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Presidents Conference Narrows Field to Three Finalists for Chairman

April 6, 2001
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Finalists are emerging in the race to head a powerful American Jewish organization whose leader is seen in many parts of the world as the “king of the Jews.”

Candidates to replace Ronald Lauder as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — an umbrella organization of 54 groups — reportedly were whittled from eight to three after interviews this week.

Lauder, a cosmetics magnate, philanthropist and former U.S. ambassador to Austria, finishes his two-year term in June.

The eight candidates were Howard Berkowitz, the past chairman of the Anti- Defamation League; Leonard Cole, the chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Richard Heideman, the president of B’nai B’rith International; Irwin Hochberg, the national campaign chairman of Israel Bonds; Lonny Kaplan, the past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; Philip Meltzer, the president of ARZA/World Union; Stephen Wolnek, the president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; and Morton Zuckerman, the honorary president of the American-Israel Friendship League.

The identity of the three finalists is being kept secret, but a number of Conference members and outside observers told JTA that Zuckerman — a real estate magnate and the publisher of U.S. News & World Report and New York Daily News — is the favorite.

Elections must be held by June 1, and the new chairman will take office in July.

The Presidents Conference and pro-Israel AIPAC lobby are viewed by the White House and State Department as the leading voices of American Jewry.

The Presidents Conference has even greater clout abroad, where many people believe the Jewish community has vast power and influence.

Such a perception can work in the Jews’ favor, as nations trying to curry favor with the United States view the Conference as a central address on the road to improved relations with Washington.

Nevertheless, the Conference is relatively unknown among American Jews.

According to a recent poll of 1,002 American Jews, only 20 percent were familiar with the Conference. Meanwhile, 95 percent were familiar with Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and 94 percent with the Anti-Defamation League.

Still, the Conference does little to discourage the impression that its chairman speaks for American Jewry.

Founded in 1955, the Conference’s stated mission is “to strengthen the U.S.- Israel alliance and to protect and enhance the security and dignity of Jews abroad.”

In an effort to project U.S. Jewish consensus, Conference membership spans the religious and political spectrum.

Those involved say myriad factors go into the selection of a chairman, ranging from the candidate’s ideology to his or her political access. Also important is the size of the group he or she represents and how long it has been since that group held the chairmanship.

But observers assert that one factor outweighs the others: the personal preference of the Conference’s executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, who runs the organization on a day-to-day basis.

Admirers and detractors alike credit Hoenlein with greatly raising the Conference’s profile during his 14 years as executive vice chairman.

His critics — most of whom are unwilling to speak on the record for fear of antagonizing Hoenlein — note the enormous power Hoenlein has accumulated, his rightward-leaning views on Israel and his influence on Conference positions.

Hoenlein also has helped shape a chairman selection process that critics say is not free and fair.

Candidates for the chairmanship are proposed by member organizations, then interviewed by a seven-member nominating committee.

Lauder appoints the nominating committee members, with significant input from Hoenlein, observers say. Once the committee has settled on a choice for chairman, the candidate is presented to the full Conference for a public vote by a show of hands.

“It is ironic that a Jewish community that is so in love with democracy generally chooses its leaders by such essentially undemocratic means,” one Conference member said.

In this case, observers say, Hoenlein’s choice is Zuckerman.

Hoenlein, who has no vote in the selection, said he does not have a favorite among the candidates and denied that he runs the show.

“There is no one person or group that can control this process,” he told JTA. “The committee by its structure is diverse and independent, and its discussions are very intense. And the sad part is, each of the candidates really would be a wonderful chairman.”

Observers say Zuckerman is conservative, wealthy and well-known within Washington circles — a plus for a Conference chairman. Yet his candidacy may be problematic for at least two reasons.

The first is his personal life.

Zuckerman has been a front-runner for chairman in the past, but essentially was disqualified when it was learned he was married to a non-Jew.

Traditional groups in the Conference say it is one thing for a Jew married to a gentile to lead an individual organization, but not an umbrella organization that purports to represent all American Jewry.

Since then, Zuckerman has split with his wife.

That may make him more “kosher” this time around, some Conference members said.

Still, the circumstances of Zuckerman’s private life may still play a role, said Julius Berman, a former Conference chairman and honorary president of the Orthodox Union.

If the end of Zuckerman’s relationship with a gentile wife “reflects a change of attitude toward intermarriage, that issue would be totally eliminated from his candidacy,” said Berman, who is not on the nominating committee but is a respected voice in the Conference. “But if it is just a breakdown in relations and his attitude toward intermarriage remains the same, that might still be a problem.”

Zuckerman could not be reached for comment.

The second critical issue is Zuckerman’s political outlook.

Zuckerman often devotes his weekly political column in the U.S. News magazine to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also may have an influence on the editorial writers at the Daily News.

A cardinal rule of the Presidents Conference is to pledge full support to any democratically elected government in Israel.

Lauder seemed to run afoul of that rule in January. Despite resistance from left-leaning Conference members, Lauder spoke “as an individual” at a rally for a united Jerusalem.

The media identified Lauder as Conference chairman and depicted the rally as opposing the policies of Ehud Barak, Israel’s then-prime minister.

Some observers now wonder what would happen if, say, Zuckerman disagreed with a resumption of peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, or if he disagreed with concessions Sharon offered.

Would Zuckerman voice those opinions in his column? If the Daily News editorials expressed them, would people see Zuckerman’s fingerprints?

“These are all issues the nominating committee has or will address,” Hoenlein said.

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