The notion that any single organization could represent the views or the interests of American Jews on Israel—or any other issue—has always been risible. Yet this dubious assertion has been the raison d’être of one of the more successful experiments in political activism in American Jewish history.
Born seven decades ago out of a hostile administration’s impatience with the myriad Jewish groups lobbying the State Department about Israel, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has thrived by claiming to be the central address for American Jewish political interests.
But while the Conference has enjoyed a unique perch in the organized Jewish world, many of the groups who compose its membership are neither “major” in any real sense or, by themselves, particularly influential—let alone representative of American Jewry.
Nor can it be considered the public face of the pro-Israel community. That distinction belongs to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Unlike AIPAC, the Conference can’t mobilize tens of thousands of activists to lobby Congress, attend an annual conference, or help direct campaign donations to friends of Israel or foes of the Jewish state’s critics.
Despite its title, the Conference has also lacked the ability to command its member groups to take action on even the most anodyne issues. All 53 organizations retain complete autonomy of action and are divided along political and ideological lines that allow little room for cooperation.
Yet by cloaking itself in a mythical consensus, the Conference has skillfully inserted itself into policy discussions at the highest level both in Washington and abroad. Its ability to not merely be heard but to have its bland but still assertive brand of advocacy be treated as an important factor in rallying support for the State of Israel in Washington has made it the go-to place for anyone—especially foreign governments—who wishes to sound out the views of American Jewish influencers.
Under the leadership of Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, who assumed the role in 1986, the Conference became less of a club of organizational leaders and more of an aggressive collective putting forward the views of the Jewish community on issues concerning Israel and anti-Semitism at home and abroad.
And then, in 2020, what ordinarily would have been a routine changeover of lay leaders at the head of the Conference turned into an ideological donnybrook that put the future utility of the organization in jeopardy.
The President of the Conference of Presidents is a grand title, the responsibilities of the position somewhat less so, since it was always understood that Hoenlein ran the actual operation. The selection of a new president—the post’s tenure is two years—has been a fairly uncontentious process. Not so this year, with the nomination and subsequent election of Dianne Lob, the former head of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish group whose purpose is to facilitate absorption of immigrants and refugees. Lob’s ascension occasioned a surrogate battle over whether the umbrella group would continue to take an aggressive stand of advocacy for the positions of the government of Israel.
The Conference was created in response to the dilemma of how Jews could best address an unfriendly administration in Washington. Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952 created a situation in which Jewish groups found themselves stymied in their attempts to lobby a State Department and White House that had little patience for the plethora of organizations seeking to bend their ears.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was particularly indignant about being asked to listen to the opinion of an array of groups claiming to speak for the pro-Israel or Jewish communities. His advice was for the Jews to band together and form a single group or face the possibility that none of them would get a hearing. So in 1953, an informal gathering of top Jewish leaders of groups such as the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith, the World Jewish Congress, and the Zionist Organization of America became known as the “president’s club.”
In 1956, when Eisenhower and Dulles came down hard on the Israeli government because of their opposition to the Sinai Campaign Israel undertook with Britain and France against the Egyptian regime of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the need to formalize Jewish advocacy became urgent, and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations was born.
In the years that followed, the Conference served a useful purpose by giving substance to what was—in the wake of a wave of pro-Israel sentiment that swept over American Jewry in response to the aftermath of the Holocaust, the 1967 Six-Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War—a genuine consensus that regarded the Jewish state’s survival as a communal priority. The plight of the Jews trapped inside the former Soviet Union also rallied America’s Jews.
In the 1980s, when AIPAC began to concentrate its energies on lobbying Congress while the Conference under Hoenlein’s leadership devoted itself to being heard by the executive branch, widespread support for the alliance between the two democracies finally reflected a larger bipartisan consensus.
But the source of the Conference’s success in leading Jewish activism on behalf of both Israel and the crusade to free Soviet Jewry—the notion that there is a such a thing as a Jewish consensus—always threatened its undoing.
The idea that an embattled Israel had the backing of the overwhelming majority of American Jewry in its battle for survival was probably true during the period stretching from the 1948 War of Independence to the Lebanon War of 1982. But the enthusiasm for Israel during this period veiled a basic truth about American Jewry’s historic ambivalence about the idea of a Jewish state that had largely prevailed prior to 1948.
As the memory of the Holocaust faded and Israel grew stronger in its defense of itself, passionate involvement in sympathy for Israel began to wane within the American Jewish community. The overwhelming majority of American Jewry was religiously non-Orthodox and believed the universalist strain within Judaism to be its most authentic expression—one challenged by Israel’s particularism and increasing religiosity. The Conference’s standing as a group that embraced all segments of the community helped sidetrack, if not entirely stifle, disaffection with its pro-Israel consensus.
Even so, liberal Americans became increasingly disillusioned by the more hard-boiled views about the Palestinians articulated by elected Israeli leaders skeptical about prospects for peace with the Palestinians. That gap widened following the collapse of the Oslo process after Yasir Arafat rejected peace at Camp David in 2000 and followed that up with the terrorist war of attrition called the second intifada.
