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Presidents Conference Rejects Two Left-wing Groups; Some Claim Bias

December 20, 2002
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The umbrella group of American Jewry is under fire from several member organizations over its rejection of two prospective members.

On Tuesday night, Meretz USA and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association were denied membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Several members are now blasting the vote. Some claim the conference’s membership standards are unfair; others say the left-leaning groups were rejected because, they claim, the supposedly neutral conference actually leans to the right.

“I think the conference” leadership “really doesn’t want us on board,” said Charney Bromberg, executive director of Meretz USA, which is affiliated with the left-wing Meretz Party in Israel.

Conference leaders say ideology played no role in either the negative recommendation from the conference’s membership committee or the eventual vote by the full conference.

“None of the leadership has a vote in the committee or the conference,” one conference leader said. “The political issues never once came up in the discussions of the committee,” and the final vote was not along party lines.

The committee recommended rejecting Meretz USA because its budget and membership were deemed too small for the Conference of Presidents.

Yet several groups said the vote shows the need for updated, more uniform membership standards.

A seat on the conference means membership in the representative body of American Jewry, which takes policy positions on major issues of Jewish concern and advocates for those issues in Washington and abroad.

Membership is determined by a variety of factors, including organizational structure, purpose and size.

On Wednesday, Stephen Wolnek, chair of the conference’s membership committee, told JTA that final results showed that Meretz’s application was rejected by a vote of 15 in favor and 16 against, with three abstentions.

The RRA received 31 votes in favor, with two against and one abstention, Wolnek said.

Thirty-four votes in favor are necessary to be accpeted into the conference.

The Labor Zionist Alliance initially challenged the vote, saying it did not appear that the meeting had the necessary quorum of 34 organizations.

However, the group accepted the results of a conference inquiry that showed more than 34 organizations on hand Tuesday, though not all cast votes.

The results of the vote will be officially announced at the membership committee’s next meeting, slated for the summer.

Tuesday’s vote marked the first time in three years that the conference voted on new members.

The vote was taken after the membership committee formally recommended endorsing the RRA’s bid for adjunct membership, which gives a group access to certain events but no voting rights.

Meretz USA first applied for membership nearly five years ago, according to Bromberg, and Tuesday was its chance to appeal earlier rejections.

Meretz USA is a public advocacy and educational organization promoting civil rights in Israel and a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

The membership committee is composed of a dozen Jewish leaders representing a broad slice of the conference — whose 52 members span the gamut of Jewish political and religious affiliation — but some left-wing groups say Tuesday’s vote was partisan.

One conference leader denied any ideological bias.

While committee members voted against Meretz, most voted for the left-leaning RRA — so “how can you say it’s political?” he asked.

Conference members appeared especially shocked that the RRA’s application had been rejected.

“In my opinion, there was no reason for them not to be accepted,” Wolnek said. “All I can really say is the committee recommended their acceptance, but they didn’t get enough votes. I know that sounds trite, but that’s really what it’s all about.”

The RRA’s executive director, Rabbi Richard Hirsh of Philadelphia, said he had not yet received an official response to the RRA’s application, which was first presented in 1999.

“I wouldn’t have a clue what would be the reasoning” for being rejected, he said.

For many conference members, Tuesday night’s vote highlighted membership standards that they consider unfair. Several member groups are comparable in size to Meretz but have even less influence, conference members said.

“Either it will be an organization of major Jewish organizations with a definition on which we will all agree, or not,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“Meretz, in comparison to many other members of the conference, absolutely has a right to be represented there,” he said.

However, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said that Meretz “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.”

Meanwhile, Wolnek said the close vote on the RRA made him “uncomfortable,” and he encouraged the group to reapply.

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