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Conference of Presidents declares new leadership structure amid opposition to incoming chair

The announcement notes that “creating the Chair-elect role enhances the effectiveness of the transition.” So far, the transition to a new chairperson has been anything but smooth or effective.

Outgoing Conference of Presidents chair Arthur Stark and incoming chair-elect Dianne Lob.
Outgoing Conference of Presidents chair Arthur Stark and incoming chair-elect Dianne Lob.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

In a new twist to the controversial nomination of former HIAS chair Dianne Lob as the new chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Conference executive has announced that Lob will first serve for one year in a newly created chair-elect post before becoming chair in 2021. The announcement was made one day prior to a vote scheduled to confirm Lob’s original nomination.

As part of the last-minute reshuffle, outgoing chairman Arthur Stark’s term will be extended by one year. The addition of a chair-elect to the Conference executive will be a permanent change to the executive’s transition procedures.

An announcement signed by both Stark, whose extension beyond the established two-year term limit has yet to be confirmed, and Lob, who has yet to be voted-in as either chair or chair-elect, claimed that a “Process and Procedures committee unanimously endorsed creating a Chair-elect position and that the Executive Council unanimously endorsed the proposal.”

The announcement notes that “creating the Chair-elect role enhances the effectiveness of the transition.” Thus far, the transition from Stark to a new chairperson has been anything but smooth or effective.

The nomination of Lob was contested within the Conference’s own Nominating Committee, and many representatives of the Conference’s 53-member organizations told JNS that they were unaware of Lob’s candidacy prior to the announcement of her nomination. In advancing the surprise candidacy, opponents of the nomination (including JNS publisher Joshua Katzen, who is a member organization representative) cited numerous violations of both the letter and the spirit of the Conference’s 25-page bylaws.

Earlier this week, Stark authored a letter to the membership stating that the rules of the nominating process “were rigorously followed by the Nominating Committee,” adding that “it was a deliberate process that followed the same sequence as previous years, other than the meetings and interviews taking place via video, due to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The creation of the new post, announced just one day prior to the general meeting, appears to be a new violation of the bylaws, which note that “except for agenda items that arise because of sudden need, all items for discussion must be circulated at least seven days in advance of a Conference meeting.”

The extension of Stark’s term for a third year is also outside the bylaws, which state explicitly that “the term of the chairman will be limited to two consecutive one-year terms.” The Conference has extended a Chair’s term on at least two prior occasions with the permission of its member organizations.

The announcement of the nomination and subsequent backlash has occurred amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak, which has struck the large Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey particularly hard. Rather than pushing through the candidacy of a controversial new chair, opponents argue, the Conference should delay the vote and instead focus itself on assisting the Jewish community’s response to the pandemic.

Opponents of the last-minute decision to create a new chair-elect position fear that the Conference could also decide to quickly change additional bylaws, such as widening the scope for which organizations may attain membership, thereby protecting HIAS from a possible ouster.

For years, the Conference has remained a steadfast supporter of Israeli government policy as other better-funded Jewish communal organizations, including the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA), the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), HIAS and others have grown increasingly critical of Israel’s approach to critical issues including the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While other national Zionist organizations have staunchly defended Israeli government policies, few have the mainstream legitimacy of the Conference of Presidents, which represents 53 politically and religiously diverse dues-paying member organizations.

For 35 years, the Conference, under the leadership of former executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, worked to ensure that it was “speaking and acting on the basis of consensus” to fulfill its mission to “strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship and to protect and enhance the security and dignity of Jews at home and abroad.”

The fear is that in advancing the contested nomination of a candidate representing an organization to the far-left of its political spectrum, the Conference may soon join other organizations that have shifted their outlooks further left as well, and ultimately out of line with the center-right policies of the State of Israel—now the largest Jewish community in the world.

This past year, the 75-year-old Hoenlein assumed a part-time vice chairman role, and longtime JFNA executive William Daroff was hired to lead the Conference as CEO. Completing the complicated leadership transition was to be the appointment of a new Conference chair. Yet the controversial appointment and flaunting of the Conference’s extensive bylaws now threaten to erode Hoenlein’s carefully cultivated consensus and for many right-wing Zionists threatens to damage the “dignity” of the Conference.

Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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