That the Conference still held together throughout this period was due to Hoenlein’s leadership and his ability to recruit powerful and respected figures to assume the position of lay leader of the organization. The list of Conference leaders during this era included the cream of the organized Jewish world—figures such as Rabbi Alexander Schindler, Morris Abram, Kenneth Bialkin, Seymour Reich, Richard Stone, and Shoshana Cardin, as well as philanthropists such as Mortimer Zuckerman, Ronald Lauder, and James Tisch.
All of them took seriously the idea that the Conference had to represent a consensus of pro-Israel opinion. The umbrella group’s influence was maintained despite the growing dissent against Israel’s measures of self-defense and its refusal to trade more land for dubious hopes of peace in the aftermath of failed peace efforts. But in recent years, it’s been harder to hold the line against the increasingly loud voices criticizing not just Israel but Zionism itself.
The problem was starkly illuminated by a bitter debate about J Street’s bid for Conference membership in 2014. J Street fit most of the criteria of what constituted a “major” Jewish organization. Though only founded in 2008 as the Jewish rump of the Democratic Party activist group Moveon.org, J Street was national in scope and had a not insignificant popular following. It had an easier time than did far mor established groups in getting mainstream media outlets like the New York Times to provide a platform for its views. And thanks to the generosity of leftist mega-donor George Soros, it was awash in cash.
Aside from a few large organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC and representatives of the denominational groups, most are small outfits with narrow fields of interests. Many are made up of little more than a membership list, a small cadre of donors, and a minimal staff. J Street had more clout than most of the other Conference members.
Yet though it billed itself as both “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” J Street’s purpose was to be an alternative to AIPAC. As such, it sought to serve as the Jewish cheerleader for the Obama administration’s strategy of creating more daylight between the United States and Israel. And by 2014, it had become the leading Jewish advocate for Obama’s policy of appeasement of Iran that led to the disastrous nuclear agreement concluded the following year.
J Street’s core mission of mobilizing U.S. pressure on Israel to force concessions to the Palestinians was antithetical to the cause to which the Conference had been dedicated since it’s founding. So, despite the arguments that the Conference needed more diversity in an era in which younger and non-Orthodox Jews were less enamored of traditional pro-Israel advocacy, and to the outrage of liberals, J Street’s membership bid was decisively defeated, with only 17 of the 50 groups voting to back it.
By 2020, the 75-year-old Hoenlein was transitioning to emeritus status at the Conference. William Daroff, who was hired to replace Hoenlein in 2019, came out of the mainstream organized Jewish philanthropic world and had impeccable pro-Israel credentials as well as a record of working in Republican Party presidential campaigns. Yet Daroff seemed to want to move the organization in a direction that would make liberal groups feel more welcome. Such a change might shift the tone at a group in which, unlike most American Jewish forums including the bipartisan AIPAC, the Jewish right and those sympathetic to both the Netanyahu government and the administration of President Donald Trump felt more at home than did those on the left.
It was in this context that the Conference’s search committee—over which both Daroff and Hoenlein claim they had no direct influence—made a choice that caused a dispute that may have no resolution.
Outgoing Conference president Arthur Stark was the former president of the Bed Bath & Beyond chain of home furnishings stores and had led the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a small apolitical fundraising group, before assuming his national role.
The choice to succeed him came from a different corner of the Jewish world. Dianne Lob, a Wall Street executive who had served as the immediate past chair of HIAS and a complete unknown in the world of pro-Israel advocacy, emerged as the committee’s choice.
Founded in 1881 at the start of the massive wave of immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States, HIAS’s yichus—its lineage—is more impressive than that of just about any other Jewish group in America. From its inception in the 19th century through the early 1990s, when the last major group of Jewish immigrants arrived on American shores from the former Soviet Union, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society had the responsibility of helping the masses of largely penniless Jewish immigrants find their way in the New World.
Then, in 2014, the group stopped calling itself by its full name.
In an unfortunate act of political correctness, the group decided the focus on the “Hebrew” wasn’t inclusive enough for the 21st century, and it now goes only by its acronym HIAS—and goes by the motto “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.”
The shift was as much a matter of the changing face of HIAS’s client base and funding as a nod to the pieties of contemporary liberalism. For the past three decades, almost all of HIAS’s clients have not been Jewish. The HIAS of today is the source of legal aid and support for other sorts of immigrants, including Syrian refugees and others seeking to escape either the chaos of the Arab and Muslim worlds or the misery of Central America. While the focus of HIAS’s activism has changed, its overwhelmingly Jewish supporters still think their work is the quintessence of Jewish values. It has never played a role in pro-Israel advocacy—understandable, in a way, since its mission was the settlement of Jews outside Israel, in America.
Much of the Jewish community has spent the past three years denouncing Trump’s rhetoric as well as his policies seeking to stem the tide of illegal immigration and limit the numbers of those entering the country legally. In that sense, HIAS believes that its positions have mainstream Jewish support.
