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After Meretz Vote, Groups Calling for Reform of Presidents Conference

January 16, 2003
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Several disgruntled members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations are discussing ways to reform the 52-member umbrella group.

The impetus for a Jan. 3 conference call, coordinated by Mark Rosenblum, founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now, was a vote last month rejecting membership applications from Meretz USA and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.

The Presidents Conference is the representative body of American Jewry. It advocates on domestic and foreign policy issues with both U.S. and foreign governments.

For several years, critics have alleged that conference leaders make decisions for the group without reaching a consensus, and that membership requirements are ambiguous.

The recent membership vote has sparked a new discussion of membership requirements, accountability and voting procedure.

Meretz USA first applied for membership four years ago and appealed last month, despite two informal indications from the membership committee that the group was unlikely to win entry.

At last month’s meeting, Meretz USA got just 15 votes and the RRA 31, both short of the 34 needed to join.

Joel Meyers, co-chair of the conference’s Process and Procedures Committee, reviewed and confirmed the vote on Meretz USA and the RRA. Critics had alleged right-wing political bullying and claimed that a quorum had not been present.

But for Rosenblum, the vote “raised the issue of inclusiveness at a time of hurt and confusion and anxiety in the Jewish community.”

Now is “a good time to make sure the tent is large, and we know that there needs to be rules for membership in the conference. But we want those rules to be transparent and public,” he said.

The talk of reform is unnerving some Presidents Conference leaders.

At a meeting on Tuesday called to discuss the group’s position on a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq, the conference leadership expressed dismay that discussion of procedural issues was taking place outside of the conference, and finding its way to the press.

Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the conference, said the organization is not resistant to change — through the proper channels.

“We’ve had a lot of meetings and there is a process and procedures committee,” Zuckerman said. “We are open to suggestions and, in fact, we reiterated that just yesterday at a meeting of about 10 to 15 people.”

The unhappy contingency — representatives of eight to 10 groups that primarily are left wing, such as Americans for Peace Now, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Labor Zionist Alliance — are so sore about the rejection of Meretz USA that they are considering revisiting the issue.

Suggestions offered during the Jan. 3 call included filing a lawsuit against the conference, drafting an open letter expressing the groups’ criticism or simply dropping the issue.

The group seemed to favor dropping the Meretz issue to focus on broader changes in conference structure, according to one participant on the call.

Such ideas include forming an executive committee, an idea that has been backed by Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s congregational group.

“I favor the participation in the Presidents Conference of all legitimate national groups, however small. But larger organizations should be given a role commensurate with their size, so that the conference genuinely reflects the true balance of opinion in the Jewish community,” Yoffie wrote in August in the Forward.

“A representative executive committee would provide the administrative oversight that is now sorely lacking in Presidents Conference operations,” he wrote. “The conference is the only major organization in American Jewish life that operates without an executive body to oversee its day-to-day functioning.”

The reformers also suggested more drastic measures, such as creating an alternative organization to the conference, one source said.

That idea already was tried during the 1990s when a group of liberal members of the Presidents Conference, calling themselves “Jewish leadership in support of the peace process,” convened regularly by conference call and email.

Rosenblum was a coordinator of that group — which was made up of 32 organizations, including some that weren’t Presidents Conference members.

The group became a serious presence, meeting with President Clinton and other national figures and drawing as many as 150 Jewish leaders to its meetings, Rosenblum said.

But the group “crashed and burned with the failure of negotiations,” he said.

Asked if he would consider another such effort, Rosenblum said, “We’re always looking for ways for people to be visible to support a peace process” while “defending Israel and also finding a way forward.”

In the meantime, officials of Meretz USA said they hope the conference will reconsider the group’s application.

“I think the conference is destroying its credibility by excluding people that disagree with AIPAC” and conference leaders on Israeli policy, said the president of Meretz USA, Jeremiah Gutman.

But others insist the vote wasn’t partisan.

According to Stephen Wolnek, chair of the conference’s membership committee, the committee did not consider Meretz USA a “major organization” in terms of membership, budget or number of employees.

Meretz USA “is so tiny, with only a couple of employees, that it would really make a mockery of the claim that this is a conference of major organizations,” agreed Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Some conference members who know of the reform discussion question it.

While the issues of membership procedure and requirements have “never been resolved satisfactorily,” said Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Committee for Labor Israel, “we should let the dust settle” from the Meretz USA vote “and then begin to look at the issues.”

While he supports Meretz USA’s membership application, Goodman said, he believes the issue is “being overblown by some groups.”

Wolnek said he doesn’t think major reforms are needed.

“I personally do not believe on a conceptual basis that there’s a problem, but on a procedural basis I think that there are some areas that can be cleaned up” to clarify voting procedures, he said, without giving specific examples.

But in an overall sense, Wolnek said, the conference “works” and represents the Jewish community well.

“When you’re in an organization with 52 organizations, Jewish organizations in particular, everybody feels a little uncomfortable because the consensus is never ‘exactly what I want.’ “

Rosenblum, however, told JTA the conference calls will continue.

“It wasn’t a one-shot discussion,” he said. “We are having another conference call to talk about this, and it’s ongoing.”

One source said the next call is scheduled for Thursday.

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