One day after American Jewry’s pro-Israel umbrella group rejected its bid for admission, J Street, the dovish lobby, posted a tongue-in-cheek thank you note on its website.
“Thank you,” the letter said, “for finally making it clear that the Conference of Presidents is not representative of the voice of the Jewish community.”
The letter, addressed to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was accompanied by a sign-on box and invited readers to send the letter to Presidents Conference executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.
The virtual thank you cards are unlikely to reach Hoenlein’s desk. But in the aftermath of the vote rejecting J Street, even some of the Conference’s largest organizational members are voicing frustration with the group that purports to speak for American Jews on issues related to Israel.
The Reform movement, American Judaism’s largest denomination, has been leading the charge for reforming the Conference, which was established in 1956 and tasked with serving as the communal voice on issues relating to Israel and foreign policy.
“As of yesterday, it is clear that the Conference of Presidents, as currently constituted and governed, no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement.
The harsh language was followed by a stern warning: “We may choose to advocate for a significant overhaul of the Conference of Presidents’ processes. We may choose to simply leave the Conference of Presidents. But this much is certain: We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry.”
Josh Block, president and CEO of the Israel Project and a harsh critic of J Street, sought to rebut Jacobs’s claim. “It is saddening,” Block told the Forward, “to see decent people like the head of one of the Reform organizations distorting the diversity of the Conference.”
In fact, Block argued, the Presidents Conference “leans left or a-political, but not right.” He cited the presence within the umbrella group of groups such as Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu and Arza “that support its mission to strengthen the Jewish community, and the US-Israel relationship.” (The Israel Project is not a Conference member.)
If URJ ever were to actually leave the Presidents Conference, it would be a significant blow to the umbrella organization, whose credibility stands on its claim to be speaking on behalf of the entire community. Leaders of Conservative Judaism posed a similar challenge to the Conference. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said in an interview shortly after the vote that members of the Presidents Conference should “examine the structure” of the organization and find ways of “closing the gap between the popular vote and the organizational vote.” Together, the Reform and Conservative denominations represent the vast majority of Jewish synagogue-goers.
Calls for reforming the Conference of Presidents’ procedures have focused primarily on its admissions process for new members. Its current rules give equal weight to organizations representing millions of members, such as the Reform and Conservative movements, and to those with small followings and limited activity, such as Likud-USA and the Jewish Labor Committee.
The rules also require that a new group be supported by two-thirds of the member organizations. Changing the admission rules might appear to be a quick fix. The Conference could require a simple majority and weigh the vote of each group based on its size.
Had the Conference been using these criteria on April 30, J Street, which enjoyed the backing of many the umbrella group’s largest constituent members, might well have gotten in. But a former official with a Jewish organization who participated in Conference meetings, said that previous attempts to address these issues were all turned down.
Another option would be to review the standing of current member organizations to see if they still pass the bar set for acceptance. Some of the smaller groups have declined greatly in activity and membership since joining decades ago, but still remain in the Conference. “How many of the Conference of Presidents’ current members would win the support of 2/3 of the membership today?” asked Jacobs in the statement put out by URJ.
Attempts to reform the Conference were underway even before the debate over J Street’s admission. Americans for Peace Now, a constituent member with views similar to J Street’s, has reached out to the umbrella group’s leaders asking for changes in its decision making process.
APN, which underwent extensive critical scrutiny before winning its own seat at the Conference two decades ago, has taken issue with what it views as the Conference’s lack of transparency. In a May 1 press release, APN said it has also sought reform of the umbrella group’s “problematic procedures” for expressing what it is supposed to be the community’s consensus views. Some important Conference policy statements, APN charges, were never vetted with all members and did not necessarily represent that consensus.
APN’s requests were submitted to the Conference several months ago and referred for consideration to a committee, which has yet to report back.
J Street, whose rejection triggered much of the debate over the future of the Presidents Conference, has followed the controversy from afar. “Given that we are not members of the Conference of Presidents, we are not in a position to reform it,” said Rachel Lerner, the group’s senior vice president for community relations, “but we would certainly be supportive of our allies in doing so and would be appreciative of what they are trying to do for the Jewish community.”
Conference of Presidents chairman Robert Sugerman and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein did not respond to requests for comment.
Contact Nathan Guttman on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.