NEW YORK, Aug. 13 (JTA) — A public call for reform of the umbrella group of American Jewish organizations has made some noise, but doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. The leader of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, has blasted the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations for a process that lacks consultation in formulating positions and leaves “virtually all power” in the hands of its leadership. In an opinion piece in the Forward earlier this month, Yoffie also accused the Presidents Conference of showing “greater enthusiasm for Israeli governments of the right than for those of the left.” The representative body of 52 American Jewish groups; the conference’s chairman, Mortimer Zuckerman; and executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein; often act as ambassadors of the community, especially on issues related to Israel and world Jewish affairs. The group speaks to presidents and diplomats, issues news releases and sponsors newspaper ads, and is often seen by world leaders and policymakers as the voice of the American Jewish community. There has long been a debate among Jewish groups over whether the conference reflects a consensus position when issuing statements. But the leaders of the conference say they try to balance differing views and see no need for change. “Consensus doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity,” Zuckerman said. “We have followed the procedures that were in place” — an informal process of meetings and conversations, he said. As for the right-left divide, Zuckerman said, “Everybody has their own view of where the politics of the conference or of the Jewish community is.” The views of American Jews have mirrored the opinion in Israel, and “there’s been a great shift” in “confidence about what the peace process was all about.” Yoffie’s call for change came after the conference leaders issued a statement last month attacking a prominent Palestinian leader, Sari Nusseibeh, without consulting its member groups, he charged. That statement came in between Israel’s closure of Nusseibeh’s office and, bowing to American pressure, Israel’s reversal of the decision. In his piece, Yoffie advocated the formation of an executive committee that would include the largest organizations and would implement procedures to determine consensus. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Reform’s congregational arm, of which Yoffie is president, is one of the largest organizations in the conference. The concept of an executive committee has been rejected several times by committees of the conference over the years, Zuckerman said. Meanwhile, it appears that Yoffie is a long way from reaching consensus for his own proposal. While many member organizations support the concept of reform, they disagree sharply with Yoffie’s approach, saying his proposed guidelines might sideline them. Others rebuke him for airing his concerns publicly, especially at a time when Israel is engaged in a war with the Palestinians. And groups across the political and religious spectrum suggest that Yoffie’s idea for reform would just advance his own organization’s interests and politics. “Eric Yoffie has a political agenda here. It seems to me as long as Yoffie’s views are promoted, he would be fine with it,” said Morton Klein, president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America. As for the rightward shift, Klein said, “If the conference hadn’t moved more toward the right they’d be out of step with American Jewry, with Israeli Jewry and with the Israeli government,” which have become more hawkish amid the Palestinian uprising. Yoffie insists that those who frame his argument as a debate about politics or ideology have it wrong. He says he is concerned only with fair representation. Venting to the media is what irked David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “It’s not our style,” he said. “Any umbrella organization will inevitably have its tensions and those tensions will only grow at defining moments,” Harris said. “Even so, we prefer private discussions when we have concerns and public airings only as a last resort.” Yoffie said he took his views public after years of frustration that there was no movement toward change. He said leaders of the UAHC complained to the Presidents Conference five years ago about their desire for a structural change. But beyond talking to other organizations to determine how to proceed, Yoffie said he has no concrete plan of action. “Surely, there has been a lot of sympathy for the things I’ve articulated,” Yoffie said. But “where it will go from here, I don’t know.” “If I were to summarize, I would say that people don’t necessarily agree with the specifics of the proposal, some do, some don’t,” and some say it “wouldn’t work” or that it “needs to be revised,” he said. But “the sense that the conference would benefit by taking a careful look at some of these concerns” is broadly shared by a variety of organizations of different sizes and religious and political affiliations, Yoffie said. Indeed, Yoffie has his supporters including Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the large Conservative, congregational organization. The executive committee would help the Conference reach speedy consensus, Epstein said. But while some endorse the call for change, they also question his method. There are “more examples of nonconsultation and nonprocess than there are of consultation and process,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Referring to Hoenlein, Foxman said. “Every time he burps he speaks in my name” and in the AJCommittee’s name and in Eric Yoffie’s name. And there “needs to be a process where” Hoenlein speaks and Foxman hears about the comments before reading them in the paper, the ADL leader said. Foxman supports the idea of an executive committee, but disagrees with Yoffie’s approach to set the committee by membership standards. “I don’t endorse his formula,” Foxman said. “We don’t have members, so what are you going to do with us?” To which Yoffie responded, “Membership should not be the sole criteria, but people using common sense would be able to arrive at appropriate criteria.” Still, Yoffie said he sees a problem with a process that gives equal say to a group of 3,000 members and one with 1 million members. As a system check, Yoffie said, the executive committee could always be overriden by the general membership. Ari Chester, executive director of the Labor Zionist Alliance, said he also finds the Conference of Presidents exclusionary. And he said Jewish organizations are more right wing than the whole of American Jewry. But Chester took issue with Yoffie’s method. Chester said, “It’s as if he would want” the Reform and Conservative movements to be the “authoritarian voice.” Other Presidents Conference members don’t understand what the brouhaha is about. Yoffie’s remarks are “puzzling,” according to Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs for the Orthodox Union, the congregational arm of the Orthodox movement. “It’s a mystery to me as to what motivated him to do that,” she said. “I think that there is quite a sense of unity on support for Israel — the primary concern of the conference,” she said. Ehrenberg said she did not see the Presidents Conference as a rightward-leaning group, and said the conference was called leftist during the days of Oslo peace process. Criticism of the Presidents Conference often comes from organizations that don’t identify with the Israeli government in power, which the conference supports, she said. In fact, the umbrella group has “very admirably forged a consensus,” she said.
Jewish leader blasts umbrella group