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News Analysis: Vote on Peace Now Membership Bid Tested Limits of Jewish Consensus

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A long-running debate that was resolved this week over whether to admit Americans for Peace Now to organized American Jewry’s central umbrella group raised questions about how far the Jewish communal consensus stretches and how tight its grip should be.

APN’s application for full membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was approved Monday during a closed-door meeting of the umbrella group’s constituents.

The closely watched vote, which came after two hours of late-afternoon debate, was 27-10, with eight abstentions. Another two of the member groups present did not cast ballots.

“We’re happy to be in,” APN Chairperson Letty Cottin Pogrebin said after the vote. “We represent a sizable proportion of Jewish communal opinion, and I think we belong in.”

But some Jewish groups had argued that APN’s policy stances were outside the consensus of mainstream Jewish opinion and that, therefore, the group should not be admitted to the Conference of Presidents.

The Zionist Organization of America, for one, had argued prior to Monday’s vote that membership in the conference would “give legitimacy to an organization that has for a long time advocated” that the Palestine Liberation Organization is an acceptable negotiating partner for Israel.

Such a move would “undermine Israel’s negotiating position and show a weakness of the community’s support for Israel,” the group argued.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the way the vote turned out, but that’s democracy in action,” ZOA President James Schiller said Tuesday.

But the majority of Presidents Conference constituents viewed the vote as a referendum not on APN’s polices but on whether the Jewish community is broad enough to include them.

“If we are to be what we claim to be, a democratic community, we should be able to tolerate diversity and divergent views within our institutions,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Foxman voted to accept APN, notwithstanding his disagreement with many of the group’s positions.

PROCEDURAL OBSTACLES

Just how consensus binds members of the Presidents Conference has been a source of dispute for some time, a matter not made easier by the organization’s lack of bylaws.

Prior to the vote, opponents of APN’s entry had circulated what purported to be bylaws under which a single dissenting organization could block the conference from taking a stand.

But in fact, and as confirmed in the discussion prior to the vote, the consensus the Presidents Conference represents is determined by a simple majority vote.

While APN’s admission was ultimately approved by a wide majority of Presidents Conference constituents, the victory came only after the group surmounted various procedural obstacles.

Within a week of submitting its application for membership last summer, a measure was proposed that would require new members to be approved by a two-thirds majority, and only at the conference’s annual meeting. That measure was approved, but it was not applied retroactively to APN.

And immediately prior to Monday’s balloting, a motion to defer the vote pending further discussion by the membership committee was only narrowly defeated, reportedly by a vote of 21-17.

One of those supporting the motion to table consideration of the application was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Steven Grossman, AIPAC’s president, explained that “we felt that there was a lack of clarity expressed during these last months concerning the nature of APN’s role in lobbying Capitol Hill and the administration on specific issues like arms sales, strategic cooperation, foreign aid.

On the vote to admit, however, AIPAC abstained, since it felt there was no agreement among its membership on what stance to take.

But another bloc that sensed no consensus among its membership, the Conservative movement, decided that its four member groups in the conference would vote in favor of APN.

“By excluding APN, the Presidents Conference would be sending a signal to the Israeli government and general public that the conference, rather than representing the community, espouses the views of one particular element of the Israeli body politic. In so doing, the conference would irrevocably damage its reputation as the legitimate voice of American Jewry,” the Conservative movement said in a statement.

‘DISTRESSED’ BY THE RHETORIC

Foxman of ADL said he was “distressed by the tenor of some of the rhetoric” he had heard opposing APN’s entry.

Since ADL “declared early on that we would be supportive, we have received lots of phone calls and letters,” Foxman said. “A number had a tone that disgusts me. That indicates a level of intolerance in our community,” he said.

One leader of the bloc opposing APN’s membership said he considered the vote at least a partial victory.

“If Peace Now’s positions hadn’t been exposed, the vote would have been unanimous,” said Morton Klein of Philadelphia, a member of ZOA’s national executive committee who wrote articles and letters attacking APN and its chief executive, Gail Pressberg, that were sent to Presidents Conference members in recent weeks.

“An important inroad was made. Many Jewish organizations will be vigilant in carefully monitoring the statements and positions APN takes in the future, and that’s an important success,” he said.

On a slightly more conciliatory note, the ZOA released a statement expressing hope that “APN will prove to be a positive factor in solidifying the base of support on behalf of Israel in the American Jewish community.”

Meanwhile, Pressberg of APN is looking forward to joining the Presidents Conference.

“It will be good for us to be in discussions with organizations that represent many diverse points of view, to hear questions in people’s minds, particularly people more conservative than we are,” she said.

“Often, people with more liberal perspectives spend too much time talking to themselves, rather to people more conservative and vice versa.”

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