The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has rebuked two member-organizations for what it charged were efforts to undermine the Dec. 10 rally for Israel at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The Conference of Presidents sent letters to the Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Young Israel accusing them of “censurable” conduct for taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times protesting the “partisan politics” of what was billed as a unity rally.
The conference, which was one of the major planners of the rally after 51 other member-organizations agreed to support it, reprimanded the two groups for “actively discouraging attendance at the event” with the ad.
The action “goes beyond the acceptable bounds of dissent,” said the letter, which was sent by conference President Leon Levy and endorsed by the umbrella group’s past chairmen.
The ad and the subsequent reprimand are the latest acts of the drama that engulfed the rally in the volatile wake of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
ZOA President Morton Klein said Tuesday that even though he had not yet seen the letter, any letter “comes dangerously close to trying to squash legitimate dissent in the Jewish community.”
He said he was disappointed that the conference denied him “decency and fairness” by ignoring his request for an opportunity to address the concerns of the conference before the appropriate parties. And he said the ad nowhere “tells people not to come.”
“It seems the rally is being used to promote a partisan political agenda,” the Dec. 8 ad said. “Different views on how to achieve peace are being excluded.”
Young Israel President Chaim Kaminetzky said he was “not very happy” about the conference’s decision to issue “a letter of censure.”
But Kaminetzky said he rejected the claim that his organization violated any rules. Conference members have the right to express different opinions and the obligation to respect those opinions, he said.
The letters were sent partly in response to protests by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
In a Dec. 14 letter to Levy, Foxman said that even though “there have been specific incidents in the past of member-organizations taking actions against agreed-upon conference policy,” the ad “so grossly violates the principles of community unity and responsibility that we believe an examination as to whether their behavior warrants their removal from the conference is in order.”
Harris called the ad “unfortunate” and asked for “prompt discussion on “acceptable and unacceptable modes of behavior” by members in such circumstances.
On Dec. 26, Levy replied to Foxman in a letter in which he referred to the “infamous ZOA-Young Israel ad.”
“We are in accord with you on the need to call to account, in a meaningful way, those individuals/organizations, members of conference, who sought to undermine our collective efforts,” he said.
Referring specifically to the ad, Levy also pledged to explore “ways of means of disciplining outrageous behavior by dissidents who take public actions against agreed-upon conference policy.”
Conference Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said the matter has been raised in consultations among members of the umbrella organization.
He stressed that there was no question in the discussions that the organizations “had the right to disagree and to not participate.” Rather, the focus had been or “whether it was inappropriate to take out a full-page [dissenting] ad prior to an event supported by 51 out of 53 member- organizations.”
Foxman this week said that he was satisfied by the conference actions, given that “there are no clear criteria” for proper conduct “beyond the contract of membership” in the conference.
But he said he would press for the formulation of such criteria so members would “know in advance what is and what isn’t expected.”
For his part, Kaminetzky said he had been “shocked” by the call for the groups’ possible ouster by Foxman, a defender of “civil rights and civil liberties.”
“We never told anyone not to go to the rally,” he said.
The conference and other rally organizers had sought to depoliticize the rally, which was held primarily to memorialize Rabin, to draw as many people as possible from across the ideological spectrum. Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Rabin’s widow, Leah Rabin, were among the keynote speakers.
But the ZOA and Young Israel maintained that what was being billed as a “unity rally” was in fact partisan because “all of the speakers represent one particular point of view” on the peace process.
Klein had called on the conference to feature a prominent member of the Likud opposition but also said he would have been satisfied with the inclusion of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
The mayor in October ousted Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat from a local celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
Klein wrote a letter Dec. 21 to the conference leadership and members, chronicling examples of members who in the past had taken positions “contrary to Israel and/or the conference” and were not rebuked.
He cited as one example a July 1995 meeting between leaders of Americans for Peace Now and Palestine Authority officials at Orient House, the Jerusalem headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The conference has taken a stand against such meetings for its members.
But Hoenlein said Klein’s examples were not analogous to the ZOA’s ad. The ZOA’s actions had more to do with proper conduct by conference members toward a conference event rather than policy differences, he said.
The incident prompted noted Washington attorney Nathan Lewin to jump into the fray. He faxed a letter from Jerusalem to Foxman, chastising him for his criticism of the ad.
“It would be doubly tragic if the assassination resulted not only in the stifling of speech in Israel but also in the American Jewish community’s inability to tolerate responsible minority opinions in the United States,” he wrote.
He said that if the conference decided to conduct an examination into the ad, he would volunteer “pro bono publico” to defend the ZOA’s action.
“I think, however,”Lewin added, “that it would be a senseless form of fratricide for any disciplinary measures to be considered or taken on account of conduct that is so plainly within the respected traditions of debate and dissent in the American Jewish community.”
Foxman said of Lewin, “He misses the point. The issue is not freedom of speech. The issue is the responsibility of members of an organization.”