CONFERENCE OF PRESIDENTS OF MAJOR AMERICAN JEWISH ORGANIZATIONS (Presidents Conference). The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was organized in 1955 out of a growing awareness that unified action by major American Jewish organizations was essential to help strengthen American support for the state of Israel, which equated with strengthening peace and stability in the Middle East. Of all American Jewish organizations, the Presidents Conference has the highest visibility in the American media, a stature not unchallenged by other Jewish organizations such as the ADL and which is also challenged in Washington, where AIPAC is viewed as the powerful and successful key to American support for Israel. It meets on a regular basis for the purpose of receiving briefings from Israeli and American government officials, the contents of which are useful for the leadership and constituents of member organizations; and offers a number of substantive programs. The Presidents Conference carries the message of the government of Israel and the American Jewish community to the administration in Washington on Israel-related issues and on international matters, and vice versa. It is the address for foreign leaders who want to address American Jewish leadership and is often employed as a forum for improving relationship with the American Jewish community, which is often perceived as essential to improving relationship with the American government by foreign leaders.
There were multiple factors at work in the genesis of the Presidents Conference. The Israeli government was eager to have a table at which it could present its concerns and discuss them with the American Jewish community; the U.S. State Department, under Secretary John Foster Dulles, was not happy with the idea of many Jewish organizations coming to it with messages from the Jewish community, and was therefore receptive to the idea of a single instrumentality with which it would relate, and which would represent the multiplicity of Jewish agencies. Additionally,
, who was also president of the
*World Jewish Congress
(which had no real base in the United States other than the
*American Jewish Congress
, which did not really serve as a vehicle for the WJC),
wanted more of a voice on the American scene. Goldmann wanted a body that could coordinate and regulate the contacts of Zionist leaders with the State Department and handle political discussions surrounding Israel with American leaders. Goldmann played a key role, together with
, at that time the president of B'nai B'rith, in the creation of the Presidents Conference.
Other factors that were instrumental in the creation of the Conference of Presidents included the facts that Israel-related issues were not, at the time, priorities on the agenda of the National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC, later NJCRAC), and that there was no community-relations vehicle that embraced the Zionist organizations, which were not members of the NCRAC.
The essential question – who speaks for the Jews of America? – was not answered fully by the creation of the Conference of Presidents; but the Conference was perceived by the Administration as the authorized voice of the Jewish community on Israel.
As early as 1951 a small group of American Jewish leaders, at the urging of Israeli official
, in a communication to Nahum Goldmann, began meeting with key Israeli officials for briefings and consultations. In 1955 a number of major organizations called a national conference in Washington on American-Israel relations. Thereafter the leaders and staff members of these organizations began to confer on a regular basis. An organizational structure developed and the Conference of Presidents was formally established in 1959. The 15 founding member organizations included eight Zionist groups, plus a number of "defense," religious, and fundraising agencies. The mandate of the Presidents Conference, as originally defined, is to act as a spokesman (not a policy-making body) on behalf of the American Jewish community to the American Administration on Israel. (The mandate was expanded in the mid-1960s to include other international issues as well.)
Originally the Conference was more of a "Presidents' Club" than a "conference," reflecting the views of Philip Klutznick, the powerful lay head of B'nai B'rith (the largest Jewish membership organization at that time), who was against a formal centralized, binding organization; he wanted an informal structure, "a forum for presidents to debate …matters pertaining to Israel." Before too long, however, the body became a formal Conference, with by-laws and procedures. In 1966, the Conference became a body of constituent organizations, rather than of presidents of organizations. During the same year it also decided to establish and maintain ongoing contacts with world Jewish bodies to facilitate the exchange of information, opinions, and ideas.
As of 2005, the Conference membership consisted of 51 national Jewish organizations – Zionist, "defense," and community-relations, social-service, religious, and fundraising – whose members collectively represent the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community of the United States. The Conference of Presidents seeks to develop consensus for collective action on issues of national and international Jewish concern. It endeavors to enhance the work of its member organizations to strengthen U.S.-Israel understanding, to assist Israel and to assure the physical safety and rights of Jews and Jewish communities overseas.
