Left-of-center members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations are leery that decisions expected Wednesday on the status of three current members and one new applicant may indicate a rightward shift for the organization.
One of the groups, the Labor Zionist Alliance, has historically been aligned with the Labor Party in Israel, the political home of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Such a move, critics say, would put the 54-member organization at odds not only with Barak and his peace policies, but also many American Jews.
“I hope that the Conference of Presidents continues to pursue the broadest possible umbrella, which is inclusive and covers the broad spectrum of opinions that exist in the American Zionist community,” said Mark Rosenblum, the founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now.
This is not the first time the Presidents Conference – ostensibly a politically neutral, pro-Israel organization – has been accused of partisanship, a charge the organization’s officials reject as “baseless.”
“The right always see us as favoring the left, while the left always see us as favoring the right,” said its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein.
“That’s why we’re a consensus body, which has enabled us to continue for 40 years.”
The Presidents Conference was founded in the mid-1950s, in order to harness the cacophony of Jewish groups and opinion, and present a united Jewish front in its dealings with Washington.
Its mandate is “to strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and to protect and enhance the security and dignity of Jews abroad.”
However, because of the long reign of Israel’s conservative Likud Party and the Presidents Conference’s loyalty to those administrations, some continue to perceive right-wing sympathies and lukewarm support for the peace-making efforts of the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Rabin and Barak.
Those concerns were heightened when Ronald Lauder assumed the Presidents Conference chairmanship in June 1999.
Lauder is a Republican with close ties to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
However, even Rosenblum, of the dovish Americans for Peace Now, praised Lauder for playing it fair during Barak’s premiership.
But Rosenblum and others worry that could change Wednesday.
At the Presidents Conference’s annual meeting, the membership committee will present its newly codified criteria for membership and the culmination of a two-year membership re-evaluation that was requested by the membership itself, Hoenlein said.
Central to these criteria will be a definition of what constitutes a “major” American Jewish organization. It is expected to go beyond simple membership or budget figures.
The group’s officials declined to discuss the new criteria in advance of the meeting.
But according to several sources, the membership committee is expected to recommend that three organizations be ousted or relegated to “adjunct” status, which means they would not be full voting members.
In addition to the LZA, the other organizations, according to sources, are the National Committee for Labor Israel and the Women’s League for Israel.
Insiders also predict that Meretz USA, whose application for membership was rejected last year along with three other applicants, will see its appeal rejected as well.
Meretz USA is ideologically close to its liberal Israeli namesake, which is the fourth-largest party in the Knesset. At a 1997 election for American representatives to the World Zionist Congress, Meretz USA garnered the most votes of any U.S. group allied with an Israeli party.
Finally, there is also a rumor, cited by several sources, that the membership committee may recommend the ouster of the American Friends of Likud.
But critics speculate that such a move would be a maneuver to present an image of fairness.
For now, LZA President Jeffry Mallow said he is in the dark about the meeting’s outcome.
“I would definitely like to know what’s going on,” Mallow said.
Meretz USA executive director Charney Bromberg was not optimistic Tuesday.
“We are entering a period now where there needs to be an inclusive central body for debating and articulating the views of American Jewry,” Bromberg said.
“If the Conference is `trimming its edges’ and moves to cut or limit membership, it’s moving in precisely the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time.”
For his part, Hoenlein cited his group’s support for the Barak government by pointing to an ad in The Washington Post that had greeted Barak on his arrival to Camp David earlier this month. He also cited a statement his group released Tuesday, lauding Barak’s negotiating efforts and chastising the Palestinians for intransigence.
Hoenlein said that critics of new membership review are misguided in suggesting ideological motives.
“Organizations change over the years; does that mean they should automatically still be members, even if they no longer qualify?” Hoenlein said.
“This is an open, objective process, where the membership committee represents the broad spectrum of the Presidents Conference, sets standards and makes recommendations. Organizations will have the opportunity to appeal.”
Stephen Wolnek, chairman of the membership committee and president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, could not be reached for comment.
The president of one group on the right side of the spectrum, Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, also rejected the notion of a rightward shift. In fact, he lamented that the Presidents Conference “leans to the left, clearly and unequivocally.”
Nevertheless, Klein, too, expressed dissatisfaction with the process of membership reassessment.
“The issue is not diversity of opinion within the Presidents Conference; the issue is fairness,” he said.
While his views are far from those of the LZA, Klein asked, “On what basis is their status being changed, and are they being given ample time to correct any deficiencies that the committee believes exist?”