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Bialkin, New Presidents Conference Head, Sees Organization As ‘ongoing Body’

June 21, 1984
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Kenneth Bialkin, the chairman-elect of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, does not anticipate any dramatic or significant changes in the functions and methods employed by the umbrella group of 38 national Jewish organizations of which he will assume the chairmanship next month.

Describing the Presidents Conference as “an on going body,” Bialkin said yesterday that “a change in the chairman doesn’t mean one era has ended and a new one begins. The conference has an established role and position as the place where the Jewish consensus opinion is developed and articulated.”

The 54-year-old Bialkin, a senior partner in the prestigious New York law firm of Willkie Farr and Gallagher and national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, will succeed Julius Berman, the president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, when he completes his second one year term as chairman of the Conference on June 30.


Interviewed in his law office in the Citicorp Building by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Bialkin said: “The objective of the conference is to represent from a consensus basis the organized American Jewish community” and to be effective in communicating a position on issues at hand in the general area of Israel-U.S. relations.

“That means,” Bialkin continued, “that we try to relate to the American government … to provide advice and consultation whenever asked to do so.” Speaking in measured terms, he added, “It would not be very effective and possibly chaotic” if the 38 Jewish secular and religious groups comprising the Conference “each tried to do the same thing with a slightly different resonance.”

While the Conference does attempt, and generally succeeds in speaking in one unified voice, the ADL chairman also pointed out that no group within the Conference “surrenders its independence or sovereignty in its ability to act” on an individual basis.

On the relationship between the Conference and Israel, Bialkin maintained that the Conference will seek to assist in relations between the American Jewish community and Israel as well as in the relationship between Israel and the U.S. government, “by way of mediation or consultation.” He added: “Our objective is to permit the communities to fulfill each others objectives.”

A familiar face in conference meetings over the past years with Administration officials such as Vice President George Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz, Bialkin noted that the change in chairmanship at the Conference is “not abrupt” and will not affect the continuity of the organization.

With regard to dealing with the Administration in Washington, Bialkin stressed that the “multiplicity and diversity” of the American Jewish population cannot lead any one group to claim to speak or represent all of American Jewry.

“But to the extent that American Jews come together in organizations who represent them, the Conference reflects those Jews who care enough to be represented. And to the extent that those organizations come together in consensus … it more nearly represents the opinion of American Jewry more than anything else, “Bialkin explained.

“If you’re asking whether the Conference represents the opinion of every American Jew,” he said, “obviously not. But I have no reason to think that the statements generally coming out of the consensus of the Conference does not substantially represent the American Jewish community.”

The Conference stresses those areas where a consensus can be achieved, he said. “Where there is no consensus the Presidents Conference does not act.” Its informational role, he continued, aids those parties interested in knowing where the organized American Jewish community’s opinion is situated on specific issues.

Asked whether the Conference maintains any “real political strength, ” Bialkin asserted that the Conference does not seek to influence votes, nor does it seek to exercise political power. “We seek to have our views communicated and expressed. If our views have any influence then I think that’s entirely appropriate. We are not politically identified. We don’t support or oppose candidates in the general sense. That’s not our function,” he maintained.

One new initiative Bialkin may pursue is an attempt to “reach out to the unaffiliated Jew in the United States.” He indicated that he will try to attract to the Conference those elements of the Jewish community that may not now be participating. “I think that by doing that you tend to strengthen not only the Conference and the voice we have, but may also tend to give a greater sense of participation to groups that have not joined with us,” he said.

Bialkin, between his work for the ADL and his law practice, has also been an adjunct professor at the New York University School of Law for the past 16 years. He is a member of the Municipal Assistance Corporation for the City of New York and first vice president of the New York County Lawyer’s Association.

He is a trustee at large of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York and vice chairman and a director of the Jerusalem Foundation established by Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and former editor of the Business Lawyer, and served for five years as chairman of the Federal Regulation of Securities Committee of the American Bar Association.

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