Leadership Controversy Plagues Pro-Israel Umbrella Organization

Leadership Controversy Plagues Pro-Israel Umbrella Organization

April 27, 2020 in Jewish World, Latest, Politics
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1. Coronavirus aside, Jewish groups are back to infighting

In the alphabet soup that is the Jewish organizational world, it’s almost impossible to keep track of all the groups, their acronyms and what distinguishes one from another. And then, as if to complicate things even more, there are umbrella groups that bring together coalitions of Jewish organizations that share a common cause.

Key to these umbrella organizations is the group with the most cumbersome name, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, which, befitting of its name, gathers the presidents of Jewish groups. Some of them are major groups, some used to be major and some can barely qualify as minor groups.

Under the umbrella of the Conference of Presidents, these 50 plus organizations present a more or less agreed upon platform on Israel-related policy, so that U.S. officials in the executive branch, as well as foreign governments, have a one-stop address when dealing with the Jewish community on issues relating to Israel.

All this is to say that you shouldn’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of the Conference of Presidents or never really understood what it does.

What is important is the debate the group is engulfed in now.

Here’s a quick summary:

On Tuesday, members of the Conference of Presidents will vote on the approval of Dianne Lob as the next chairwoman of the organization, a two-year position that would make her the group’s top lay leader. Initially, she was supposed to take office immediately upon approval, but a last-minute change will make Lob chair-elect for the next year, after which she will assume the chairmanship—more on that later. 

Lob is a businesswoman and a well-respected leader in the Jewish community. In her previous public capacity, she served as chair of HIAS, the Jewish immigration and refugee resettlement organization.

And this is where the story begins.

HIAS has been at odds with President Donald Trump and is known for criticizing his anti-immigration policies, his decision to drastically cut the number of refugees America is willing to resettle, and his policies toward asylum seekers entering through the U.S.-Mexican border.

This could seem par for the course. After all, HIAS is a pro-immigration group, and Trump is an anti-immigration president.

But for some Jewish groups and activists on the right, the choice of a former HIAS leader to chair the Conference of Presidents is anything but reasonable.

Here’s a quick selection of their reactions:

The Zionist Organization of America argued that HIAS is “not a Jewish organization” and accused the group, which helps resettle refugees, including Muslim refugees, of “collaborating” with “anti-Semitic UN agencies” and with Muslim groups.

Frank Gaffney, Executive Chairman of the Center for Security Policy, a right-wing anti-Muslim think tank based in Washington DC, described Lob as an “anti-Zionist, pro-Sharia-supremacist.”

Other members of right-of-center Jewish groups accused the Conference of Presidents of violating its own bylaws by nominating Lob.

As should be expected, the choice of Lob for chair of the Conference won praise from liberal groups, as well as mainstream activists who argued that while HIAS has clear differences with Trump over immigration policies, Lob’s positions on Israel are in line with the consensus within the Jewish organizational world.

2. Lessons from the latest controversy

Why should you care about all this?

In general, there is no need to lose sleep, especially in these challenging times, over the question of who will be the next chair of the Conference, or over yet another round of mudslinging between the ZOA’s Morton Klein and the Jewish communal establishment.

But there may be a few valuable takeaways from this debate.

First, and most obvious, it shows how ugly and polarized internal Jewish politics have become. A century-old immigration group that fought for the right to provide a safe homeland for Jews fleeing the horrors of pogroms and the Holocaust is now being chastised as an enemy by the grandchildren of the same Jews it advocated for. A Jewish lay leader who had never made a controversial comment in her career in the communal world is painted as a radical, unworthy of serving American Jews. Or, to put it in broader terms: In the current Jewish communal discourse, being anti-Trump is automatically interpreted as being anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic. And these aren’t marginal voices. The people making these accusations represent a significant swath of the Jewish communal world.

A second takeaway has to do with the choice of Lob and the willingness of the Conference to fight for her.

Throughout the years, the Conference of Presidents has demonstrated its political savviness by not only managing (albeit with great difficulties) to keep a broad spectrum of Jewish views under one umbrella but also by making sure their top lay leaders are in tune with the current political winds both in Washington and within the Jewish community. The group has chosen chairs who were close to the sitting president (think, for example, of Alan Solow, an Obama ally selected to head the Conference after the 2008 election) or aligned with their views, all while making sure all forces within the Jewish world get represented, according to the communal weight they carry.  

So why choose Lob now?

