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Surprise choice to head Presidents Conference

Harold Tanner. (AJCommittee)

Harold Tanner. (AJCommittee)

NEW YORK, April 12 (JTA) — The nomination of Harold Tanner as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations came as a surprise to many following the process. A past president of the American Jewish Committee, Tanner was less public than other candidates had been about his desire to chair the leadership body of American Jewish organizations, which includes 52 American Jewish groups. The umbrella body for Jewish organizations represents American Jewry in lobbying policymakers worldwide. The chairman is the group’s official face, shuttling around the world to promote Israel’s strength and security and combat anti-Semitism. The Forward had identified the leading candidates as Joel Kaplan, president of B’nai B’rith International; Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress; Vernon Kurtz, past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s association of rabbis; and Eugene Ribakoff, president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. But members of the conference’s nominating committee said Tanner, the head of a Manhattan investment banking company, had been on the short list of top candidates for a long time; he just hadn’t been campaigning. Still, the nomination, announced April 7, has raised some eyebrows. Some Jewish officials feel the nomination was never vetted; others say they don’t know who Tanner is. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said member organizations typically are consulted about candidates to head the Presidents Conference. “We are significant players in the conference, and to find out about” Tanner’s nomination from a journalist “is, I think, inappropriate,” Foxman said. “In this case, we lucked out because Harold Tanner is an experienced Jewish leader who has had experience leading a significant Jewish organization, but it could have not been successful,” Foxman said. “It could have been somebody’s friend.” Malcolm Hoenlein, the Presidents Conference’s executive vice chairman, said the process was run with the deepest integrity. The seven-member nominating committee, for which Hoenlein served only as a resource, was composed of a cross section of people from all sides of the political and religious spectrum, he said. “Nobody has a right to complain about the process,” Hoenlein said. Candidates “who choose to go public, it’s their option, but the committee doesn’t so we don’t embarrass anybody, and the members of the committee choose who they wish to speak to,” Hoenlein said. “They spoke to many people in arriving at their decision.” The committee announced its unanimous recommendation that Tanner succeed James Tisch, whose term ends May 31. The nomination will be submitted to the Presidents Conference for a vote at its next meeting, on May 3. Tanner was traveling and unavailable for comment. “We’re going to have to have somebody who can present the interests of and the views of this community and provide leadership to the community” at a critical time in the U.S.-Israel relationship, said Mortimer Zuckerman, a past chairman of the Presidents Conference and chairman of its nominating committee. “We are in the most delicate time and fragile time for what’s going to happen in the Middle East,” Zuckerman said. “We are particularly concerned to be involved, to have a voice that expresses a consensus view of this issue and represents this community in so many international and national gatherings.” The nomination comes as the Presidents Conference struggles to reach consensus. Several member groups feel the umbrella body is polarized. Left-leaning organizations long have charged that the conference skews to the right. Those accusations surfaced again last fall, when the ADL accused the Presidents Conference of being insufficiently supportive of Israel’s Gaza withdrawal plan. During a winter mission in Israel, the Presidents Conference publicly endorsed the disengagement plan. Several observers believe Tanner is a politic choice, because he will help mend rifts between member groups. “He’s a centrist,” said Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee. Bahat characterized Tanner as an open-minded team player with connections to leaders worldwide, including the heads of Arab states. “I think everyone who gets to know him through his business contacts or through his Jewish contacts ends up respecting him and revering him because of his integrity, because of his dedication,” Bahat said. “I know of no door that is closed to Harold Tanner.” But Tanner is a stranger to other members of the conference. “Who is Tanner?” asked Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America. “I am rather perplexed that someone who has not been active and visible in the conference is the person who was chosen.” “I don’t know his views on anything because I’ve never heard him say a single thing at any of the meetings,” said Klein, who argued that the candidates should address the entire conference before the nominating committee makes its choice. Others agreed. “I don’t know who he is, and I think that will be the question,” said Avram Lyon, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee. But Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs and communal relations at the Orthodox Union, described Tanner as “deeply involved in the conference.” “I think it’s a very wise choice of leadership,” she said. “He has been active on the international scene for a long time. He’s very intelligent, and his experience as a leader in this community has been long-term.” Tanner is chairman of the AJCommittee’s Transatlantic Institute and a member of the UJA-Federation of New York’s strategic planning committee. He also is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has served as chairman of Cornell University’s board of trustees. According to the Presidents Conference, he has close ties to U.S. and Israeli officials. Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Committee for Labor Israel, thinks Tanner can help bridge divisions within the conference. “I think he brings a calming effect, while at the same time he is a strong leader,” Goodman said. “He knows his way around Washington, which is important. He knows his way around Israel, which is important. And he has a businessman’s approach,” which will aid efficiency at the conference. Because Tanner didn’t seem to campaign for the job, he won’t be beholden to anyone, Goodman said. Rabbi Stanley Davids, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and a member of the nominating committee, said, “We just felt unanimously that he had the skills, the presence, the intelligence, to carry the Conference of Presidents through what is projected to be a very difficult time for the State of Israel.”

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