Presidents Conference Takes Tentative Steps to More Democratic Structure

After J Street, Group May Give Less Say to Tiny Groups

Far Enough? The Presidents Conference came under withering criticism for its rejection of the dovish group J Street. The umbrella group is taking some steps to reform itself, but will it be enough?
j street
Far Enough? The Presidents Conference came under withering criticism for its rejection of the dovish group J Street. The umbrella group is taking some steps to reform itself, but will it be enough?

By Nathan Guttman

Published July 05, 2014, issue of July 11, 2014.
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American Jewry’s primary umbrella group on Israel is embarking on a path of reform that is expected to shift more power toward larger Jewish groups within the influential confederation’s membership.

The process will involve a major structural overhaul for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. According to several communal officials involved in the group, it’s a shift being undertaken in response to widespread criticism of the umbrella group’s decision-making last April, when it rejected the dovish lobby J Street’s bid for membership.

“I believe I can say to you a month later that there is real progress and that we’re beginning to move forward,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a June 21 interview with the Forward. “I’m hopefully optimistic, and I believe we’re on the right track.”

Jacobs, whose URJ is the largest group within the 51-member umbrella organization, had threatened to pull URJ out of the confederation following the Presidents Conference’s vote to reject J Street. But the reformists’ emphasis at this point is on the umbrella group’s future decision-making process rather than on revisiting its rejection of J Street.

“It is clearly not the matter of J Street alone but a matter of what is the Conference of Presidents and how does it do its work, how does it take policy stands, how does it govern, how does it do membership,” Jacobs explained.

Many communal leaders credit Jacobs with pushing the Presidents Conference toward making changes following the J Street vote. The April 30 vote angered a variety of the group’s larger membership organizations. Some, on the liberal or dovish side of the Jewish establishment’s spectrum, decried the umbrella organization’s refusal to extend its communal tent to accept a significant group on their side. Other, more centrist groups protested the Presidents Conference’s procedures, which give each constituent member one vote in the decision-making process, regardless of the affiliated group’s size.

Similar complaints have been put forward in the past. Americans for Peace Now, in fact, had already submitted an appeal to the group to change the way it conducts its business. But, while previous attempts fell short of gaining traction, Presidents Conference leaders demonstrated greater responsiveness following the tumult that accompanied the J Street vote and its aftermath. One longtime organizational activist said that he had expected the URJ’s drive to be ignored, given the ability of the Presidents Conference’s executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, “to move on” despite opposition.

But this time the call came from a coalition that included several large organizations unassociated with a dovish agenda. Joining the URJ were the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Conservative movement. Their presence among the reformists distanced the call for change from the J Street issue and from the debate over the Presidents Conference’s political tint.

Hoenlein did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

To address demands for overhaul, the Presidents Conference will begin talks within its committee on process and procedure which is co-chaired by Alan Solow, one of its past chairmen, and by Richard Skolnik, president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The committee’s members, which include representatives of major groups, are set to convene in late July for their first meeting to discuss reform proposals.

“There is a lot of openness now,” said Kenneth Bob, national president of Ameinu, a small progressive organization. Bob was invited to participate as a member of the new committee. “Sometimes you need an event like the J Street vote to expose the issues that need to be taken care of,” Bob said. He added that he would like the committee to change the Presidents Conference’s governance procedures so as to introduce more transparency to its work. Bob said he would also seek to revise its membership rules.

Several other groups on the committee declined to comment, citing the need keep discussions away from the public eye before decisions are made.

The key recommendation expected, according to several Jewish leaders who are members of the Presidents Conference, is to establish an executive committee that will operate alongside the two individuals who currently run most of the Presidents Conference’s daily operations: the chairman — a position that rotates among the lay leaders of the Presidents Conference’s various constituent groups — and Hoenlein.

The executive committee will be designed so as to ensure that larger organizations get more weight in decisions than small groups do, several informed sources said. One option that several members have discussed is adopting a model similar to that of the United Nations Security Council, in which superpowers have a permanent seat and veto power, and smaller countries participate on a rotating basis.

The establishment of an executive committee could address many of the concerns raised by critics following the J Street vote and could guarantee that the voice of the Presidents Conference represents that of the key players in the Jewish world. It would, at the same time, take away some of the decision-making authority currently held by Hoenlein, who has served in his position since 1986, and by the chairman.

“I speak on behalf of myself and of Malcolm in saying we are totally open to consider any suggestion,” Robert Sugarman, the Conference’s current chairman told the Forward. Sugarman refused to address the specifics of the suggestions being raised, saying only that he expects “very constructive talks” in the committee.

J Street, whose rejection by the Presidents Conference triggered the reform process, could end up outside the umbrella organization even if an overhaul program is adopted. The ideas being discussed by the Presidents Conference do not call directly for reconsideration of the group’s bid for membership. And even implementation of the reported reforms would not necessarily ensure J Street’s acceptance in the future, since the lobby group failed to gain even a simple majority of votes in its previous attempt. “To be fair,” Bob said, “even if all these changes happen, it doesn’t mean J Street would get in.”

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


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