Where should the Conference of Presidents go from here?

Conference experts and thought leaders weigh in

In the mid-20th century, during the Eisenhower administration, the American Jewish community was said to lack a cohesive voice with which to communicate with the country’s leaders. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was born out of a desire to effectively communicate the goals and needs of the American Jewish community with the White House and its occupant. For decades, the Conference was a unified body, despite the ideological diversity among its member organizations.

Earlier this week, the Conference approved a new chair-elect, Dianne Lob, who had previously served as chair of HIAS. The decision to extend the term of the current chair Arthur Stark by a year and change the nominee’s status from ‘chair’ to ‘chair-elect’ following an uproar from a few groups on the right, in turn sparked frustration on the left. The episode highlighted the challenges the Conference has ahead of it as it seeks to navigate an increasingly polarized society and a less cohesive community. And there are no shortage of views on what the Conference should be and do in the years ahead. 

To that end, we asked a few of our community’s thought leaders the following prompt: If you were given the keys to the Conference of Presidents today with full control, what are a few steps you would take and in what direction would you move the umbrella group of the American Jewish community in the year 2020 and beyond? 

The Conference of Presidents was created in order that the Jewish community might endeavor to speak with one voice when it interacts with national leaders.  President Harry Truman was angered by the many Jewish leaders who visited him — all claiming to represent American Jewry, and all of them bearing contrary messages.  For years, the conference worked. I well remember hearing the famous Reform Jewish leader, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, recount how as Chair of the Conference of President he once brought a delegation to the White House. After he explained the American Jewish community’s position, he was surprised to hear one of the leaders of Orthodox Jewry behind him exclaim to the President, “we all agree with Rabbi Schindler on this matter; he represents us all.” That is the way the Conference was supposed to work.

It would be wonderful if the Conference would go back to articulating consensus positions in American Jewish life. If, as sadly seems to be the case, that is now impossible on some issues, the Conference should endeavor to be scrupulously honest, making clear what percentage of American Jews feel one way and what percentage another way. If it does that, and fairly represents the community’s different voices on controversial matters, it can maintain its role as the organization that explains and represents the American Jewish community to leaders who struggle to understand it — and look to the Conference of Presidents for guidance and help.

Dr. Sarna is the director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

The agendas of the organizations that comprise the Conference of Presidents are as diverse as the alphabet soup that delineates them: HIAS, AIPAC, AJC, ARZA, and FIDF, just to name a few. But they share a common goal: that American Jewry have a unified voice on critical matters and as a result, greater influence, in Washington, DC, Jerusalem, and other capitals. The Conference of Presidents seeks to be that voice. But to do that, its leadership needs both to listen and to lead.

Today, the American Jewish community is, like the rest of America, riven by political and religious divisions. Reflexive support for Israel no longer unifies the community as it did in decades past. Nor do we have a humanitarian crisis like the struggle for Soviet Jewry to unify us as we did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But there are issues that deserve the Conference’s laser-like focus. Most importantly is the rise of violent antisemitism (much of which masquerades as anti-Zionism) that is prevalent throughout the world but, most ominously, is growing in the United States. It should not matter if one is a Democrat or Republican, secular or observant.  This is about saving Jewish lives and fulfilling the promise of Jewish life in the United States.

The Conference also should focus on promoting bipartisan support for Israel among politicians, business leaders, and student leaders. It should not try to pick winners and losers among Israeli politicians. Israel is a vibrant democracy whose citizens’ lives are collateral for the consequences of its policy-making. Our mission should simply be to fight for Israel’s continued survival.

Jay Lefkowitz is a former advisor to both Presidents Bush. He is currently a lawyer and law professor in New York City.

According to the description on its website, “the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations advances the interests of the American Jewish community, sustains broad-based support for Israel and addresses the critical concerns facing world Jewry…and is the preeminent forum where diverse segments of the Jewish community come together in mutual respect to deliberate vital national and international issues.”

If I were ‘given the keys,’ I would hold the Conference to be true to its own mission statement. Having sat at the Conference for nine years as CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, I did not find the Conference to be “diverse” or to demonstrate “mutual respect.” Given that those are two very important characteristics that I espouse, I would ensure that they were actually embraced. The COP as it is currently constituted is hardly diverse. While there are a few “outliers” from the progressive Jewish world (Ameinu, NCJW, JWI, APN and URJ), they barely represent the vast majority of Jews who consider themselves “progressive” and there are certainly not 50% women at the table. I would move immediately to change that reality by inviting in organizations that meet the above criteria: “advances the interests of the American Jewish community, sustains broad-based support for Israel and addresses the critical concerns facing world Jewry.” These would include: J-Street, T’ruah, Hazon, Reconstructing Judaism, and the New Israel Fund, to name a few.

