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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776
Reform the Conference

This op-ed appeared in the August 2, 2002 edition of The Forward.

by Rabbi Eric Yoffie

The American Jewish community witnessed the latest round in the long-standing conflict between the leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and some of its politically moderate and dovish members last month when Uzi Landau, Israel's public security minister, closed the Jerusalem office of Palestinian leader Sari Nusseibeh.

Landau's action drew a rebuke from the American government, and the Israeli government quickly reversed the decision. But even before the government could act, Presidents Conference chairman Mortimer Zuckerman and executive vice-chairman Malcolm Hoenlein issued a statement attacking Nusseibeh, who is widely regarded as a moderate. Several member groups of the conference were livid, and called the statement an outrageous campaign to distort Nusseibeh's record.

For years, centrist and dovish groups have accused the Presidents Conference of showing greater enthusiasm for Israeli governments of the right than for those of the left. There is much justice in their claims.

In private conversations, officials of the Rabin, Peres and Barak governments often complained bitterly of lack of support from the conference. In the 1990s I attended two meetings called by a senior Israeli diplomat in a Labor-led government to discuss how the Presidents Conference could be circumvented and how support for Israel's government could be generated from other groups. The meetings were discontinued because the Israeli Foreign Ministry wisely decided that these sessions could be construed as unwarranted interference by Israel in the internal affairs of American Jewry. The problem itself, however, remained unaddressed.

The issue at hand is not whether Presidents Conference statements are too right-wing. While general support for Israeli government policies is to be expected, the conference is an independent body, free to express its views in any way that it wishes, as long as those views accurately reflect the consensus of its members. For that reason, the most important criticism of the Nusseibeh release focused not on its content but on the fact that no consensus existed on Nusseibeh and that no attempt had been made to formulate one. The problem is not that established procedures were not followed — established procedures do not exist.

The Presidents Conference's real problem is that the organization is unrepresentative and structurally flawed; that no established procedures exist for decision making, setting priorities or arriving at consensus positions; that virtually all power resides in the hands of the chairman and executive vice-chairman, and that the normal procedural safeguards, transparency and internal debate that characterize virtually all major Jewish organizations are absent in the conference.

No one denies that the Presidents Conference does invaluable work for our community and that its leaders are dedicated to Israel and the Jewish people. And I understand those who ask if now is the right time to raise these issues because Israel is under attack. But it is at precisely such a time that organizational integrity is most important for a body that purports to speak in the name of American Jews. Therefore, rather than debating the specifics of the most recent press release, member groups need to address the structural issues that make ongoing tensions within the conference inevitable — namely, lack of representation, administrative oversight or genuine consultation aimed at consensus — and to consider some simple structural reforms that will repair the defects.

As to representation, the Presidents Conference is currently structured in such a way that an organization with a few thousand members and a handful of chapters has the same standing as an organization with a million members and hundreds of chapters. Imagine that Congress consisted only of the Senate and that in all matters California had precisely the same representation as South Dakota. Such an arrangement would be manifestly unfair in American politics. It is equally unfair in Jewish organizational life.

There are advantages to an inclusive organization, and I favor the participation in the Presidents Conference of all legitimate national groups, however small. But larger organizations should be given a role commensurate with their size, so that the conference genuinely reflects the true balance of opinion in the Jewish community. This can best be done by creating a standing executive committee, with the largest organizations serving as permanent members and smaller organizations serving rotating terms.

Equally important, a representative executive committee would provide the administrative oversight that is now sorely lacking in Presidents Conference operations. The conference is the only major organization in American Jewish life that operates without an executive body to oversee its day-to-day functioning.

The purpose of such a body is to determine priorities, set agendas, assure implementation of decisions, provide oversight for staff, respond to emergencies and do long-range planning. But at the conference, all business is supposedly done at general meetings of the entire membership. In theory this is more democratic, but in fact such a group is too large to do anything other than make occasional policy decisions. Virtually all other matters are therefore left in the hands of the Presidents Conference's chairman and executive vice-chairman who, in the absence of a functioning executive committee, are essentially answerable to no one.

The problems of this approach have been made apparent again and again over the years. The most fundamental responsibility of the Presidents Conference is to reach a consensus on important issues in a fair and equitable fashion. When sensitive matters arise, however, there seem to be no governing principles on how a consensus is to be determined. In January 2001, when Ehud Barak was prime minister of Israel, the conference leadership urged participation in an anti-government rally in Jerusalem — itself an action without precedent in conference history. The vote on participating was close — clear evidence that a consensus did not exist — and those present at the meeting left the room thinking that the conference would not participate. But the chairman went anyway, to the consternation of many members who felt that they had been purposely deceived.

In cases such as the Nusseibeh statement, when arguably there is not enough time to poll the entire membership, no one knows how the Presidents Conference proceeds. How many groups are to be consulted? Who determines which groups these will be? Conference leadership claims to have consulted with "several organizations" about Nusseibeh but refuses to say how many or who they were. I find it interesting that in the last six years I cannot think of a single instance when the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, one of the largest members of the Presidents Conference, has been consulted in such a case. If an executive committee were in existence, it could put in place appropriate procedures for determining consensus and assure that they were implemented.

There is nothing new in my proposals. Five years ago, Rabbi Paul Menitoff of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis and I brought a delegation of national Reform leaders to a meeting with Hoenlein. We noted that the American Jewish community needs a unified voice on matters relating to Israel and that the Presidents Conference has a critical role to play. At the same time we expressed deep concern that the conference lacked the established procedures necessary to assure fairness and inspire confidence among its members and in the broader community. We proposed reforms similar to what I have proposed above, and were promised that such changes would be considered. We never heard another word.

If the Presidents Conference is to fulfill its mission and serve the needs of K'lal Yisrael, it must reconsider its procedures and reform its structure. The time to do so is now.


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