Peace Group Fights Presidents Conference


Groucho Marx once said he would never join a club that would accept him as a member. Presumably, he knew what the requirements were for joining.

But that’s apparently not the case with the nation’s premier America Jewish umbrella group, the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations, at least according to one Jewish organization. Meretz USA, a group supporting civil rights and peace in Israel, says it can’t get into the President’s Conference, and worse, hasn’t been able to find out why.

After being told it was rejected last month by the conference’s membership committee, Meretz USA is now appealing the decision to the full 55-member body: an organization claiming to represent the American Jewish community to the White House and world leaders.

The appeal was filed Jan. 4 by Jeremiah Gutman, an attorney for Meretz USA, the American affiliate for Meretz, the left-wing Israeli political party.

Since filing the appeal four weeks ago, Gutman told The Jewish Week Tuesday he has yet to hear back from the Presidents Conference about procedures for appealing, a rare event for the conference.

"They haven’t told me when and where it will be heard, what the rules are: if there are any," Gutman said. "I don’t know if you need to file a brief, to whom it is filed, and who the hearing officer is."

Gutman and other critics interviewed by The Jewish Week, believe Meretz USA’s application has been stonewalled for political reasons by Presidents Conference executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, who is considered by many to advocate a right-wing political agenda.

"I think the politics of the organization has something to do with what is going on, but nobody is going to say that publicly," Gutman said. "Meretz obviously is a left-wing party and Meretz USA, although it does no fund raising, stands for the same principles as that in Israel: which is certainly inconsistent with the right-wing politics of many of those influential in the Conference of Presidents."

In a pointed Dec. 22 letter to Conference chairman Ronald S. Lauder, Gutman wrote: "Can the Conference validly maintain its claim to speak for the American Jewish community if it excludes such active, viable and substantial an organization as Meretz USA?"

Hoenlein told The Jewish Week that Meretz can appeal the rejection as soon as the membership committee files its report with the full conference. He gave no timetable.

Hoenlein dismissed charges that the rejection was political and questioned Meretz’s merits.

"Have you ever heard of them before? How many press releases have they issued? Do they deal with the issues we deal with?"

Hoenlein maintained that the membership committee has broad political representation and admission decisions are never made on an ideological basis. He noted that the conference includes such groups as the left-wing Americans for Peace Now and the Labor Zionist Alliance.

He also took issue with Gutman’s written complaint that Meretz was never notified in writing of its rejection.

"We don’t put [rejections] in writing because we thought it much more personal to have the chairman [of the membership committee] call them, which is what we’ve done all these years. It’s a much more menschlikeit way to do things."

Conference membership committee chairman Stephen Wolnek said he outlined all the reasons why Meretz was rejected when he called them in December. "The simple thing is, you don’t want to memorialize it in a letter, because letters get circulated."

Nevertheless, the Meretz case raises questions about the workings of the conference at a time when the organization is discussing a possible overhaul, including reconsidering the membership of some smaller groups. Some observers say there is a legitimate question about whether relatively smaller Jewish groups like Meretz USA should be full members.

"There’s a real struggle going on to answer that," said one conference member.

Last September the conference formally adopted a list of Qualifications for Membership," the first codification of such rules in the 52-year history of the group.

But some critics say the criteria are too vague when they state 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.

"Perhaps the key requirement is that a Jewish group maintains a large enough constituency, and a "significant" budget.

But the question seems to be what is "large" and who defines it. For example, Meretz USA claims 9,000 members and an operating budget of $250,000. In the 1997 World Zionist Congress elections for American representatives to the international body, Meretz USA received 4,500 votes, more than any other organization aligned with an Israeli party.

Some conference members note that Meretz USA seems to meet all the criteria, perhaps more than some other current members, such as American Friends of Likud, the group aligned with the right-wing Israeli Likud Party; AFL claims 2,900 members.

"Meretz USA is a serious organization," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the American Reform Zionist Association, a conference member. "I don’t know whether it meets the requirements of membership because I don’t know what those requirements are."

Meretz USA is apparently only one of four Jewish groups recently rejected by the conference. American Friends of Givat Haviva, which claims 4,000 supporters and funds Jewish-Arab coexistence projects in Israel, was also turned down. Givat Haviva is not appealing its rejection, according to president Henry Ostberg. "I told the Conference it’s a greater loss to you than us," Ostberg said. "You’ll go out saying you represent the Jewish community, and we’ll say you do not."

Two other groups also were recently rejected, but Hoenlein declined to disclose their names, he said, to avoid embarrassing the applicants. He described one group as right wing.

Wolnek, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the conference needs to decide whether it wants to be an umbrella group or a group of major organizations.

Wolnek expected his report on membership should be filed in June.

But Meretz attorney Gutman said: "Given the time it took to deal with our application, what assurances can [the conference] give us that many current members of the conference, smaller than Meretz, will not continue to be members a year from now or two."

Marc Rosenbloom, founder of Americans for Peace Now, said the conference must create a clear admissions process that will be easily understood by the community.

"I know a number or organizations who have applied and felt they had been given a run-around," he said. "Unless you have clear requirements, people will second guess and believe the decision is influenced by politics."