(February 28, 2023 / JNS) Several days ago, I returned from attending the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (“CoP” or the “Conference”) leadership mission in Israel, along with the leaders of approximately 20 other American Jewish organizations that are Conference members. The mission’s sole purpose was supposed to be to learn directly from Israel’s key elected leaders about vital and serious issues that confront Israel so that American Jewish leaders can be better informed when they address their communities, the media and Congress back in the United States.
It is painful for me to report that CoP’s directors violated the leadership mission’s purpose by refusing to give podiums to the major elected ministers and Israeli leaders who are in the forefront of promoting Israel’s judicial, anti-terror and other reforms: Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich; National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir; and Knesset Member and committee chair Simcha Rothman.
The CoP directors’ refusal to have a session with these important leaders of these critical issues—a form of “cancel culture”—was an enormous missed opportunity to learn from, ask challenging questions of and exchange views with the judicial and anti-terror reforms’ originators. Americans are being inundated with misinformed, bald claims that the reforms are “undemocratic.” Shouldn’t American leaders have had the opportunity to hear from the Israeli leaders and originators who are in the best position to explain why the reforms would, in fact, make Israel safer, more democratic and more like American democracy?
In addition, the CoP leadership mission had no elected officials or spokespeople from Judea and Samaria speak, even though issues concerning these Jewish communities are constantly being debated. This CoP “cancel culture” refusal denied American Jewish leaders the opportunity to learn and ask questions about: the situation on the ground in the Jewish homelands of Judea and Samaria; increased Arab terrorism; how Jews living in and building homes there are being falsely maligned; the Biden administration’s pressures and interference; and the dangers of the enormous amount of illegal Arab building in Area C, funded by the European Union.
The CoP’s failure to hold these meetings contradicted its own statement last week that the CoP leadership mission was a forum for top American Jewish leaders to “engage in an annual weeklong conversation with top Israeli leaders,” including sessions with “the top echelons of the Israeli political landscape” about “key issues” and differences between American liberals, and “a staunchly conservative Israeli coalition that is advancing policies most Israeli voters support, but many American Jewish leaders consider controversial.”
As someone who has carefully studied, spoken about and written in favor of judicial reform, I hoped to hear from its key proponents during the CoP mission (see “Israel’s Judicial Reforms: Good for Democracy and the Rule of Law”).
I and other leaders of American Jewish organizations urged the CoP to have a session with the Israeli leaders who are in the trenches every day fighting for these reforms. Three past chairpersons of the Conference (even those who oppose the reforms) strongly supported meeting directly with these Israeli ministers, and were shocked when I told them of the Conference’s refusal to hold a session with them. Disappointingly, CoP directors gave us excuses for not doing so that frankly made no sense.
In a published interview, JNS CEO Alex Traiman asked Conference CEO William Daroff why he refused to provide access to ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, and MK Rothman, “even though they are directly relevant to the issues the Conference is sure to address.” Daroff gave another irrelevant response—that the CoP mission did not meet with “other party leaders,” such as Benny Gantz, Gideon Sa’ar and Merav Michaeli. But none of those other party leaders are leading reform efforts, and none of them are in the present coalition government that overwhelmingly supports the reforms.
Daroff also responded that Smotrich’s and Ben-Gvir’s views would be “well-represented” by others. The CoP leadership mission included a panel with an American law professor who favors reform and a reform opponent from a think tank. But there is nothing like hearing from the source. We were there to meet with and hear from the key elected Israeli leaders working daily on the issues.
Also, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports these reforms, he could not address them with the CoP because he was under a gag order forbidding him from speaking about them.
Since none of the stated reasons for failing to meet Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and Rothman made sense, was something else at play? Did prominent left-wing members of the Conference, who had already publicly demanded that no one should host these Israeli ministers, pressure the Conference of Presidents’ directors to refuse to hold these meetings and to adopt “cancel culture,” even though this betrayed the purpose of the leadership mission?
As the president of an organization (the ZOA) that co-founded the CoP, I am concerned that the CoP’s “cancel culture” may also be harming the continuing viability of the leadership mission itself. Fewer and fewer busy American Jewish leaders may bother showing up at future meetings where they cannot learn from and question key officials. And Israeli officials may lose interest in speaking at missions with few American Jewish leaders.
The CoP’s “cancel culture” failure to hold these meetings also insulted key Israeli leaders, insulted hundreds of thousands of Israeli voters who elected them, and sent a dangerous delegitimizing message to the world.
To try to make amends for the inappropriate omissions during its leadership mission, the CoP should at least schedule Zoom meetings with Israel’s judicial and anti-terror reform leaders and leaders in Judea and Samaria as soon as possible.
Morton Klein is the national president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the oldest pro-Israel organization in the United States. The ZOA co-founded the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
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