For the most part the Presidents Conference is not responsible for the deliberative process of shaping strategy on public-policy issues facing Israel. This process is a function of the range of the community relations and "defense" agencies, religious bodies, and Zionist organizations. The Conference's primary role, that of a spokesperson, is to present to the Administration the public face of the American Jewish community and of Israel.
The Conference also serves as the representative body to which officials of the Executive and Legislative branches of the American government, Israeli leaders, and foreign heads of state turn in dealing with issues of mutual concern. Leaders of Jewish communities in other lands and a wide variety of prominent personalities also appear before the Conference.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Presidents Conference languished until the Six-Day War. In fact, the conference was launched at a time during which the Eastern Bloc began shipping heavy arms to Egypt, and arms sales became an issue for the first time. Activity of fedayeen across Israel's borders was also of increasing concern for the Jewish community and was on the Conference's agenda. The 1956 Sinai Campaign, and the need to respond to the threat of sanctions from the White House, was the first critical issue facing the Presidents Conference. The Conference, together with the NCRAC (NJCRAC), convened regional conferences around the country during those years. Over the years, the Presidents Conference has remained a significant vehicle for the Israeli government to communicate, through the American Jewish community speaking with one voice, with the Administration.
The Conference's activities and accomplishments have focused on building a broad-based educational program in support of the principle that a militarily strong, politically secure, and economically sound Israel is in the best interest of the United States and of world peace. During the period of the Six-Day War the Conference convened a mass rally in support of Israel opposite the White House. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, the Conference worked vigorously in support of the United States resupplying Israel. With the new
government in Israel in 1977 – overturning three decades of familiar
rule – the Conference President, Rabbi
, who was informed by a politically liberal philosophy, was nonetheless able to establish a cordial relationship – personally and professionally – with Prime Minister
, and was an instrument in the process of gaining public acceptance in the Jewish community of the new government. Following Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem, the Conference undertook numerous activities to keep up the peace momentum – including acceptance of the first invitation to an American Jewish organization to meet in Egypt with President Sadat
and other top Egyptian leaders. Throughout the 1980s the Conference opposed the sale of sophisticated arms to Arab countries at war with Israel. It worked to guarantee the rights of Jews in the former Soviet Union to emigrate and practice their religious faith and cultural heritage, and it continues to monitor the resurgence of antisemitism in the former Soviet Union and parts of Europe. The Conference also had a role in the rescue of Ethiopian, Syrian, and Yemenite Jews and other endangered Jewish communities.
The Conference worked for the rescinding of the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, which was reversed in 1991, as well as in countering the Arab economic boycott of Israel. The Conference was a leader in the successful effort to secure $10 billion in loan guarantees for Israel in 1992 over the opposition of President George H.W. Bush, who portrayed himself as overwhelmed by the activism of Jewish groups on the issue – a manifest display, suggested Bush, of the power of the Jewish "lobby." Since the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, the Conference has undertaken a significant program of activities in regard to the Middle East process. As there were deep internal divisions within the organized Jewish community regarding Oslo, which was indeed a revolution, the Presidents Conference was slow to act. Dovish critics faulted the Israeli Labor government for bypassing the Presidents Conference as it did not require its enthusiastic support. The American Jewish community overwhelming supported Oslo, with the noted exception of the Orthodox community.
Other priority issues before the Conference from the mid-1990s into the 21st century are terrorism in the United States and abroad, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Islamic fundamentalism, support for foreign aid, promoting tourism to and trade with Israel, strengthening the bond between American Jews and Israel, and global antisemitism.
On the "Who-is-a-Jew?" question – a successive iteration of issues that has generated divisions in the American Jewish polity – the Presidents Conference over the years studiously avoided any involvement in the issue; indeed, the Conference avoided discussion of the issue within its deliberative process. This issue was particularly sensitive for Orthodox groups in the Conference, who viewed "Who is a Jew?" as an effort by the non-Orthodox/secular camp in Israel to chip away at the hegemony of the Chief Rabbinate in "personal-status" and other matters. The view of the Conference of Presidents leadership was that, as an organization that promoted Jewish unity, having on the agenda an issue that caused painful divisions would compromise that mission.
