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Surprise Candidate Emerges at Leaders’ Group

A surprise candidate was nominated to chair the umbrella organization that is viewed widely as the American Jewish community’s consensus voice on Middle East affairs.

The nominee, Harold Tanner, was tapped last week to head the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Tanner was praised across the board for his quiet leadership qualities. The surprise manner in which he was chosen, however, has stoked the anger of several influential Jewish communal leaders who have long complained that the Presidents Conference, an umbrella group made up of 52 national organizations, frequently has failed to act in a democratic manner.

Tanner, who served as president of the American Jewish Committee from 2001 to 2004, was a relative unknown to many Presidents Conference members before the search for a new Presidents Conference chairman began. He was not mentioned among the four main candidates going into the final weeks of the nomination process.

Among those criticizing the process was Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has frequently said that top Presidents Conference officials have failed to consult enough with larger organizations and faulted the umbrella group for not doing enough to back Israel’s disengagement plan. Foxman called Tanner a “wise and measured leader,” but added, “One would have thought that if a name is brought in that is not part of the discussion, then some effort would be made to reach out to some of us. I would like to know whose brainchild it was to pick him.”

The executive director of AJCommittee, David Harris, said he had suggested Tanner six weeks ago to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference. Although Hoenlein is not on the nominating committee, he’s a powerful presence in the group.

Internal critics have said privately that Hoenlein wields too much power.

But members of the nominating committee rejected any suggestion that Hoenlein had unduly influenced the process. They said that Tanner’s nomination was unanimous and followed Presidents Conference bylaws. The seven committee members represented various religious streams and political constituencies.

“There was no rule that we had to tell people the identity of the candidates,” said Marsha Atkind, national president of the liberal National Council of Jewish Women and a member of the nominating committee.

The deliberations are conducted confidentially. But this time around, some candidates made their candidacy public.

Until the closing weeks, the favorite candidate was thought to be Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress. Some people close to the process felt that Rosen’s strong personality might clash with the strong personality of Hoenlein.

Both Rosen and Tanner have demonstrated an active interest in foreign affairs, and both are working to expand their organization’s work overseas. After Tanner stepped down as president of AJCommittee in 2004, he became the founding chairman of AJCommittee’s Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, Belgium. Rosen took a similar path, following up his stint as AJCongress president by launching the organization’s Council on World Jewry.

But while Rosen’s AJCongress has moved aggressively abroad — sometimes drawing criticism from local Jewish communal leaders in other countries — Tanner and AJCommittee have been more cautious, seeking out quieter consensus.

“[Tanner] was president of an organization that is big tent, which prides itself on its ability to achieve consensus,” Harris said.

Harris led the 99-year-old AJCommittee into the Presidents Conference in 1991. The organization had previously refused to join.

Aside from his work at AJCommittee, Tanner is also the head of a Manhattan investment-banking firm and has served as the chairman of Cornell University’s board of trustees. His wife, Nicki, is also a Jewish activist.

Mort Zuckerman, the publishing magnate and chairman of the nominating committee, said that Tanner’s international travels for AJCommittee provided crucial experience for his new position.

“We’re going into a fragile and delicate time, in terms of issues that this country has in relation to the Middle East,” said Zuckerman, who was previously chairman of the Presidents Conference. “We are anxious to see that the views of this community are projected and well represented to people making major decisions.”

Some Presidents Conference members, however, complained that Tanner had not been much of a visible presence in the wider Jewish community until now. He did not, for instance, take part in the Presidents Conference’s recent mission to Israel, during which many of the other candidates campaigned for the nomination.

“I personally don’t recall him ever participating in a dialogue at the Conference of Presidents,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “It’s very troubling that someone who is essentially an unknown in respect to his policy positions is being chosen.”

Members of the nominating committee countered that Tanner was heavily involved in the Presidents Conference during his term as president of AJCommittee.

Tanner’s nomination will come for a vote before the full Presidents Conference on May 3. If Tanner wins, he will take over the position from current chairman James Tisch on June 1.

Tanner is less high profile than the past three chairman — Tisch, Zuckerman and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. According to a Presidents Conference source, Tanner, unlike the mega-rich trio, does not have a personal jet to make available to the Presidents Conference.

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