Presidents Conference limits chairman’s leeway

NEW YORK, Feb. 1 (JTA) — A top American Jewish umbrella group has approved a new policy forbidding its chairman from speaking publicly unless he has a clear mandate from member organizations.

Wednesday’s move by the 54-member Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations comes in response to a speech earlier this month by Chairman Ronald Lauder at a controversial rally in Jerusalem.

The huge Jan. 8 rally, trumpeted as a show of support for Jerusalem as the “eternal and undivided capital” of Israel, was widely seen as a rebuke to the concessions Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly was prepared to offer the Palestinians in peace talks.

Lauder, who identified himself at the rally as “an individual Jew,” nevertheless was described in media reports as the Conference chairman.

With that, some critics within the Conference said, the organization had inserted itself in Israeli domestic politics and appeared to be opposing the government of Israel, breaking two long-held taboos.

Those critics, generally from the Conference’s left-of-center “peace camp,” said clear rules for the chairman’s public appearances were needed to repair any damage that might have been done to the Conference’s image as non- partisan — and to stifle whatever maverick impulses future chairmen might possess.

“The conference felt very perceptively and rightly that it wants its leadership to speak in the name of, and only in the name of, consensus,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union — Association of Reform Zionists of America.

“That fact is what distinguishes the Conference from all other bodies, and is ultimately what gives the conference its unique influence and authority,” Hirsch said. “Mess with that dynamic, and the Conference begins to falter.”

The mission of the half-century-old Conference, which spans the political and religious spectrum, is to “strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance” and “protect and enhance the security and dignity of Jews abroad.”

Its chairman is often perceived by Israel, the Diaspora and the non- Jewish world as the “voice” of American Jewry. Until now, however, no official policy has existed to govern when the chairman may speak and what he may say.

According to the new rules, which will take effect in June, the chairman may speak publicly on behalf of the Conference only if he has first achieved “consensus” — itself a nebulous, contentious term — and his speech must reflect the policies determined by that consensus.

He also will not be free to speak publicly as “an individual,” and candidates for the two-year post must agree to waive that right if elected.

The policy will be further revised to slap similar restraints on the Conference’s executive vice chairman, who runs the organization on a day-to- day basis.

The current executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, also came under fire for a speech in September that some perceived as a thinly veiled criticism of Barak’s contemplated concessions on Jerusalem.

A spokeswoman for Lauder referred Conference-related calls to Hoenlein. Hoenlein sounded upbeat about the new policy, denying that it was prompted by Lauder’s speech.

“Ronald did not speak on behalf of the Conference, so this really doesn’t have anything to do with that,” Hoenlein said.

“It has to do with setting guidelines for when you have delicate issues and what is expected of chairmen,” Hoenlein said.

“This is really meant as protection for the future, in case people would say, ‘look, there are no restrictions.’ “

As if to reiterate the Conference’s neutrality, the organization released a statement Thursday pledging the Conference’s unwavering support for whichever candidate — Labor’s Barak or the Likud Party’s Ariel Sharon — triumphs in Israel’s Feb. 6 election for prime minister.

At the Jan. 8 rally, Lauder spoke briefly, despite having only lukewarm support from the Conference. He attempted to justify his comments with the disclaimer that he was appearing only as “an individual Jew.”

“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,” he told the crowd, estimated at up to 400,000. “All the world should know that you are not alone.”

Several of Barak’s political allies criticized Lauder for speaking at the rally.

At the Presidents Conference meeting Wednesday, there was little dissent about the new policy, and Lauder’s name was not mentioned specifically.

The vote among 30-plus members was overwhelmingly in favor of the new policy. Only two groups reportedly opposed it.

One member who had cheered Lauder’s speech in Jerusalem nevertheless voted for the new policy.

“Obviously, in the last case, I was on one side of the spectrum, but in order for the conference to function properly, the chairman has to speak on behalf of everyone else,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council for Young Israel, an umbrella group for more than 200 Orthodox synagogues in North America and Israel.

Lerner conceded that the issue cuts both ways.

“I guess in the conference it’s important to have guidelines, because one day it could be the other side” that is upset with the chairman’s actions, he said.

In the future, Lerner added, “if there’s an issue that the chairman feels so strongly about, he’ll either have to defend his position and change the minds of those not in his camp, or there’s always the option to resign over it.”

Lauder, a cosmetics magnate and former U.S. ambassador to Austria, handled Wednesday’s meeting with “grace and good humor,” according to one of his critics present at the closed session.

Several critics noted that criticism of Lauder’s speech was not an attack against him personally. Twelve groups, including all the representatives of the Reform movement, had sent Lauder a letter of complaint after the Jerusalem speech.

Lauder’s perceived sympathies for the Israeli right had concerned some Conference members when he ran for chairman in June 1999. Yet even his critics describe Lauder as a “mensch” and “a very caring Jew” who has “put his money where his mouth is and made significant contributions to the welfare of the Jewish people.”

That may be why there has been no move to oust Lauder before his term expires in July.

Nonetheless, there was a need to prevent a recurrence, said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of the Reform movement.

“This is a particularly difficult time we’re entering: we’re going to have a new Israeli government, the direction of which is yet unclear, and we have a new American government, whose relationship with Israel is also yet unclear,” Yoffie said.

“Amid all this confusion, what we needed was a clear definition of the framework in which the Conference chairman and executive vice chairman will operate,” Yoffie said.

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