The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations leadership mission has arrived in Israel to engage in an annual weeklong conversation with top Israeli leaders. Highlighting the sessions include the top echelons of the Israeli political landscape, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog and senior ministers.
American Jewish leaders from the 53-member organizations of the Conference have unparalleled access when it comes to visiting delegations, indicating the importance that Israeli leaders give to the role these organizations play in strengthening support for Israel among American Jewry, as well as influencing policymakers in the United States.
The mission puts key issues on the table, including differences between an increasingly liberal Jewish communal leadership and a staunchly conservative Israeli coalition that is advancing policies most Israeli voters support, but many American Jewish leaders consider controversial.
Leading the balancing act that the Conference strives to maintain is CEO William Daroff. A veteran American Jewish communal leader, he is fluent in policy issues both in the United States and Israel. It is his job to lead a communal structure that includes Jewish organizations spanning the religious spectrum, including secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist; and politically diverse, including progressive and conservative viewpoints.
Three years ago, Daroff took over the leadership of the Conference from longtime executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, who built the Conference into a political force respected in the United States, Israel and around the world. Daroff, formerly referred to as the “mayor of Jewish social media,” is now tasked with maintaining the relevance of the Conference and uniting disparate forces in an era of political and social divides.
JNS sat down with Daroff as the Conference’s Israel Mission began to discuss the relationship between the American Jewish Communal leadership and the State of Israel, as well as the Conference’s mission this past week to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, where they engaged senior leadership on ways to advance and strengthen the Abraham Accords.
Q: You just led a delegation to the Emirates and to Bahrain. Who did you meet, and what did you learn? And how do trips like this help to expand on the normalization agreements that have already been signed?
A: We had a fabulous mission to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, where we met with the very senior leadership of both countries. Some of the Bahrain meetings they tweeted out, including with the Bahraini foreign minister, defense minister and economic affairs minister. But the other meetings again, with the very senior leadership in both countries, were off the record.
For off-the-record meetings, I would say that across the board there is strong support for deepening and expanding the Abraham Accords. There have been more than half a million Israelis who have traveled to the UAE since the accords were signed. That’s just remarkable.
And literally walking through the streets of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, you hear Hebrew; you see people wearing kippot without there being any sort of issues. And frankly, it’s sad that I felt safer wearing my yarmulke in Dubai than I do in parts of Jerusalem and in some parts of New York City.
There was some concern expressed in both countries about American engagement in the region, particularly stemming from the lackluster American response to the missile and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi in January of last year. And that’s something that we will continue to take up in Washington because U.S. engagement with these allies is incredibly important for the Abraham Accords to move forward. They have to know that America has their back; that America will be there.
We’ve been in discussion with those countries and with the Gulf for years. The Conference of Presidents’ first trip to the Gulf was in 1991. And it’s a relationship that continues to grow and expand. We see their leaders in Washington. We see them in New York. We see them here. In fact, we’ve seen some of them in Tel Aviv. So it’s really growing a relationship and a level of trust where they see that we’re engaged in this to really make two-plus-two equal five.
Q: Now you are here in Israel. Why do you think this Conference mission is as meaningful this year as it has ever been?
A: For 48 years, the Conference of President’s leadership has been coming to Israel to engage on an annual basis with the political and governmental military and civil society leadership of the State of Israel. That’s because it’s important for us to engage together—to have a conversation together as the largest and second-largest Jewish communities in the world, to ensure that we have mutual understanding and a conversation. And so this year’s conversation is as important as any year’s conversation.
For the most part, American Jewry and Israeli Jews stand together. But sometimes, there are detours. Sometimes, there are road bumps. And it’s important that we have these conversations to ensure that we are together focusing on the relevant problems and issues that we engage in.
Q: Do you think that in some way the relations are in more of a crisis than in previous years?
A: I think that there are very important issues in the Israeli body politic that are dividing the Israeli people, and that those issues certainly bleed into the American Jewish community. But I’d say that this is par for the course. I really don’t think we’re in crisis. I think we are at an important juncture. But we’ve been at many important junctures before. And the bottom line is that the relationship between America and Israel is strong. The relationship between American Jewry and Israel and Israeli Jewry is strong. We just need to ensure that together we work to find consensus to find areas of agreement and move forward.
