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Group Quits Conference of Presidents in Protest over a Diplomatic Reception

An advocacy group for Jews in the former Soviet Union has quit the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a rare protest against the umbrella group.

At issue is a reception co-sponsored by the conference last week for diplomats from the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

The Union of Councils, formerly known as the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, argued that three of the republics — Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan — perpetrate human rights abuses and should not be seen as having “friendly relations” with the American Jewish community.

Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Gad Yaacobi, sponsored the reception as well.

In a resignation letter sent before the reception, the Union of Councils raised the issue of whether the diplomacy conducted by the American Jewish community should be motivated by Israel’s foreign policy concerns or by a broader, and less realpolitik, human rights agenda.

The resignation also highlights the difficulties faced by an organization such as the Union of Councils, which prides itself on its maverick, grass-roots status and yet at the same time wants to work within the communal umbrella represented by the Conference of Presidents.

COMPLAINED IT WAS NOT CONSULTED

In the resignation letter, signed by Pamela Cohen, national president of the Union of Councils, and Micah Naftalin, its national director, the organization complained that it was not consulted on the reception, which falls directly within its bailiwick.

Instead, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry — itself an umbrella agency, representing many of the Conference of Presidents’ members on Soviet Jewry issues — joined the reception as a co-sponsor.

The focus of the evening was more symbolic than substantive. Several diplomats were hampered in getting to know the Jewish community by their lack of English-language skills.

“We’re here to recognize change, change for the better” Lester Pollack, chairman of the Conference of Presidents, told the diplomats and Jewish organizational officials at the July 7 gathering.

Yaacobi pointed out that Israel now has formal relations with all eight countries present. Turkmenistan, with which Israel hopes to establish ties, was invited but did not send a representative.

In fact, several of the former Soviet republics have closer ties with Israel than with each other, given the several conflicts occurring in the former Soviet Union.

“You can be a bridge between Israel and the Moslem world,” Yaacobi told the diplomats.

Present were representatives from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Russia. Most of these states share borders with Iran or Afghanistan.

Represented too, though not part of the former Soviet Union, were neighboring Turkey and the United States.

For its part, the Conference of Presidents maintained that the reception should not be seen as a blanket endorsement of the policies of the invited countries.

In recognition of the human rights concerns, Pollack emphasized in his introductory remarks “concern for the safety of people,” and that “this is a time of change that is not complete.”

Similarly, Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, told the diplomats, “We look forward to working with you as you make progress in fulfilling the human rights documents that almost all of you have signed in the past few years.”

But the Union of Councils was not assuaged by these diplomatically worded statements.

“They didn’t really take them on their human rights record,” said Naftalin. The three most controversial republics “are terrible countries, and there’s no indication of that in what they said.”

AN AMBIVALENT RELATIONSHIP

The failure of the Conference of Presidents to take a stronger stand called into question the conference’s efforts to smooth over the conflict with the Union of Councils, according to Naftalin.

The two groups have been in discussions since before the reception to resolve the conflict. But Naftalin was not optimistic about reaching an accord.

By contrast, Pollack said he was “optimistic and encouraged” about prospects of getting the Union of Councils back into the Conference of Presidents.

“We are continuing to have discussions to make sure we put this episode behind us,” he said.

“Our ultimate goal is for them not to implement their withdrawal.”

In its resignation letter, the Union of Councils stated that “we have no quarrel with the State of Israel pursuing its national interests, including with such regimes as Karimov’s,” referring to President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.

But Jewish organizations, argued the Union of Councils, should have higher standards of friendship.

The Uzbeki government has in effect told the Jews there that they can practice their religion and even emigrate to Israel, as long as they stay out of politics, Naftalin explained in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“For Israel, that’s acceptable,” said Naftalin. “But the American Jewish community doesn’t have to buy into it.”

At the Conference of Presidents, Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein argued that events such as the reception would open doors for the conference when it wishes to raise an issue with the republics.

In recent years American Jewish organizations have played a key role in helping Israel establish ties with countries around the world.

Prior to the establishment of relations between Israel and China, for instance, several Jewish organizations, prominent among them the American Jewish Committee and the World Jewish Congress, sent delegations to China.

The withdrawal of the Union of Councils from the Conference of Presidents concludes a relationship that has always been ambivalent.

As one source close to the Union of Councils observed, the organization valued its membership enough to place its affiliation on its letterhead, as few other members of the conference do.

On the other hand, the Union of Councils for decades charged inaction regarding Soviet Jewry on the part of the “Jewish establishment,” including the National Conference.

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