NEW YORK, Jan. 11 (JTA) — A furor has erupted in the umbrella organization widely considered the voice of American Jewry, with some members accusing the chairman of dragging the group into Israel’s domestic politics.
Twelve members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations have signed a letter calling for a special Conference meeting to criticize the actions of Chairman Ronald Lauder, and take steps to prevent a recurrence.
Lauder was one of several speakers at a massive rally in Israel on Monday against Israeli concessions to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, generally seen as a rebuke to the peacemaking efforts of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. While Lauder said he was appearing at the event as an individual, he was identified by Israeli and U.S. media as the chairman of the Conference of Presidents.
Some Conference members worry that Lauder’s participation may damage the organization’s efforts to portray itself as nonpartisan, and set a dangerous precedent of interference in Israel’s internal affairs.
That was precisely what several members feared earlier this month when they sought to discourage Lauder from attending the rally.
On Thursday, Lauder appeared at another rally for the unity of Jerusalem, speaking in New York alongside Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Israeli politicians Natan Sharansky, Ehud Olmert and Roni Milo.
Former Interior Minister Sharansky left Barak’s government last summer over the premier’s willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians, and Health Minister Milo has pledged to resign Sunday. Jerusalem Mayor Olmert is a leading member of the opposition Likud Party.
Those now demanding a special Conference meeting are primarily the left-leaning components of the group, which encompasses the full political and religious spectrum of American Jewry.
Opposition to Lauder includes the major representatives of the Reform movement.
“If the Conference leadership is so committed to a particular point of view that they’re prepared to immerse itself in partisan politics, then the Conference cannot exist,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Rising to Lauder’s defense, 17 organizations have signed a letter of support also circulating within the Conference.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, responded that the opponents’ letter “will be addressed.”
“If any member organization raises concerns, we will provide a forum in which to address them,” Hoenlein said.
Hoenlein would not comment further, but noted that “countless” faxes, e-mails and letters of support have poured into Lauder’s office and the Conference office in New York.
Lauder himself could not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts.
However, a source close to Lauder said Thursday, “his answer is that the future of Jerusalem is not a partisan political issue.”
The source conceded that he had tried to dissuade Lauder from speaking at the rally.
“But he was right and I was wrong,” the source said. “He acted as a Jewish leader and spoke out on a critical issue. He expressed his concern about Jerusalem, and he was right.”
Yoffie and other opponents say there was hardly a consensus within the 54-member Conference for Lauder to speak at the rally. A vote earlier this month, attended by only two dozen groups, was 14-9 in Lauder’s favor.
There is now much disagreement about what exactly the vote determined — whether Lauder was allowed to appear at the rally without speaking, or whether he was allowed to speak as an individual but not on behalf of the Conference.
His opponents say the vote fell well short of “consensus,” though the group can not even reach a consensus on the meaning of the term.
Among the questions Lauder’s opponents would like the Conference to address are what exactly constitutes “consensus,” and what to do if a chairman acts without it.
“Consensus is a slippery term that has been discussed ad nauseam over the past five years. But if you have nine groups that are vociferous in their opposition, then you know you don’t have consensus,” said Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now.
“The Presidents Conference as an umbrella institution is moving forward with great peril if it can’t demonstrate a significant majority and overwhelming support for an issue that they intend to act on.”
Lauder opened his brief remarks at the rally by stating, “I stand here tonight not on behalf of any Jewish organization, but as an individual Jew, representing millions of Jews around the world from Manhattan to Moscow, from London to Budapest. All the world should know that you are not alone.”
Lauder’s spokeswoman, Jeanine Kemm, told JTA earlier this week that “Mr. Lauder was there as a concerned Jew, as an individual, and with no other hats. He is truly concerned about the peace and security of Israel. Surely no one would seriously suggest he would be muzzled on a vital issue he has cared about his entire life. In fact, remaining silent would be a greater cause for criticism.”
However, even some Lauder supporters said privately that the cosmetics magnate, a seasoned political player who served as U.S. ambassador to Austria and once ran for mayor of New York, must have known how the media would identify him.
The controversy over Lauder’s speech has revived concerns that his political leanings may influence his performance as chairman.
Before Lauder began as Conference chair in June 1999, concerns were raised about his longtime support for the Likud Party and his close relationship with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu was at Monday’s rally but did not speak. However, the rally was organized in part by Sharansky and Olmert, leading to accusations of a partisan agenda.
Prime ministerial elections will be held Feb. 6, and polls indicate that Labor’s Barak trails far behind Likud leader Ariel Sharon.
Given the polls and Lauder’s political track record, “one would think that Ron Lauder would have been particularly sensitive to perceptions” of bias, said one Conference member who otherwise was supportive of Lauder.
Yoffie, of the Reform movement, said Lauder had been a “good and fair chairman” so far in his two-year tenure. But he warned that steps must be taken to prevent a repeat of this week’s controversy.
“In the eyes of Jewish leadership, Israeli leadership, American leadership and even in other governments around the world, the Conference is still seen as the voice of American Jews,” Yoffie said.
“If someone’s going in the name of American Jewish leadership, we all need to have confidence that the message being delivered actually emerged from conference consensus,” he said. “If there is no consensus, then no message should be passed along.”