More than half a century ago, the heads of a dozen national Jewish organizations formed a loose forum to approach the federal government as a unified American Jewish voice on Israel and the Middle East. The initiative initially came from the Eisenhower administration, which hoped — in vain, it turned out — to minimize the number of pro-Israel pleadings it had to hear from Jewish groups. The Israeli government supported the idea enthusiastically, seeing it as a way to amplify its clout in Washington by creating a united front of American citizens.
And so the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was born. Its three-part mission was to foster and articulate a consensus within the Jewish community, to faithfully reflect the needs of the Jewish state and to keep the lines to the White House open so the community could make its positions known.
These days, unfortunately, the conference, now up to 51 members, seems hard-pressed to do any of its three jobs well. It hasn’t had much luck of late forging consensus among its constituent organizations, particularly when it comes to Israel’s efforts to negotiate peace with its Palestinian neighbors. It usually seems to see itself as an advocate for Israel at the expense of representing its own constituents and their views. And yet, it too often fails to stand with Israel at all at crucial moments.
And now, in an alarming turn of events, the Presidents Conference seems intent on souring its relations with what could well be the next American administration. Not once but twice this fall, the conference gave the appearance of favoring the McCain campaign, effectively handing the Obama campaign a crude insult.
The first incident came in September, when the organization announced that Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin would address a rally protesting Iran’s nuclear policies, even though the Democratic ticket was not represented in the line-up of speakers. In response, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton angrily canceled her own planned participation in the event. An outcry ensued, forcing the conference to withdraw Palin’s invitation. The result was hurt feelings all around, particularly among Democrats.
The rally imbroglio might be thought a slip-up, despite the conference’s longstanding reputation for political savvy. Perhaps someone thought Palin’s invitation was balanced politically by Clinton’s. That might even have been true if this weren’t a campaign year. Whatever the impetus, the conference compounded the slight just a month later by helping the McCain campaign to organize a conference call to Jewish community leaders. No such help had been given to — nor sought by — the Obama campaign. Absent an Obama call, any involvement in the McCain teleconference was a patently partisan act, and forbidden. Leaders of the Presidents Conference understand that perfectly well.
Perhaps the Jewish right’s fantasies of a secretly hostile Obama have penetrated so deep into the conference’s leadership that prudence and perspective have gone out the window. Over the years, indiscretions such as these have generated suspicion of the Presidents Conference among Democrats. These latest incidents will only compound it, making it harder for the conference to do its job in the days to come.
That’s not the worst of the damage, though. Other channels exist to present Israel’s case in Washington. No such replacement exists for the conference in its role as a voice of American Jewish consensus. Precious few venues are left where an increasingly fragmented Jewish community can sit around a common table. The Presidents Conference is dangerously close to losing that role, leaving a vacuum where there used to be a community.