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Presidents’ Conference at Hub of Jewish Life Through 40 Years

September 5, 1996
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Shoshana Cardin remembers Sept. 12, 1991, vividly. She was then the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which had helped spearhead an "education and advocacy" campaign that day on Capitol Hill for $10 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Israel.

The guarantees, to be used to help resettle Soviet Jewish refugees, became a source of tremendous friction between the Shamir government and Bush administration because of differences over Israeli settlement policy.

And the conference, whose mandate as the organized Jewish community’s most prominent "umbrella body" is to strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance and protect the security of Jews around the world, found itself at dead center of the dispute.

Indeed, the memories of Cardin and some of its other past chairmen, interviewed as the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary, place the conference squarely in the center of recent Jewish history, often even leaving its imprint on that history.

They recount high drama, including the campaign for a speedy U.S. military resupply to Israel during the Yom Kippur War; the all-out but fruitless fight against AWACs sales to Saudi Arabia in 1981; the years-long, hard-won struggle for Soviet Jewish emigration; the challenge of responding to the Jonathan Pollard affair; the effort to reach consensus on the question of Jewish settlements in the territories; and a solidarity mission to Israel during the Iraqi-launched Scud missile attacks in 1991.

Meanwhile, the success of that Sept. 12 campaign evidently surpassed even the expectations of the conference and other organizers, most notably the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. Roughly 1,000 pro-Israel activists converged on Capitol Hill to urge swift passage of legislation authorizing the loan guarantees.

But the day was marred by a conflict between President Bush and the Jewish activists who had gathered in Washington from across the country.

In a hastily called, nationally televised news conference, Bush lashed out at the pro-Israel lobbyists, stunning them.

"The words were really very disturbing," Cardin said. "They seemed to suggest we didn’t have the right to do what we were doing."

Bush subsequently sent a "letter of clarification," which began, "Dear Shoshana." To her surprise, it was reprinted on the front page of The New York Times, replete with the personal salutation.

"The conference, in those years, played a critical role," said Cardin. While its strength varies, depending on the dynamics of U.S.-Israel relationship at a given time, she added, "from the perspective of world governments, it still is a powerful instrument."

"There is a very strong sense in the diplomatic field that the conference is the voice of the organized Jewish community when [it needs] to be convened."

The organization’s title is unwieldy and, sometimes, so is its mandate: to extract and then reflect the Jewish community’s consensus from the discordant notes of its 53-member organizations on a host of mostly international matters of concern to American Jews.

The organization has been attacked and even ridiculed for claiming to represent American Jews when many in the grass roots have never heard of it.

And it is often dismissed as ineffectual because consensus opinion invariably gets watered down on issues where passions run the highest, most obviously on policies related to the Middle East peace process.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, is accustomed to being in the center of storms and easily deflects the criticisms.

"It is true most people don’t know about the conference," said Hoenlein, but that is because "we’re not interested in institutional aggrandizement. We don’t do mass mailings and dinners because we’re not looking to compete with our member-organizations. We want to strengthen them."

"You have to make a choice where you’re going to put your priorities: getting things done or getting credit for it," he said, deep into preparations for the Sept. 10 anniversary celebration gala dinner featuring the Israeli prime minister, the U.S. vice president and a host of other political luminaries.

At the same time, the "consensus factor" does not diminish the conference, he said. "It is what gives us our strength."

Hoenlein, who said the history of the conference reflects the history of the Jewish community’s "political maturation," likened Jewish political power to a muscle.

"If you exercise it properly, you strengthen it. If you abuse it, you damage it."

"The fact that you can go to the [U.S.] government and say, `Look, this is the position of the community, these are the fundamentals upon which we agree’" underlies all the conference’s achievements over the past four decades.

The conference was, in fact, established after then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained that he was being besieged by leaders of various Jewish organizations and wondered whether they could forge a common front with which to approach the U.S. government.

The authority the conference subsequently won as communal spokesman also has made for consistent access to and trusting relations with top echelons of the Israeli government over the years, Hoenlein said.

In spite of efforts to keep them under wraps, the conference’s internal political disputes have at times exploded publicly. The application for membership of Americans For Peace Now in March 1993 stirred unprecedented debate, with opponents charging that APN fell outside the mainstream. Its application ultimately was accepted.

Jacob Stein, who served as chairman from 1972 to 1974, said he believes that the role of the conference "should be the subject of serious discussion within the conference" given historical changes since its inception.

"Israel is militarily secure, economically sound and enjoys international relations with many more countries" than ever before, he said.

Nonetheless, the conference "continues to be a very important body reflecting the consensus of the Jewish community," which has "aided greatly in securing necessary political support from Washington" over the years.

The dramatic highlight of Stein’s tenure was the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. In addition to going to synagogue that day, he recalled, he sent a telegram to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urging a call for a cease- fire, and then, after Nilah, the concluding services, began a series of emergency meetings in New York and Washington that continued over the next few days.

"As late as Monday, we heard the Arabs were in retreat," Stein said, "but then by Tuesday we heard a large part of the Israeli air force was destroyed and realized the tide was beginning to turn against Israel."

An urgent note drafted by Stein and a few other leaders "urging President Nixon to start a resupply effort" was hand-delivered to the president by Detroit- based activist Max Fisher.

People are "still debating the reasons for the delay" of 24 to 48 hours in the resupply, Stein said, adding that when it came it was decisive in "turning the tide of battle."

For Howard Squadron, the most vivid memories of his 1980 to 1982 tenure were around the bitter, unsuccessful fight over the sale of AWACs aircraft to Saudi Arabia, and trying to forge a consensus over the controversial Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982.

"I convinced the community we had to oppose AWACs with all our vigor," fomenting stronger opposition than even Israel was prepared to mount, he recalled.

On Lebanon, he said, "we argued intensely," but in the end, "we had to find a position we could live with and stick to it."

"The conference provided a vehicle for diverse views, for the Jewish community to express itself internally" and then find a way to "support Israel and justify its behavior" within the broader American community.

Squadron bemoaned what he said has been a recent "deterioration" of Jewish community consensus when it comes to matters that can affect Israeli security.

There is no reason for a public Jewish effort to influence the U.S. government against Israeli government policy when "the Israeli government has always been accessible to our viewpoint" privately, he said.

Consensus in the conference cannot always be obtained, said Kenneth Bialkin, citing the divisive issue of Israeli settlements, on which there was "lively debate" during his tenure from 1986 to 1988.

"Within the spectrum of differences we could find places where we could come together," he said.

Nonetheless, Bialkin recalled the controversy he stirred when he took a conference mission that was in Israel to visit the West Bank settlement of Ariel. He was criticized for "expressing a political point of view" by "going beyond the Green Line."

Bialkin said he personally believes in the "right of settlements" and that people living there "show great support for Jewish continuity and Israeli tradition, to say nothing of support for Israel’s security interests."

But, at the time, "I said we weren’t advocating settlements, we were expressing solidarity," expressing support "for the right of Jews to live wherever they want to live."

For Hoenlein, known as an indefatigable worker, the satisfaction of heading the conference is easily and passionately explained.

"This, for me, is the definition of tikkun olam. You make a difference in the world, you do something to make it better."

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