According to legend, it was John Foster Dulles, secretary of state under President Eisenhower and not known as a friend of Israel, who is most responsible for the creation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which celebrated “five decades of leadership and achievement” with a gala dinner attended by 1,200 people at the Waldorf Astoria last week.
Dulles apparently was tired of talking with leaders of various Jewish groups and insisted they unite or he wouldn’t go on meeting with them. The result was the Conference of Presidents, which now lists 51 member groups under its umbrella, and seeks consensus on policy and activism on issues affecting American Jewry, mostly dealing with the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
Unlike AIPAC, with its hundreds of employees and multimillion-dollar budget in lobbying Congress on behalf of Israel, the Conference has a modest budget and miniscule staff, focusing on the executive branch. Its secret ingredient and driving engine for decades is a savvy, dedicated and tireless executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, who was honored last week along with the chairs of the group from the past two decades.
Hoenlein and the Conference, seemingly synonymous, are seen widely as right of center in terms of politics, a perception underscored by the appearance of Pastor John Hagee as one of the speakers at the program, and the choice of, and outburst of applause for, President George W. Bush, the surprise guest who closed out the evening. The former president’s keynote address warned against trusting Iran in upcoming negotiations over its nuclear program.
An upcoming test of the Conference’s politics and perception in the next several months will be whether or not it admits J Street to its ranks. Acceptance requires a two-thirds majority of the membership, which does not seem likely.
The Presidents Conference has its detractors who see it as essentially a one-man organization with a political agenda and not representative of most American Jews. Yet even critics would note that it has become a powerful and effective platform for galvanizing and expressing support for Israel and Jewish causes, with access to the top leaders in the U.S., Israel and countries around the world. The fact that speakers at the gala who praised the Conference and its work included United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as a former deputy prime minister of Iran, a leader of the Egyptian Coptic community and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., underscored the group’s reach and clout. And while it has a number of projects, like its “America’s Voices in Israel” program bringing celebrities to the Jewish state, no doubt its most effective work is behind the scenes, establishing strong ties with world leaders and making Israel’s case in a variety of ways.
With Hoenlein at the helm since 1986, President Bush jokingly observed that the Conference isn’t subject to term limits, like presidents are. It’s difficult to imagine a robust Conference without Hoenlein, a testimony to his energy and skills. American Jewry owes a debt of gratitude to him and the Conference leaders, past and present, facing the challenge of finding consensus in an increasingly contentious Jewish community.