In the 21st century the salient issues for the Conference – international terrorism, global antisemitism, the Palestinian dilemma and the peace process in Israel, Jewish communities outside the United States and Israel – have been increasingly addressed via programmatic initiatives, which had not been the case in earlier years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s some "defense" agencies felt that the Conference was moving too aggressively in functional areas rather than limiting its activities to spokesmanship and coordination. Withal, the core function of the Conference has remained one of articulating a consensus position of its member organizations. When the organization is riven with strife it cannot achieve a consensus and results can be quite embarrassing. Such was the case with regard to the response to the assassination of Israel Prime Minister
by a religious Israeli opposed to the peace process, and with the Oslo accords. Condemnation of the assassination was fine but no consensus could be achieved on supporting the policies of the elected government of Israel. Similarly, in 2005 there was a great reluctance, because of internal political differences and the pull of right-wing and religious-nationalist organizations, to support the withdrawal from Gaza, and the support of the Presidents Conference was lukewarm at best.
Among the programs of the Presidents Conference in 2005 were the Daily Alert, a news summary on the Middle East; Israel Campus Beat, a weekly e-mail for the university community on Israel-related issues; Secure Community Alert Network (SCAN), an integrated rapid-response system for emergency communications; and Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a refugee advocacy arm.
In 2005 the budget of the Presidents Conference was $2 million. The chairman of the Conference of Presidents is chosen on a rotational basis, with a two-year term of office the norm. In order to be eligible for the chairmanship, an individual must have been president of his or her organization within the past three years. In 2005 James S. Tisch was the chairman of the Conference of Presidents. Chairmen have been widely regarded as the spokespersons for American Jews during their tenure in office. Several were particularly effective; others relied upon staff to lead. Malcolm Hoenlein has served as executive vice chairman since 1986. Hoenlein, who had been executive of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, is considered one of the more canny, aggressive, and creative American Jewish professional leaders. He was preceded by Yehuda Hellman, a career professional, who served from 1959 to 1986. The staff is small, and the membership base is organizational and not individual. There has therefore been considerable leeway for a single able professional leader, such as Hoenlein, to shape the organization
The following is a list of the member organizations of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in 2005:
America Israel Friendship League
American Friends of Likud
American Gathering/Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors
American Israel Public Affairs Committee
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
American ORT, Inc.
American Sephardi Federation
American Zionist Movement
Americans for Peace Now
Association of Reform Zionists of America/World
Union North America
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America
Development Corporation for Israel
Emunah of America
Friends of Israel Defense Forces
Hadassah, Women's Zionist Organization of America
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
Jewish Community Centers Association
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs
Jewish National Fund
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.
Jewish Women International
Joint Distribution Committee
Labor Zionist Alliance
Mercaz USA, Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement
National Committee for Labor Israel
NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia
National Council of Jewish Women
National Council of Young Israel
Rabbinical Council of America
Religious Zionists of America
Union of American Hebrew Congregations
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
United Jewish Communities
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Women of Reform Judaism
Women's American ORT
Women's League for Conservative Judaism
Workmen's Circle / Jewish Labor Committee
World Zionist Executive, U.S.A.
Zionist Organization of America
Significantly enough, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a defense, research, and advocacy organization with membership and regional operations, does not appear on the list; and for many years the American Jewish Committee did not join the President's Conference, but retained observer status. The American Jewish Committee traditionally viewed itself as a non-Zionist organization whose priorities were centered on the domestic American agenda. In 1991, with international affairs holding primacy of place on AJC's agenda, the agency joined the Conference.
Several organizations, most recently Meretz U.S.A., have been rejected for membership. Reasons offered for rejection identify membership, budget, and regionalization criteria. But critics suspect a political agenda.