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Presidents Conference embarks on the quest for a new leader

New York Jewish Week
NEW YORK, Feb. 12 (JTA) — Behind the scenes, a political ritual is taking place far removed from the view — and perhaps the interest — of American Jews, in whose name a leader will soon be chosen. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, organized Jewry”s official voice to presidents, kings, dictators and the public on foreign policy issues it deems of concern to American Jews, is deep into its biennial contest to select a leader. There are no bylaws or constitution that spell out just how this leader is chosen. But rules there certainly are. And while there is no election in which candidates publicly explain just what they would say or do in American Jewry”s name, the campaign is definitely on. The new leader is currently scheduled to assume office in June for what is usually a two-year tenure. A seven-member nominating committee is in the process of interviewing candidates. In fact, according to several sources, Israel”s prime minister already has a favorite in the race. Conservative Republican Ronald Lauder — the cosmetics heir, philanthropist, former diplomat, failed New York City mayoral candidate and reportedly one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”s biggest political fund-raisers — is widely viewed as a major candidate for the position. The others are Thomas Baer, president of B”nai B”rith, the Jewish fraternal organization, and an attorney based in Richmond, Va.; Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and until he retired recently, a practicing proctologist; Manhattan attorney Melvin Salberg, immediate past president of the Anti-Defamation League; Rabbi Arthur Schneier, immediate past president of the Religious Zionists of America; Rabbi Alan Silverman, immediate past president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, Conservative Judaism”s rabbinic arm; and Milton Wolf, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria and immediate past president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the rescue and development agency for Jewish communities in distress abroad. Mortimer Zuckerman, the real estate and publishing tycoon, had been considered a favorite for the chairmanship until he married a non-Jewish woman earlier this year. Insiders believe that Lauder, who threw Netanyahu an intimate and exclusive dinner at his Upper East Side apartment last June, during his first U.S. visit as prime minister, has the inside track. Besides his closeness to Netanyahu, he is also said to have the support of Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference”s powerful executive vice chairman. Lauder, 53, only qualified as a candidate this week when the board of the Jewish National Fund of America voted to name him its new president, effective immediately. Any candidate to head the Presidents Conference must be a sitting president or immediate past president of an organization within the conference”s umbrella. Lauder declined to comment last week about his reported candidacy for the Presidents Conference job. However things turn out, the person ultimately selected as chairman will, for many here and abroad, represent the public face of organized American Jewry — or at least a public face. Composed of 53 Jewish organizations, the Presidents Conference was formed in 1954 by a much smaller coterie when Secretary of State Allen Dulles complained about the seemingly endless stream of Jewish groups marching through his office with often contradictory advice about the Middle East and other issues. Today, the much-expanded conference meets with the president and other administration leaders as the official consensus voice of the organized community on international affairs. Israeli and other foreign leaders also speak frequently at the conference”s New York headquarters, where it offers one-stop shopping to those seeking dialogue with the diverse and sprawling entity known as organized Jewry. Conference members include such high-profile groups as the ADL and Hadassah, and lesser-known groups such as the America-Israel Friendship League and Bnai Zion, a fraternal group. On key issues involving Israel and the Middle East peace process, the conference”s members also run the ideological gamut, from the Zionist Organization of America on the right to Americans for Peace Now on the left. Finding someone with the political skills to effectively shape and forcefully represent a consensus of all these groups is, not surprisingly, a sensitive and sometimes contentious process. And in recent years, the challenge has grown. The peace process initiated by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which so deeply divided Israel, provoked a similarly bitter and debilitating schism within American Jewish leadership. Indeed, one Jewish leader, Lynn Lyss, was solicited by the nominating committee to become a candidate, but declined after contemplating the “emotional drain”” she would face if chosen. “The Jewish community seems to be drifting further and further apart,”” said Lyss, immediate past chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. “Achieving consensus and bringing people back to the center is the major challenge that will face whoever is chosen.”” Some critics maintain that the conference”s deep schism in recent years limited the nature and vigor of its support for Israel under Rabin and his dovish successor, Shimon Peres. They further contend that this divided leadership contrasted sharply with the views of ordinary American Jews as expressed in repeated polls that showed support for Rabin”s policies by large margins. Still, many of these polls also showed that the hawkish minority, which tended to be more heavily Orthodox, also tended to be more deeply involved with Israel and better informed about political developments there. Now the just-signed Hebron accord marks for the first time Netanyahu”s concrete commitment to the Oslo peace process and his unambiguous acceptance of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat as his negotiating partner. Some hope that the huge new centrist majority that crystallized in Israel to back the accord will find an echo in the Presidents Conference. As the nominating committee proceeds with its work behind closed doors, some voices can be heard questioning the manner in which it was assembled. Others — though not many — are voicing concern about the non-democratic nature of the process. Still, Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement and himself a former conference chairman, voiced what was probably the more typical view. “I”m satisfied with the process,”” said Reich. “It”s not perfect. But it”s probably about the best system one can achieve with an umbrella group.”” To the critics, however, the problems begin with just nailing down what that process is. Although it has grown enormously, the conference conducts this leadership selection — as it does all its work — without any bylaws or constitution to codify the rules that govern the proceedings. Instead, the rules, though some are written in various memos, are mostly “a product of tradition and precedent,”” said Julius Berman, a former conference chairman now serving on the nominating committee. Lyss, the leader who declined the committee”s invitation to be a candidate, is one activist critical of this system. “Maybe it”s time to develop a constitution,”” she said, “so that anyone who wants to know how the process works can look it up and see how things go.”” Lyss was one among several who seemed unaware of just how or when the nomination process had been opened. But Presidents Conference spokeswoman Haina Just pointed to a Dec. 3 memo that she said was sent out to all conference members announcing the appointment of the nominating committee and soliciting nominations from member organizations. (New York Jewish Week staff writer Eric J. Greenberg contributed to this report.)