As I stated at the COP meeting the day J Street was not allowed in, “What are we so afraid of?” Is our tent not big enough to have in it any Jewish organization that believes in a Jewish democratic State of Israel that wants to live in peace and security side by side with a Palestinian state that wants to do the same? “

There are some who advocate for the Conference to open its doors even wider and “let in” Jewish domestic organizations as well. I do not think that is necessary given that we have the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs who cover those issues quite well. I am simply advocating for the Conference to do what it was intended to do when it was created over 50 years ago: represent the “diverse” segments of the Jewish community and allow them to come together with “mutual respect”. Is that too much to ask? Dayenu!

Nancy K. Kaufman is immediate past CEO of NCJW and served as Boston’s JCRC ED for 20 years. She was also a founding member of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and is a former board member of JCPA. She is now a coach and consultant to Jewish organizations.

If I were in charge of the Conference of Presidents, my first step would be to open up the floor to some basic questions:

What does it mean to be “pro-Israel” in the 21st century? Is the goal of the Conference to strengthen the base or widen the base? What is the minimal pro-Israel consensus that can unite the mainstream community? What are the red lines, which every community needs to define itself, around the American Jewish mainstream? Should those red lines be defined by principles or practical politics?

And: Should politics be the sole area of the Conference’s responsibility? What about helping deepen the American Jewish-Israeli relationship, by encouraging a wider web of engagement beyond politics? Should the Conference promote American Jewish literacy in Hebrew? Should it encourage Israeli understanding of American Jewish diversity?

The underlying question behind all of the above is: How to move the Conference of Presidents out of the 20th century – when external challenges united us – and into the 21st century, when we can no longer even agree on what constitutes an existential threat? (The Iran deal? Annexing parts of the territories?)

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

To properly handle the spate of antisemitism in the United States and the harmful expansion of divisiveness within the Jewish community and our country’s society in general, and to continue to enhance the U.S. relationship with Israel, we must set aside politics and work together. We must stand proud and tall as Jews. We cannot be afraid to unequivocally stand up for Israel, and we must do so without regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This does not make anyone anti-Palestinian or anti-peace. In fact, we must try to help improve Palestinian lives and seek peace. But it must be a peace based on reality, not on soundbites or vague statements that can’t be achieved, much less implemented. 

There are clear exceptions — we cannot work with those who aim to harm Israel, such as BDS, the anti-semitic and anti-Israel movement or those who support such movements. 

The Conference of Presidents enhances the ability of each of its members to give back to our communities, the U.S.A. and Israel in essential ways. Unity within the Conference, whenever possible, enhances the effectiveness of the Conference when speaking to government officials and to the Jewish community at large.  

The Conference must remain a source of hope. These are challenging times for us all. We need one another and our important institutions more than ever.

Jason D. Greenblatt is a former Middle East envoy in US President Donald Trump’s administration. He is now a partner at OurCrowd, the world’s largest equity crowdfunding platform. Follow him on Twitter at @GreenblattJD.

The COP has played a vital role in the cause of Jewish involvement in the body politic since its inception.  In the 21st century it is poised to continue that role, but it shouldn’t miss an opportunity to embrace the diversity of our community and resist the forces of polarization in our society today. So where should it go from here?

1. Embrace diversity in age and gender amongst its leadership. Our community is more diverse than ever, and the leadership of COP should reflect that. Efforts should be made to enlarge the tent and bring younger leaders to the fore. Similarly, COP should seek out meaningful opportunities to promote and expand the roles of female leaders in its ranks.  

2. Resist the forces of polarization. Our body politic has never been more polarized, but the COP should not be. The recent leadership challenges that pitted a far right member of the COP against the head of HIAS, an organization that has served the Jewish people (and the world at large) for over a century, is a symptom of this polarization that must be addressed. COP needs to be better than that. 

3. Consider an expansion in mission or a change in name to reflect the true mission. When created the COP was a single-issue organization: deal with the U.S. government (and specifically the executive branch) on issues related to Israel. The issues that affect us as a people go far beyond ensuring the safety and security of Israel. The COP would be more relevant if it embraced a wider mission and became the meeting spot for diverse sets of views and spirited conversation on all issues among the leaders of our community organizations.  The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ focus on a narrow set of issues is an area to be examined.  

The COP has done tremendous work in the past with Malcolm Hoenlein at the helm and is poised to continue with its new leadership in William Daroff as it heads into the future. This examination is not meant to degrade them or the work of the COP but rather help position it for greater prominence and impactfulness in the future.

