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…And the Debate It Sparked Among American Jewish Advocates

Last year, Prime Minister Sharon put forward a plan to withdraw Jewish settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank. His plan was approved by his government and was supported by nearly three-quarters of Israel’s citizens. It subsequently won the endorsement of the Bush administration, and clearly has the support of the great majority of American Jews and American Jewish organizations.

Under the circumstances, one would expect the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which speaks for American Jews on matters relating to Israel, to be the public champion of the withdrawal plan. But despite the pleas of some of its most prominent members, the Presidents Conference did not even consider the plan until four months after the prime minister presented it.

During the debate, there was overwhelming support for the withdrawal, but the conference leadership declared that no consensus existed and adjourned the meeting without taking a vote. The next day, it issued a statement of “endorsement” for the plan that was so equivocal that it was no endorsement at all. The statement most certainly did not reflect the majority sentiments expressed at the meeting the previous day. In the months that followed, the Presidents Conference has had virtually no public profile on this issue.

When the conference leadership wants to promote a policy, it does so very effectively; it creates action committees, sponsors newspaper ads and forms coalitions. But for the withdrawal — certainly the most important Israel issue of our day — there has been no such advocacy. No objective observer could possibly see the Presidents Conference as a major supporter of the Gaza disengagement during the past year. Only in the last week or two have we begun to see a change in direction.

In short, the Presidents Conference failed to meet its responsibilities to the State of Israel and failed to accurately represent the views of its constituency.

In a properly run umbrella body, there would be an executive committee or steering committee to which a member organization could turn to request a review of questionable procedures. But the Presidents Conference is the only organization in Jewish life that has no such body. Instead, the conference leaves day-to-day matters solely in the hands of the chairman and top professional. As a result, when problems arise, there is no recourse other than appeals through the press.

What does James Tisch have to say about these matters? Almost nothing. Instead of dealing with the substantive concerns that I have raised, he has chosen instead to write a vindictive personal attack that is filled with more errors than I can count.

I am saddened by this response, but not surprised. In my 20 years of involvement in the Presidents Conference, I have raised questions about policies and procedures of the conference about half a dozen times, and in virtually every instance the response of the professional leadership has been to attack me personally rather than to deal with the concerns that I have put forward.

But this is a game that I have always refused to play, and I will not get into the gutter with Tisch. The issues at stake are far too important. We are at a critical moment in Israel’s history. A courageous prime minister has taken a step that has broad support in Israel and the Jewish world but that has earned him the ire of far-right forces that call him a traitor and threaten his life.

American Jewry, moderate in its views and centrist in its orientation, wants its representatives to support the prime minister wholeheartedly and with all the resources at its disposal. The Presidents Conference needs to ask itself why it has not been doing what it was created to do. I can only hope that the conference leadership is listening.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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