It could be a sign of how the Conference, perhaps a result of new thinking brought about by its new CEO William Daroff, sees the current Jewish American mindset: liberal, deeply concerned about Trumps’ policies, leaning to the left. The Conference is known to be hawkish on Israel and even reject the left-leaning lobby J Street’s membership plea, but by choosing Lob, the group may be trying to right the ship.

Or, it could be a sign that the largest Jewish foreign policy umbrella organization thinks that by 2021, clashing with Trump will no longer be a liability.

But wait. It gets a little more complicated:

In the last-minute twist mentioned above, the Conference of Presidents informed members Sunday of a change in plan: Lob, if approved, will only take office in a year. The current chair, Arthur Stark, will stay on for another year, alongside Lob as chair-elect. “In strategizing ways to forge greater unity in the Conference,” Stark and Lob wrote in their email to members, first reported by Jewish Insider, “we believe it is in the best interest of the forward-looking governance of the Conference to implement a practice that is in place in many organizations, which is to create the role of Chair-Elect.”

This is a bureaucratic compromise designed to satisfy both sides: Liberal groups can still feel they’ve got their pick, but by postponing Lob’s actual ascendence to office, she will only become the group’s chair after the elections. And by then, the political landscape could be very different.

3. A word about Mike Huckabee

High on the list of Lob’s detractors stands former Arkansas governor, presidential candidate, and current evangelical leader Mike Huckabee.

“W/O dispute @realDonaldTrump is best US President ever as ally to @IsraeliPM so why would Conf of Presidents of Jewish Groups nominate anti-Trump Dianne Lob fmrly of HIAS (ties to radical groups) to lead them? Makes NO sense! Hope they reconsider-for their own sake!” Huckabee tweeted last week.

This is clearly not the worst thing anyone has said about Lob or HIAS in the past week, nor the harshest takedown of the Presidents’ Conference’s choice.

But it is different.

Jews fighting against fellow Jews over who will be the Jew heading a Jewish organization that represents the policy goals of the Jewish community is one thing. Opening the debate to others is a different story.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish rye bread,” stated the iconic 1960s ad campaign. And now you don’t have to be Jewish to weigh in on the next chair of the Jewish policy umbrella group.

4. Trump may have forgotten about his peace plan, but Bibi hasn’t

Remember the “deal of the century?”

No one can blame you if not.

Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, drafted by his son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner and rolled out in a White House ceremony on January 28, is collecting dust on desks of leaders in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The plan, which was immediately turned down by the Palestinians, who were not consulted by Kushner, has gone nowhere.

Trump has bigger fish to fry right now. The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 50,000 Americans and devastated the nation’s economy, left very little bandwidth for the administration to deal with other issues. And even before the outbreak, Middle East peacemaking was never a top priority.

But this doesn’t mean the plan is dead.

Well, it is dead as a plan to actually bring peace to the Middle East, but that was pretty much clear from the start. However, for Netanyahu, who has just reached an agreement with his political rivals to head into his fifth term in office, there is one key part of the Trump plan which is very much alive: annexation of the Jordan Valley and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In a conference call with Christian evangelical leaders Sunday, the Israeli prime minister said that in “a couple of months from now,” he’s confident that Trump’s pledge to allow the annexation will be fulfilled, and that Israel “will be able to celebrate another historic moment in the history of Zionism.”

This will complete Netanyahu’s brilliant maneuver: he cherry-picked the parts he liked from Trump’s plan (annexation of settlements and the Jordan Valley), ignored the parts requiring Israeli concessions (since the Palestinians had rejected the plan and Trump won’t push Israel to freeze settlement expansion) and is now on his way to get it all approved by a large majority in Israel, thanks to his newly formed emergency coalition with Blue and White.

5. Will the new Israeli government move forward with the Western Wall compromise?

No, it probably won’t.

It’s true, of course, that Benny Gantz pledged to ensure the advancement of the deal setting up an egalitarian prayer area in the Western Wall. This issue has been a top priority for American Jews, but as the new coalition agreements in Israel are finalized, it is clear that once again the ultra-Orthodox parties will insist on maintaining the current status quo, and that Gantz and his Blue and White party will not put up a fight.

2 Comments
  • Michael Jay Friedman 12:52h, 28 April Reply

    Was it that that the Palestinians “were not consulted by Kushner” or did they choose to participate?

    On HIAS: this posting at least could have mentioned that the organization mostly serves prospective Americans coming from nations with very high rates of anti-Semitism. Pace France, there is a significant issue here, one that this posting elides…

    • Michael Jay Friedman 13:33h, 28 April Reply

      Sorry, above I meant “choose *not* to participate”

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