If I had the keys, I would think about how drastically the world, the Jewish community, the State of Israel, and the American political establishment have changed since COP first launched, and since it was at its zenith. Organizations that were “major” in 1980 may not be major anymore, and it may be time to reassess its existing membership and/or put out an open call for new members who are above a certain designated “size,” who are steadfastly committed to COP’s mission to unequivocally protect Jewish bodies, Jewish institutions, and the Jewish state, to be approved by vote. In order to do this, COP would need to establish quantifiable metrics, relevant today, for each organization, whether existing or new, such as membership numbers, geographic scope, social media reach, staff size, budget, scope of mission, partners and programs. First, this exercise would likely expose some of the organization’s most problematic figures as paper tigers. Second, despite obvious practical difficulties, it would broaden the COP umbrella in important ways. Third, it would modernize the institution’s constituency, and therefore the institution itself. 

Alternatively, the long-running joke that we need a parallel Conference of Presidents of Minor American Jewish Organizations could be considered, even if its members serve as thought partners and influencers instead of voters. In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of new organizations, like Zioness, that are filling urgent voids, representing Jewish constituencies that are not even aware of COP’s existence. Some of these organizations highlight the vibrant Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities, and the 20% of American Jews from communities of color, whose voices must be included and unique challenges considered. Such a move would add new energy and ideas, reflecting the full richness of the diverse American Jewish community, into COP deliberations, and give COP entrance points to spread its important message into new communities and geographies. This would make us truly representative, marginalize the fringe voices that have disproportionately dominated the conversation for far too long, and help COP connect to younger, less affiliated Jews across the country, which would have incredible potential for the institution’s long-term relevance. For Zioness, which is not a COP member, having a relationship with COP and its constituent organizations has been indispensable and, I think, mutually beneficial; it would be a win-win situation for other young Jewish activists to have the same privilege and opportunity that I’ve had to learn from and even travel with the trailblazing Jewish leaders in whose footsteps we follow.

COP and its members should recognize that, with power comes responsibility. Jewish leaders, like all leaders, must model civility, and must be held responsible for their behavior, and COP rules must be applied quickly, objectively, transparently and fairly. This matters not only in sanctioning partisan ideologues who aim to splinter any potential consensus, but also in expecting full participation from every leader who represents a member organization. COP cannot find consensus if its members don’t show up and engage constructively. 

The Conference of Presidents is a vital institution that has, remarkably and for decades, found unity and consensus among even the most divergent Jewish leaders, and then leveraged its united message to ensure that Jewish Americans are seen and represented at all levels of civic, social, and political leadership. The recent struggle to reconcile the sometimes diametrical views of its 52 member organizations should concern us all as individual members of a vulnerable minority population at a time when antisemitism is increasing from the right, the left, and everywhere in between.

Non-Jewish minority groups in this country have long revered the organizing abilities of American Jewry. COP has been and will continue to be a force for good, to protect and advance the American Jewish community and the State of Israel, inspiring others who aim to build their own institutions of leadership. While it’s realistic to expect that, over time, an organization will reassess its processes, the original COP mission remains as vital as ever. We all have an obligation to play positive, meaningful roles in ensuring the long-term success of the Conference of Presidents.

Amanda Berman is the founder and executive director of Zioness.

And now to someone who actually has the keys…

Thank you to Jewish Insider for the opportunity for me – and esteemed colleagues – to discuss the role of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The Jewish people face serious challenges, from rising antisemitism to continuing threats to Israel’s security and attacks on its very legitimacy. There are differences among Democrats and Republicans, as well as among members of our Jewish community, on such critical foreign policy issues as the peace process and Iran. Severe polarization in the general society has seeped into the Jewish community. Now, more than ever, the Conference of Presidents — the most inclusive body in the American Jewish community — is indispensable to crafting and organizing a consensus that is necessary to guide us through the stormy days ahead.

Bipartisanship is the core underpinning of our strategy. Leading on public policy, the lifeblood of the Conference, with countless opportunities on the world stage as well, including as a key player in the global fight against antisemitism and the BDS movement, is an unyielding opportunity.

Our collective table, which spans the wide universe of Jewish leaders, including the religious streams and the ideological breadth of our community, empowers the Conference to play a facilitating role. We must meet routinely to work out our differences and collaborate. We must speak with one communal voice as often as we are reasonably able and sometimes, when consensus eludes us, agree to disagree without rancor.  We must model for the entire community an environment where we can disagree without being disagreeable. 

In our new Information Age, the ability for a Jew in Fargo — or Kuala Lumpur — to have as much access to community decision-makers as a Jew on the Upper West Side of New York is a game changer. In the new normal of our community, we must meet people where they are, and provide on-ramps for engagement and inclusion and, ultimately, bring us all closer together.

William Daroff is the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Follow him on Twitter at @daroff.

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