(April 22, 2020 / JNS) The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group with 53 politically and religiously diverse dues-paying member organizations, announced this week that it is nominating Dianne Lob, a former chairwoman of HIAS, to be the new chairwoman of its executive board.
Unlike the appointment of previous chairmen, who serve for terms of one to two years, the surprise nomination has caused a major backlash among longtime active Conference members and donors.
“Ms. Lob was recommended by a splintered Nominating Committee, and her nomination has caused a serious rift in the Conference of Presidents,” said Roberta Goldstein, former national chairwoman of the State of Israel Bonds.
“It is very sad to see this happening at a time when the Conference should be working to unite the American Jewish community,” Goldstein told JNS.
Previous nominees for Conference chairperson were recommended unanimously to member organizations prior to a formal vote, even if there were dissenting votes within the nominating committee. Lob’s nomination, by contrast, is reported to have been approved by just a single vote, with the other members of the committee refusing to allow the recommendation to be issued unanimously.
A press release announcing Lob’s nomination stated that “the nominating committee unanimously recognized the integrity and thoroughness of the nominating process that led to this recommendation.”
The wordsmithing led to some confusion among member organizations. In an email sent by Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, to member organizations encouraging their vote for Lob obtained by JNS, Katz wrote, “I’m thrilled that Dianne Lob has unanimously been voted as the nominee for the incoming chair of Conference of Presidents by the selection committee and we will all get to vote her in soon. This is the first time in over a decade that a progressive woman is the nominee … ”
Roll-call vote scheduled to take place this coming week via Zoom
While Conference members range from progressive to conservative, the organization, led until this year by executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein, was a comfortable home for many organizations that aligned closely with the policies of Israel’s right-wing government. They felt that the Conference walked a careful line balancing right-wing and left-wing political agendas, and found consensus among the diverse Jewish member organizations. Many of the Conference’s longtime financial supporters came from this camp.
This past year, Hoenlein announced that he would step into a part-time vice chair role, with the appointment of William Daroff, longtime senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), as the new CEO of the Conference. Daroff, who previously worked on the campaign staffs of three Republican candidates for president, was seen as a candidate who could successfully work with liberal mainstream Jewish American organizations without alienating the Conference’s right-wing base, which over the years has demonstrated its strong loyalty to Hoenlein.
Lob’s nomination has drawn ire from many longtime members (including JNS publisher Joshua Katzen), who were not even aware of her candidacy.
In addition, many members are concerned that a roll-call vote scheduled to take place this coming week via Zoom in light of coronavirus travel restrictions will not allow for appropriate debate of Lob’s candidacy.
Of particular concern to many Conference members and donors is Lob’s role as immediate past lay chairwoman of HIAS, widely considered to be one of the member organizations most critical of Israeli government and Trump administration policies. Many members are now openly questioning whether HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, should continue to be a member of the Conference.
According to Conference bylaws, its mission is “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 bylaws state that membership is “available to those major national Jewish organizations whose primary purpose is to serve the interests of the American Jewish community, and whose activities are consistent with the goals and objectives of the Conference of Presidents.”
The HIAS website states that while the organization was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, “as we expanded our mission to protect and assist refugees of all faiths and ethnicities, we realized our name no longer represented the organization. We are now known as HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.” In recent years, the majority of refugees HIAS has worked to assist in coming to the United States are not Jews, but Muslims, and people from other religions and nationalities.
Professionally, Lob is head of Global Business Development for AllianceBernstein, a global asset-management firm.
Alexander Smukler, president of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, told JNS that “I am surprised that the Conference, which has always been a strong supporter of Israel, would choose someone from an organization that has such a clear record of partnering with anti-Israel organizations like J Street, IfNotNow, CAIR and others.”
Morton Klein, president of Zionist Organization of America, sent a lengthy and detailed letter to the current leadership of the Conference as well as member organizations insisting that, “electing Ms. Lob would undermine and create multiple serious conflicts with the COP’s mission to help Israel and the Jewish people, and would damage the COP’s relationships with U.S. federal, state and local governments and the Israeli government and people.”
‘Chair’s role is to build and present the consensus view’
In a letter written to member organizations by outgoing Conference chairman Arthur Stark in response to the backlash, he wrote that the rules of the nominating process “were rigorously followed by the Nominating Committee,” which he said “reflects the wide spectrum of our member organizations. 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.”
Addressing concerns that Lob is unknown to most of the members who attend multiple meetings each year, as well as a weeklong summit in Jerusalem each February, Stark wrote that “some of you who have not had the opportunity to meet Dianne appear to be drawing conclusions about her views or positions. Dianne became involved with HIAS in the days of the Soviet Jewry movement. I would recommend that your view of HIAS should not be conflated with Dianne as a leader. She has demonstrated, in seeking to take on this role, a thoughtful and centrist outlook. My guess is that you will recognize this upon getting to know her.”
In a second letter to member organizations, the Conference identified Lob as “chair elect” over a week prior to the upcoming election on her candidacy—a strong indication that the current Conference leadership expects the nomination to be confirmed. Lob wrote in the letter that “the Conference must continue its historical commitment to support the democratically elected government of Israel and to strengthen the ties between Israel and the United States, as well as with the American Jewish community.”
She added that “the role of the Chair is to build and present the consensus view that will ensure a unified communal response on the important challenges and issues of the day. I will wholeheartedly uphold that responsibility and will work to strengthen unity in our community.”
Neither Daroff nor Hoenlein agreed to provide comments to JNS on the record, but both insisted that Lob is a qualified candidate. Each expressed their view that she would likely be confirmed during next week’s vote.
For the longtime dues-paying members and donors of the Conference’s right-wing flank, Lob’s nomination serves a notice that the Conference now led by Daroff intends to more closely align itself with larger and much-better funded liberal mainstream Jewish organizations, including JFNA, where Daroff previously worked, and the Anti-Defamation League, which is widely seen as having become increasingly critical of Israel following the retirement of longtime national director Abe Foxman and the installation of Jonathan Greenblatt, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama.
For Daroff and Lob, the reaction to the nomination serves as notice that attempts to shift the Conference’s positioning and messaging from those maintained for decades by Hoenlein will be met with significant backlash.
But given a choice between maintaining the loyalty of a smaller and older right-wing Zionist base, or aligning with a larger and better funded liberal Jewish communal structure, Daroff and the nominating committee may be actively and intentionally shifting the Conference’s direction, effectively putting an end to Hoenlein’s 35-year strong influence over the Conference.
Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.
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