American Jewry’s large centrist and liberal groups are seeking to radically reform the community’s main umbrella organization, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. This new effort is the biggest fallout yet from the Presidents Conference’s controversial decision to reject the membership bid of J Street, the dovish Israel lobby.
In a May 6 conference call, leaders from a number of groups, including the Reform movement, stated their desire to overhaul the Presidents Conference in order to make it more representative of the American Jewish community.
The conversation, which participants described as private, was a first step at what is shaping into a concerted effort to translate widespread frustration following the rejection of J Street into a drive to reform the Presidents Conference from within.
“This is about the Conference of Presidents, not about J Street,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in an interview.
Jacobs, who has emerged as the leader of the pact calling for an overhaul of the 50-year-old umbrella organization, insisted that the campaign to change practices and procedures at the Conference was not a retaliatory step taken by groups that supported J Street and lost their bid.
“I have every reason to believe that we must and can reform and restructure the parts of the Conference of Presidents that are deeply broken,” he said.
The call for change, first voiced by backers of J Street after the April 30 vote that left the group outside the Conference, has been gaining some mainstream support. Alan Solow, a former chairman of the Presidents Conference, told the Forward he welcomes the discussion.
“The kind of divisiveness that is arising after the debate on J Street threatens to damage the Conference going forward,” said Solow, who also co-chairs the organization’s committee on policies and procedures, “and therefore it is worth having further discussions on whether the way the Conference operates makes sense.” Solow would not take a position on specific ideas for change or on whether change is needed, but stressed that “this is an occasion to take a look” at current procedures.
The internal dissent building within the liberal wing of the Conference has largely been channeled toward a campaign for reforming the institution, but calls for more drastic steps are still on the table.
Jacobs, who ignited the discussion with his May 1 statement threatening that his organization “may choose to simply leave the Conference of Presidents” made clear that if restructuring of the Conference will not move ahead, “there is still a possibility that we will leave.”
Sources close to the deliberations within the Reform movement said, however, that full withdrawal from the Conference is not a desired course of action for the largest denomination and that other groups also expressed their opposition to leaving the umbrella group.
Short of leaving, Reform, Conservative and left-leaning organizations in the Conference, have discussed several measures that could change the decision-making process within the umbrella group. All share the notion of giving more weight to large organizations, instead of the current structure of “one group, one vote” that does not distinguish between major groups and smaller organizations.
Proportional weighting of organizations has been discussed in the past by leaders of the Presidents Conference and was deemed impractical. Now, with a groundswell of support for reform, some alternative ideas have been floated to resolve the representation issue.
One proposal is to form an executive committee within the Conference of Presidents that would be in charge of most of the decisions. This is a model similar to that of the United Nations, where all countries get an equal vote at the General Assembly but only the large powers have a permanent seat on the Security Council. Another would be rewarding larger organizations with more responsibilities just like Senators who represent larger constituencies are elected for longer terms than members of the House of Representatives who represent only one district.
“The silver lining in the J Street debate is that maybe [Conference leaders] will see there are concerns that need to be addressed,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an organization that supported J Street’s request for membership. “Every organization, including the Conference, needs to look at what important members are telling them.”
The JCPA, whose members include both national organizations and local Jewish Communality Relations Committees, adopted a weighted vote system for its own resolution process more than a decade ago. At the JCPA plenums, each group gets a number of votes based on its size.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 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.