By Fred Zeidman
HOUSTON — Growing up in Wharton, Texas, I learned three lessons about being Jewish from my parents: We were obligated to do everything within our power to support the State of Israel. Jewish unity is of critical importance. And all leadership starts at home.
Our strength as a Jewish people lies in our willful acts of solidarity even in the face of disagreement. But recently, disagreement within one of our most important American Jewish institutions has spilled out into the public forum, undermining our sacred work.
After electing Dianne Lob to serve as board chair, a public controversy led to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voting overwhelmingly for current board chair Arthur Stark to remain in his position until April 2021.
It is no secret that there are people of good faith on many sides of every issue within the Conference of Presidents, and that robust discussions and disagreements are common. The fact that the Conference of Presidents includes the full spectrum of American Jewish opinion is key to its critical and indispensable role for American Jewry, and indeed for Jews everywhere.
For decades I have been involved in the leadership of a veritable alphabet soup of Jewish organizations. While I have not always agreed with everyone else in the room, once a decision was made, I believed it was my duty as a member to keep my grievances in-house. We must support Dianne Lob and the rest of the leadership as they direct the Conference of Presidents in its important work.
The Conference of Presidents was created in response to President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ declaration that he would only deal with one Jewish organization and not a multitude who had different — and sometimes opposing — views.
Typical of our ingenuity, we created the Conference of Presidents, composed of the leaders of those same organizations. Out of many, we made one.
Over its history, the Conference of Presidents has engaged both American and global leaders to discuss the most critical issues facing world Jewry, anti-Semitism and American policy toward the State of Israel. The Conference of Presidents successfully fulfills this role as one entity — even as its members may vigorously disagree internally on particular policies. With today’s fractious political climate in the United States, we often forget that our political opponents can also be our brothers and sisters in arms on the causes we all care about.
When we take our internal squabbles outside of the Conference of Presidents forum, we endanger the organization’s ability to represent our Jewish community. Conference of Presidents members would be hampered in deliberating honestly and openly if they fear that their words will be used against them or that their viewpoint will be vilified externally.
The critical role of the Conference of Presidents is jeopardized if its members do not honor the rules of deliberation as they attack each other or undermine each other’s organizations. The more we drag these disagreements into the spotlight, the more we damage American Jewry as a whole.
The Conference of Presidents’ relevance and importance has grown exponentially from its founding in the 1950s. When Jews around the world are in danger — when they are jailed by authoritarian regimes or threatened by anti-Semitism — the first call is to the Conference of Presidents. It is this umbrella group’s leadership who works behind the scenes tirelessly to protect and save Jewish lives.They leverage relationships across the community to make a difference. These same leaders work with the American administration to understand the plight of Jews and the State of Israel, as well as sharing insights on America with the Israeli government.
One of the most foundational obligations of the Torah is the mitzvah of “ahavat Yisrael,” the love for one’s fellow Jews. I personally have seen how the Conference of Presidents forges ties with key leaders around the world and acts silently to support and protect our brothers and sisters. As leaders representing organizations within the Conference of Presidenets, we must put aside our differences and remember the important role that we all play in supporting the Jewish people. Our disagreements should only make us stronger, not weaken and divide us.
Fred Zeidman is co-chairman of the Council for a Secure America.
—JTA News and Features