Leaders Battle To Head Top Pro-Israel Group

By Nathaniel Popper

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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The race to be the next chairman of the American Jewish community’s main pro-Israel umbrella organization is in the home stretch.

According to several organizational insiders, millionaire real estate investor Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, and attorney Joel Kaplan, international president of B’nai Brith, are the top candidates to become chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Both leaders were vigorously pushing their candidacies on a recent Presidents Conference mission to Israel.

Comprising 52 national organizations, the conference is widely viewed as the Jewish community’s main consensus voice on Middle East issues.

The choice of chairman could have a significant effect on the face that the American Jewish community projects at home and abroad, several communal leaders said.

The conference, despite its historic commitment to consensus, has suffered in recent months from internal dissension among its member organizations.

The two-year term of current chairman James Tisch ends in June. Many groups are looking for his successor to unify a Jewish organizational world fractured by disagreements over Israeli policy — particularly the Gaza disengagement plan.

“Now more than ever we need someone who will put together a very disparate Conference of Presidents,” said Julius Berman, chairman of the conference in the 1980s. “There is much more disagreement than in the past.”

With the nominating committee beginning its interviews this week, there are thought to be four candidates vying for the top position. In addition to Rosen, who has served as president or chairman of AJCongress for the past seven years, and Kaplan, who has headed B’nai Brith since 2002, two other main candidates have emerged: Eugene Ribakoff, a Florida businessman who led the apolitical American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Vernon Kurtz, a rabbi who recently stepped down as president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

The lineup of candidates reflects some of the tensions that have plagued the Presidents Conference in recent years, as it has moved from chairmen who came up through the Jewish organizational ranks to those who were wealthy donors with little experience in leading Jewish groups. The last three chairmen — Tisch, Mortimer Zuckerman and Ronald Lauder – have all been very wealthy and put their private planes at the conference’s disposal.

Rosen fits that bill. He also has friends in high places — including President Bush — and a record of aggressively increasing the efforts of the American Jewish Congress to influence the international arena, ruffling more than a few feathers along the way.

But the chief executive of the conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, is known for his own strong personality, and some organizational insiders are questioning whether he might work better with one of the other candidates.

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