeli government, which is seeking to limit the power of Hadassah in the board of the Jerusalem hospital carrying the same name. Hadassah leaders wrote in their appeal, “We ask that you, the member organizations of the Conference of Presidents,” express support for Hadassah’s position as a way of “representing the integral role of the Diaspora in the Jewish state.” Sugarman and Hoenlein sent out the appeal to all member groups, urging them to “share these concerns with appropriate Israeli officials.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman


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