Journalist faces opposition for top Jewish post

WASHINGTON, April 12 (JTA) — The leader of America’s largest Jewish religious stream says he will vote against the presumed front-runner to chair one of the country’s most powerful Jewish organizations.

The vote for chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations historically has been unanimous. This year, however, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he would vote against Mortimer Zuckerman because Zuckerman is publisher of the New York Daily News and U.S. News & World Report.

Zuckerman writes a weekly column in U.S. News & World Report that he frequently devotes to Israel and the Middle East peace process.

“If a columnist for The New York Times was running for this position, would anyone think that was appropriate?” Yoffie asked.

Zuckerman, the honorary president of the American-Israel Friendship League, is one of three finalists expected to be considered for the two-year chairmanship at a meeting of the selection committee Wednesday. The others are Howard Berkowitz, past chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, and Leonard Cole, chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The Conference of Presidents often is consulted by the White House, State Department and foreign groups as the voice of American Jewry.

Yoffie also said that Zuckerman has had little previous involvement with the Conference of Presidents — made up of the leaders of 54 American Jewish organizations — and that the American-Israel Friendship League is not influential in Jewish circles.

“Prominence in the general community and individual wealth are not barriers,” Yoffie said. “But they are not by themselves significant enough.”

Some other Jewish leaders share Yoffie’s concern.

“It would be impossible for him to divide his personal life and personal career from his public role,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “He would have to be willing to try.”

Epstein and others have said that, if selected, Zuckerman would have to pledge to avoid writing about Israel or the Middle East.

The other main concern about Zuckerman is his marital status. Zuckerman was a leading contender for the chairmanship in 1997, but his candidacy was scrapped because he was married to a non-Jew. Intermarriage is a matter of pressing concern in the organized Jewish community. He has since split with his wife, sources said, though it is not clear if he is formally divorced.

Reached at his office Thursday, Zuckerman said he would prefer not to comment on his candidacy until the process is completed.

Zuckerman is considered to be a close friend of Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, who runs the organization on a day-to-day basis. Hoenlein has significant sway within the Conference of Presidents, and his support of Zuckerman could be crucial.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman denied rumors that Berkowitz will withdraw from consideration and throw his support to Zuckerman.

“He has not withdrawn his name and continues to be a candidate,” Foxman said.

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