What is the Presidents’ Conference?

President Barack Obama meets with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the White House in 2011.    (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the White House in 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Last week’s vote against admitting the dovish pro-Israel group J Street into the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations may not have surprised many. J Street, with its adamant call for a two-state solution and its criticism of the Israeli government’s settlement policy, puts it to the left of most of the 50 organizations that constitute the Conference of Presidents.

But while J Street is well known in the organized Jewish world — people either love it or hate it — the identity of the group that rejected it is less understood. So even though the vote settled the question of J Street, for now at least, it raised two others: What is the Conference of Presidents, and what does it do?

“The Conference serves as the coordinating body for major American Jewish organizations,” the New York-based organization offers online, “speaking and acting on the basis of consensus, to maximize resources of the Jewish community as an effective advocate of the community.”

That’s the New York-based organization’s description of itself. The Presidents’ Conference is an umbrella group that strives to give a single voice to the varying membership of its constituent organizations. Just as important, it is considered the Jewish spokesman by governments here and abroad.

Its primary, although not sole, concern is Israel. On Monday, it took out full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today, in which it reproduced Israel’s Declaration of Independence in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut.

The conference, though, is actually two legal entities. One takes dues from its constituent organizations; the other raises money from donations. Tax documents show that Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice chairman, receives about $600,000 a year in salary and other compensation.

Deputy Director and COO Carolyn Green receives $300,000. While she provided WJW with the conference’s mission statement, she did not respond to requests to discuss the organization for this article.

Member organizations have one vote, regardless of size. This has led over the years to tensions between large organizations, which feel the conference is weighted against them, and smaller organizations, eager to protect their influence.

That tension erupted again after the April 30 J Street vote, in which 22 member groups opposed admitting J Street; 17 voted in favor, three registered abstentions, and eight were not present.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the largest group in the conference, the Union of Reform Judaism, said in a statement that the Presidents’ Conference “is captive of a large number of small organizations that do not represent the diversity of views in our community.” He hinted that after due consideration, the group may decide to leave the conference.

URJ is part of the conference’s liberal wing that, like J Street, is dovish on Israeli issues. That wing wasn’t big enough to hold the day. Jacobs contended that was because the conference’s voting and membership procedures “all but dictated the result.”

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, a hawkish group that voted against J Street’s membership, disagrees with the argument that J Street is part of the Jewish mainstream.

“They bring to campuses and their conferences speakers who promote BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions], who defame and delegitimize Israel by falsely claiming that Israel commits atrocities and war crimes against Palestinians,” he told JTA.

ZOA campaigned hard against J Street. So if the Conference of Presidents is so unwelcoming to groups on the left, why bother joining?

“Because it serves as the recognized forum for pro-Israel activity,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for the dovish Americans for Peace Now, which voted in favor of J Street. “We feel we should be there.”

APN’s platform is similar to J Street’s. It was admitted to the Conference in 1993 but not without a battle similar to the one J Street faced.

But it was still easier to join in those days. Despite strong opposition from Klein and others, APN won a majority of votes, the necessary minimum at the time. But in the lead-up to the vote, the ZOA pushed through a rules change. In the future, organizations would need a two-thirds vote of all members for admission.

APN board chairman James Klutznick calls that a “high hurdle. I’m not sure how many could make it through today. Certainly not from the progressive end.”

Klutznick’s father, B’nai B’rith leader Philip Klutznick, helped found the Presidents’ Conference in 1954.

At that time, “President Eisenhower and [Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles wanted to have a place where they could address the Jewish community,” James Klutznick said.

That need for a central address for a rapidly expanding Jewish community was matched by Jewish organizations’ desire for access to U.S. leaders. At the same time, the young State of Israel was looking for support from both the U.S. government and American Jews. The Conference of Presidents became that central address, and although the Jewish community has changed, it retains the prestige of a central address.

Initiatives to restructure the organization have gone nowhere. Anticipating Jacobs, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, in 2003 “suggested creating a standing executive committee ‘with the largest organizations serving as permanent members and smaller organizations serving rotating terms,’” according to the “American Jewish Year Book.”

The Anti-Defamation League and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism supported the idea while Orthodox groups opposed it. This was the same lineup as in the J Street vote.

After the 2003 vote Theodore Mann, according to the “American Jewish Year Book,” a former Presidents’ Conference chairman, called for the dissolution of the conference because it was “an undemocratic institution and not worthy of our great Jewish community.”

Nir of APN wouldn’t go that far.

“The White House turns to the Presidents’ Conference,” he said. “When the administration wants to brief the organized Jewish community in an organized way, they go through the Presidents’ Conference.”

Even today, if the Conference of Presidents didn’t exist, say some, it would need to be created.

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com

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