NEW YORK, Jan. 26 (JTA) A left-wing Jewish group, Meretz USA, is appealing a decision by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to reject its application for membership.
Believed to be the first organization to appeal such a rejection, the action by Meretz comes as the Conference of Presidents is reviewing its more than 50 member organizations to ensure that they still meet the group’s criteria for membership.
The Conference of Presidents, though not widely known by many American Jews, is often seen by the U.S. and other governments as the central address of the U.S. Jewish community on issues related to Israel and foreign policy.
The group describes as its mandate “to strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship and to protect and enhance the security and dignity of Jews abroad.”
The central question at stake is ultimately a very subjective one: What constitutes a major Jewish organization?
A sore point for Meretz and another recently rejected left-leaning group, American Friends of Givat Haviva, is the inclusion in the Presidents Conference of American Friends of Likud, which is ideologically aligned with Israel’s Likud Party. The groups believe that American Friends of Likud, a member of the Presidents Conference for more than 10 years, is smaller and less active than they are.
A spokesman for the Likud group declined to disclose its membership and budget figures to JTA.
“We’re associated with Likud, the largest opposition party in Israel, and we feel thousands of American Jews support our cause,” he said.
Meretz USA claims to have 9,000 members and an operating budget of $250,000 a sizable increase over the past few years due to a merger with another left-wing organization, Americans for a Progressive Israel.
Meretz applied for membership in the Presidents Conference in 1998 and was notified in a phone call this past fall that its budget and membership were too small to qualify for membership.
The New York-based Meretz USA is ideologically aligned with Israel’s leftist Meretz Party, but is not a fund-raising arm for the party, according to the group’s executive director, Charney Bromberg.
In the 1997 World Zionist Congress elections for American representatives to the international body, Meretz USA received 4,500 votes, far fewer than the religious movements, but more than any other organization aligned with an Israeli party.
American Friends of Givat Haviva claims 4,000 supporters and fund- raising revenues of just over $1 million, most of which goes to fund Jewish- Arab coexistence projects in Israel.
Two other groups also were recently rejected, according to Presidents Conference officials, but the groups have not publicized their rejection and the Presidents Conference said it would not disclose the names to avoid embarrassing the applicants. They did say that one group was right wing and the other nonpolitical.
Leaders from both Meretz USA and American Friends of Givat Haviva are accusing the Presidents Conference of not being representative of American Jewish opinion.
“We feel there’s a lack of balance in the membership,” said Bromberg.
“I told the Conference it’s a greater loss to you than us,” said Henry Ostberg, president of American Friends of Givat Haviva, which is not appealing its rejection. “You’ll go out saying you represent the Jewish community, and we’ll say you do not.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, dismissed those allegations, noting that groups representing a broad spectrum of opinion including the left-wing Americans for Peace Now and the Labor Zionist Alliance are members of the Conference of Presidents.
“I’m proud that organizations fight to get in, but there also have to be some standards or else every meeting would be a convention, and it would be too diluted,” he said
He also said the Presidents Conference has never admitted organizations that are simply fund-raising arms for Israeli organizations.
“It’s never political, and there are certainly not ideological or religious criteria,” he said of the admissions process, adding that the membership committee represents a broad spectrum of political and religious groups.
However, he acknowledged that there are no hard and fast rules on membership or budget numbers.
“You can have an organization with a huge budget that is not major,” he said. “Also, rabbinic organizations are small in membership but important.”
Stephen Wolnek, the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, who serves as the chair of the Presidents Conference membership committee, said of the process, “There are value judgments that have to be made. You can’t punch the data into a computer and have it say yes or no.”
Published membership criteria are vague, stipulating only that membership is available to “those major national Jewish organizations whose primary purpose is to serve the interests of the American Jewish community and whose activities are consistent with the goals and objectives of the Conference of Presidents.”
If beliefs about its size and inactivity are true, American Friends of Likud and potentially other organizations as well may be affected by the Presidents Conference’s new plan to review current members to ensure that they continue to meet criteria.
The umbrella group has sent questionnaires to current members, requesting updated information about size, budget and activities.
“There are those that would like the Conference to be all-inclusive as an umbrella organization, but to the extent that we’re the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations we’d like to assure ourselves that each organization is major and is a Jewish organization,” said Wolnek.
But it is unclear what will happen to member organizations no longer deemed major whether they will be thrown out, made adjunct members or simply grandfathered in.
“If members are no longer eligible, we’ll discuss it with them and maybe they could have adjunct membership or could challenge the finding,” Hoenlein said.
The timetable, described by officials simply as “ongoing,” is also not clear.
“It’s not a rush to judgment,” said Wolnek. “We’ll take the time that’s necessary; we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. No final decisions have been made about existing members.”
Organizations contacted said they supported the new review process and doubted it would result in a major shake-up in membership.
“I don’t think they’ll find any surprises,” said Daniel Mann, of the Labor Zionist Alliance, which is loosely tied to Israel’s Labor Party. “I’m hard- pressed to think of an organization that doesn’t fulfill the criteria.”
Although he said he would like to see Meretz USA accepted into the Presidents Conference so that it could be “as inclusive as possible,” Mann said he thinks the membership is relatively balanced.
He said that despite efforts by more right-wing members, the Presidents Conference has not interfered with the Clinton administration’s efforts to push the Middle East peace process forward.
“All the rest is commentary,” he said.