But groups such as the Zionist Organization of America, which strongly supports the stands of both Netanyahu and Trump and whose president, Morton Klein, was the most outspoken critic of the Lob nomination, believe that it’s too closely connected to its leftist allies—including avowed foes of Israel—in the anti-Trump “resistance.” They think no one from HIAS can be counted on to work with what is, by any reasonable definition, the most pro-Israel president ever to serve in the White House.
According to Klein, HIAS’s role in supporting immigration from Muslim countries amounted to an effort to ease the influx into the United States of a population that was likely to be a source of anti-Semitism. HIAS also has partnered at times with Muslim groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) that have a record of support for anti-Israel terror and anti-Semitism.
Just as damning in the eyes of some Jews was the decision of HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield to sign a 2017 letter along with other Jewish left-wingers supporting Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American activist and a former leader of the anti-Trump Women’s March organization. This, despite her shameful record of anti-Semitic utterances, opposition to Israel’s existence, and ties to Nation of Islam hatemonger Louis Farrakhan. As far as the ZOA was concerned, all that rendered Lob a poor choice and also meant that HIAS had ceased to be a Jewish organization and ought to be ejected from the Conference because it was working to undermine Jewish interests.
The debate that ensued was not so much about Lob’s personal credentials—she had no history of anti-Israel activity and was vouched for by her sponsors as someone with centrist views—as it was a stand-in for the hyper-partisan political combat that is the hallmark of present-day American discourse.
Like the rest of America, Jews are split along partisan lines between supporters of Trump and his opponents, with little room left for neutrals. While the overwhelming majority of American Jews remain liberals and loyal Democratic voters, a minority that consists largely of Orthodox Jews and political conservatives are Trump backers in no small measure because of his record of support for Israel.
Many on the right now regard even AIPAC as unreliable because of its support for a two-state solution and opposition to the idea of Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements contemplated by Netanyahu’s new government. Whether or not that conclusion is reasonable, they see the Conference as the last line of defense for a genuinely pro-Israel movement.
ZOA’s claim that HIAS isn’t Jewish is based on the notion that pro-Israel Jews, as opposed to the general Jewish population, are at odds with a growing tendency even among traditionally nonpartisan organizations like the Anti-Defamation League to act as either Democratic surrogates or fierce critics of a pro-Israel administration. From their point of view, a HIAS takeover of the Conference, if Lob’s election can be depicted as such a thing, constitutes a debacle that must be fought to the last ditch.
In an effort to stave off a split, Daroff helped negotiate a compromise by which Lob, who had the support of a clear majority of members of the Conference, would wait an additional year before assuming her new role. But ZOA and seven allied groups still voted against granting her the title of president-elect, making Lob the first Conference leader in its history who failed to receive unanimous support.
Even after that, Klein and like-minded allies have continued to state that HIAS has no right to call itself Jewish, leading in turn to angry denunciations of his conduct from liberals who see him as the real threat to Jewish unity. They say that ZOA should be ousted from the Conference on the spurious grounds that he violated its rules about civility. If that should happen—and given Klein’s determination to continue the fight against what he believes are Israel’s foes, the odds of the struggle escalating should not be discounted—then it is not unthinkable that an institution that has served the Jewish community well for more than 60 years may be doomed to split into two ideological factions. At that point, it would be possible that previously sidelined groups such as J Street or the openly anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace will no longer be hindered by the Conference’s influence. Conference leaders hope this split can be avoided once those involved get to know Lob and see that she has no interest in abandoning its brief of pro-Israel advocacy.
This argument is more than just a baffling example of inside-baseball Jewish politics that most Jews view with either dismay or indifference. The conceit of the Conference from its inception has been that the Jewish community’s ideological and denominational differences could be transcended by a common affection for Israel. But the duel between ZOA and HIAS has come at a moment in history when, as a result of growing rates of assimilation and the resulting demographic implosion that it has caused, the non-Orthodox majority of American Jewry is less and less devoted to both Zionism and traditional conceptions of Jewish peoplehood. This means that the previous assumptions about communal life can no longer be taken for granted.
In theory, there ought to be room for a compromise that will let the Conference continue to play a constructive role. Indeed, most Jews still see themselves neither as far to the left as HIAS nor as comfortable on the right as ZOA. But the no-holds-barred warfare over Trump that characterizes American politics in 2020 has now become part of Jewish organizational squabbles.
The idea that shared history, faith, and values can bring such disparate groups together under one roof may no longer be true. A group that is comfortable with the likes of Sarsour and other foes of both Israel and Trump’s immigration policies has little in common with Zionists who agree with the administration’s Middle East stands and its dim view of continued mass immigration to the United States.
What began as an effort for Jews to speak with one voice about Israel may end as evidence that, in the era of Trump and diminishing Jewish support for Israel, the whole idea of a Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations that upholds a cherished but mythical concept of Jewish unity is an anachronism.
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