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February 20, 2020 11:38 am

At Conference of Presidents’ Summit in Jerusalem, Leaders Strive for Consensus in Era of Polarized Politics

avatar by Alex Traiman /

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Photo: YouTube screenshot. – Disagreements, political and religious, have been literally built into the essence of the Jewish people. And some Jewish entities were built to handle such debate and, in fact, join contentious sides together on behalf of world Jewry.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group comprised of 53 diverse organizations from across the religious, ideological and political spectrum, recognizes the difficulties of encouraging Jewish unity. The organization strives to cut through points of disagreement and identify key areas of consensus among American Jewish organizations, particularly in the community’s present struggle to maintain bipartisan support for Israel and fight against a rising tide of violent antisemitism.

The Conference is dealing with a transition in leadership, with executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein handing the baton of leadership after 35 years to newly appointed CEO William Daroff.

In an exclusive interview with Hoenlein and Daroff in Jerusalem, Daroff told JNS that “we have all of the organizations on the left or right from North to South, from Orthodox to conservative to reform sitting around a table. And I am convinced at the end of the day as American Jews, we agree on 80, 85 percent of the issues, and that there’s a lot of space there for us to focus on, to find ways to move the community forward, by focusing on the areas of agreement.”

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He added that the Conference strives to “focus on the benefits that come to the Jewish community through unity, that are far greater in my view than most of the disagreements that we have on everyday issues as a community.”

Hoenlein explained how that works. “We try to offer a platform where this broad spectrum of views can come together, and you know, the religious streams, political streams, ideological streams still sit around one table. It doesn’t mean that it satisfies everybody, but that’s not what consensus means,” Hoenlein told JNS. “It’s not homogeneity; it’s that it’s the bulk of the organizations need to find a common ground in which they agree and build on that and try to create an atmosphere of respect where people’s views can be expressed without fear and intimidation.”

Hoenlein began a process of transition a little more than a year ago to ensure the organization would be well-positioned to represent the needs of the Jewish community moving forward.

“I instituted the transition because I really believe that you plan for the future,” he says. “I invested 35 years in the conference and 50 years leading Jewish organizations, and I always left a structure in place to build for the future.”

The Conference selected Daroff, former senior vice president and director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), to replace Hoenlein in the position of CEO.

Daroff has been working in executive positions within the Jewish communal structure since 2000, and is well-regarded for his ability to find areas of consensus and work with Jewish leaders across religious and political spectrums. He is also one of the Jewish communal world’s top influencers on social media.

Hoenlein, who remains vice chairman of the Conference and who will continue working part-time on antisemitism response and special projects, said that, “the Conference always has had a small staff. We believe that lean is mean. Having William come on and bring his energy, his expertise and everything is really important.”

‘Addressing tensions in the Democratic Party’

Following a trip of 30 delegates to meet with high-ranking government officials in Saudi Arabia, the Conference proceeded to Israel with the largest-ever delegation for its annual week-long leadership summit. Nearly 200 delegates representing the gamut of the Conference’s member organizations are privy to intimate private access, meeting with many of Israel’s highest-ranking officials, including the president, prime minister, Knesset candidates, Knesset speaker, ministers, mayors, media personalities and researchers at Israel’s leading security think-tanks. The group similarly was led on a tour of the Jordan Valley—a strategic region that Israel is preparing to formally annex—by the spokesperson of the Israel Defense Forces.

The access and information the delegates receive enables them to better explain Israeli interests to their constituents, as well as to American political leaders. The Conference works to preserve bipartisan support for Israel, which is growing increasingly difficult in America’s polarized political environment.

Daroff said the Conference tries to ensure “that support for a strong US-Israel relationship continues to stand above that partisan bickering. We are working very hard with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to ensure that support for a strong US-Israel relationship does not just become yet another wedge issue in our political food fight.”

Despite waning support among progressive elements of the Democratic Party, Daroff said that “the fundamentals of the Democratic Party are strong” in their support for Israel. He added that Jewish communal leaders are “engaged at all levels of the Democratic Party, and see the Democratic Party as a safe and secure home for pro-Israel voters.”

Hoenlein said that a relatively small group of radical members of the party, who have come out against bipartisan support for Israel “suck the oxygen out of the room,” and attract the bulk of attention by the media.

Yet he differentiates between the Democratic Party and what has happened within the British Labour Party, which once provided a home for Jewish voters, but over the years has embraced antisemitic tones—embraced by outgoing party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“It’s unlike Corbyn, where you had the leader of a major party who was against us,” noted Hoenlein.

Daroff said the true pulse of the Democratic Party can be seen by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, led the US House of Representatives to pass “by 393 votes out of 435 present, a strong anti-BDS measure.”

Hoenlein added similarly that “the Holocaust education act passed overwhelmingly with Democratic and Republican support. But those bills that enjoy bipartisan support never make headlines. If there is a partisan fight, that’s what gets the attention.”

Responses to antisemitism, BDS

The Conference leaders point out that both Republicans and Democrats have been united in the need to fight against a rising tide of antisemitism.

“Thank God, we are in a place in America where public officials, the government, law enforcement are on our side,” said Daroff.

Hoenlein noted that “the responsibility falls on the non-Jewish community to address this. Jews are the victims.”

Explaining the sudden rise in violent antisemitic attacks, Hoenlein said “it’s not something that just popped up. We’ve seen the progression over time, and there’s no one event that generates it. Antisemitism is present in every society, as is hate. And bigotry in a society isn’t judged by whether they have haters, but how do those in authority deal with it.”

Hoenlein has been encouraged so far by the response. “We’ve seen at the federal, state and local levels real actions and legislative initiatives—laws against BDS in 28 states, laws against antisemitism and the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.”

Still, Hoenlein warns that dealing with antisemitism should not define the Jewish experience in America, stressing that it “can’t become the essence of what it means to be Jewish.”

“We have a positive heritage. We have a glorious heritage,” he said. “We don’t want to see unity coming about because of a negative. We want to see it coming around as a positive.”

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