I think the vast majority of Americans are supportive of the State of Israel—full stop, unconditionally. And I think it is incumbent upon us as American Jewish leaders to work with Israeli leadership to ensure that there is understanding and that there is a focus towards finding consensus and bringing people together, rather than dividing. If you look at the foreign-policy issues, we are of one mind when it comes to Iran. We’re of one mind when it comes to Abraham Accords. We’re of one mind when it comes to strong support for the United States, for Israel. And for sure there will be areas where there are disagreements.
Q: In previous years, there were more attendees at the mission. And in particular, many right-leaning veterans of the mission have elected not to come this year. Is there something different about the current direction of the conference?
A: We have more participants this year than last year. We are still in a post-COVID era. And so, there are a number of individuals who are not traveling as often as before. Also, there are a number of organizations that are coming to Israel for the 75th-anniversary celebrations in April.
So the Jewish Federations, the Jewish National Fund, AIPAC and a number of other organizations will be here with missions; there are a number of leaders who aren’t here now because they’re coming in just a few weeks. But if you look at the spread of our member organizations that are here, there’s a pretty good parity between those on the right and those on the left with a strong presence from the centrist organizations in the middle as well.
Q: Many Jewish communal leaders have taken issue with the appointment of high-ranking cabinet ministers from Israel’s right-wing national camp. You have chosen not to invite Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, as well as Knesset member Simcha Rothman, who is leading the process on judicial reform as the head of the Knesset Law Committee. Why did you choose not to provide such access to some of Israel’s most controversial leaders, even though they are directly relevant to the issues the Conference is sure to address?
A: This year, we’re trying to be out of the hotel as much as we can, and so we’re having fewer panels. That being said, we have six members of the government who will be speaking, who are representatives of the key posts that we usually hear from—the prime minister, the defense minister, the foreign minister, the Diaspora affairs minister, the Economic Affairs Minister, and the Minister of Strategic Affairs. There’s only one member of the opposition who is addressing the conference, and that’s the leader of the opposition Yair Lapid.
We are not inviting, as we have during the last four missions, which were all held during election cycles, the leaders of each of the parties. We did not invite Benny Gantz, Gideon Sa’ar, Meirav Michaeli or any of the other party leaders. We will be spending a day at the Knesset as well, and we have invited representatives of every party, including Rothman. Then we’re meeting with two committees: the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and the Immigration and Absorption Committee, which will also have Knesset members that represent the full mosaic of the Israeli political scene. And I have no doubt that the views of the government will be well-represented during our sessions here, including on judicial reform.
Q: What would you say to leaders of the member organizations that would want the conference to boycott Ministers like Itamar Ben-Gvir? What’s your message to try to bridge gaps between American leaders and the current government?
A: I don’t want to superimpose my view on the views of other Jewish leaders of goodwill. I think that Jewish leaders need to make their own decisions about what works for them and for their constituencies. I will say that I have a visceral dislike for the idea of boycotting Jews; that’s something that I would not do myself. And I’d also say that my support for Israel is unconditional, full stop. Whether it’s a government that strays left or right, or up or down, in a way that makes some of our constituencies feel uncomfortable or makes me feel uncomfortable. That does not diminish my support for a strong Israel and my support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Q: How do you, as the leader of the conference, try to inspire unity among the various member groups with differing religious and political views?
A: We work day and night to bring about unity and consensus throughout the Jewish community; a lot of that is by focusing on issues where there is a commonality of agreement. The American Jewish community is united on issues like support for the Abraham Accords, fighting the delegitimization of Israel, fighting antisemitism, support for promoting the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Fifty-one of our 53 member organizations have adopted support for the IHRA. I think by working together, we can bridge the gaps that exist on the issues where there are disagreements.
But our disagreements around our table are no different than the disagreements around Shabbat tables around the world, and even maybe around Israel’s cabinet table. You know, when you have 10 Jews, you have 11 opinions. That’s something that really allows us to thrive as a people.
But we’re going to continue to strive to build consensus. We’re going to continue to strive to push past the divisiveness that too often rears its ugly head. And we’re looking for opportunities to grow and expand the relationship between American Jewry and Israel.