Choice to lead umbrella group sparks controversy


NEW YORK, April 24 (JTA) – Opposition is mounting to the choice of real estate and media mogul Mortimer Zuckerman as the next chairman of the powerful Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

A seven-member nominating committee selected Zuckerman from a field of eight candidates on April 19.

But the growing anxiety about who will serve as the community’s most visible and influential spokesman comes as American Jews are battling to defend Israel before Washington, the media and international forums like the United Nations.

At least one prominent Conference member – Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Reform movement – says he will vote against Zuckerman. Several other members also are tilting that way.

That is a highly unusual development for an organization like the Conference, which has traditionally rubber-stamped the nominating committee’s choice for chairman.

The election meeting will be held in late May, just before current Chairman Ronald Lauder’s two-year term expires in June.

Zuckerman still seems assured of a majority of the vote. Yet some suggest that the resistance of a significant faction would embarrass the Conference and, potentially, hobble the chairman.

Ironically, the issue that torpedoed Zuckerman’s first bid for chairman in 1997 – his marriage to a non-Jew – has been superceded by concern over his fortnightly column in U.S. News & World Report, which Zuckerman owns.

Zuckerman often devotes the column to the Middle East conflict, strongly supporting Israeli positions.

His respected analyses makes him a regular on the pundits’ circuit. And Zuckerman’s business and media prowess grants him wide access to the corridors of power, a major plus for a Conference chairman.

But with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians showing little signs of abating, there is concern within the Conference that any public pronouncement by the chairman about Israel, Washington, American foreign policy or similar topics accurately reflect a consensus of the 54-member group.

In this case, the definition of “consensus” is not unlike that of pornography: you know it when you see it.

“I understand the difference between the voice of the Presidents Conference, which has its own views, and when I will be able to express my own editorial views,” Zuckerman told JTA.

He pledged that he will not take a hiatus from his column – “that’s what I do for a living,” Zuckerman said – and it’s unclear whether he will cease writing about the Middle East.

“This was discussed fully with the committee, and they will respond as they see fit,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman’s critics say they aim to prevent a repeat of a Jan. 8 incident in Jerusalem, where Lauder addressed a massive rally – without the Conference’s consensus approval – in support of an undivided Jerusalem.

Lauder explained he was speaking “as an individual,” yet the media identified him as the Conference chairman and portrayed the rally as opposed to the policies of Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

That event seemed to breach a cardinal rule of the Conference: unequivocal support for every Israeli government.

Three weeks later, in a backhanded censure of Lauder, a dozen left-leaning Conference members convinced the membership to formalize a policy on the chairman’s behavior.

It is no coincidence that some of those same members are leading the charge against Zuckerman.

“After adopting the policy, the Conference has now decided to turn its back on that policy,” said Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Zuckerman will have to sacrifice his “private” persona, Yoffie said.

“There is no private Conference chairman, just as there is no private Abe Foxman” – national director of the Anti-Defamation League – “or Eric Yoffie,” he said.

Mel Salberg, a past Conference chairman and chair of the nominating committee, said Zuckerman had “agreed that he would only express the consensus views of the Conference, and if there were no consensus, then he would not take a view on that subject.”

Salberg noted that Zuckerman, like every candidate, pledged his unequivocal support for any democratically elected Israeli government.

Nevertheless, several members vowed to demand specifics at the May election meeting.

The question is “what kind of Chinese Wall they will erect to guarantee that what Mort writes is clearly not the view of the Presidents Conference,” said Avram Lyon, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee. “I don’t know how to do that, but anything less than that will lead to some sort of confusion down the line.”

The Conference already is often perceived as more hawkish on Israel than the Jewish public. Some wonder whether there would be a comparable outcry if Zuckerman – perceived as conservative and relatively hawkish on Israel – held more dovish views.

But Zuckerman’s critics say they are not concerned with his ideology, but with the potential for future snafus like the Lauder incident and for mistaken public perceptions.

Aside from the Middle East, Zuckerman also writes about a wide range of domestic and foreign issues.

When it becomes known that Zuckerman, who also publishes the New York Daily News, is Conference chairman – a post that some dub “the King of the Jews” – each of his articles might be taken as the stance of American Jewry, observers suggest.

Consider his column in the current issue of U.S. News, titled “The Caribou Conundrum.”

In the piece, Zuckerman argues that it’s worth exploring the Bush Administration proposal to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

However, some Jewish environmental groups oppose the Bush proposal. Would that constitute a conflict of interest?

What if Zuckerman wrote about taxes, abortion, school vouchers or President Bush’s faith-based initiative? Or on America’s relations with Russia or Iran, where the safety of Jewish communities is uncertain.

“Those, too, are relevant issues; not only writing about Israel, but writing about any political issue in America is a relevant issue,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union. “We’d have to hear more substantive answers before Mr. Zuckerman would gain our support at ARZA.”

Some suggest that every one of Zuckerman’s future columns could be parsed and challenged.

Almost lost in the furor is Zuckerman’s personal life.

Zuckerman separated from his wife last year, but some representatives of the Conservative and Orthodox movements are still uneasy that he has not denounced intermarriage per se.

Both movements are opposed to intermarriage, and say the Conference chairman should be a role model for the rest of the community.

The movements’ representatives in the Conference, however, indicate that Zuckerman’s separation from his wife is sufficient for them, and they will vote for him.

“If he were running for chief rabbi, then we’d have to discuss it,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the Orthodox movement’s National Council for Young Israel. “I’m not condoning anything, but the Conference is a political body, not a religious body. And I will vote for Mort Zuckerman because of who he is, what his connections are – because that’s part of who he is – and for what he will be able to accomplish with us and for us.”

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