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‘Passing of the guard’: Longtime AIPAC leader to step down in December

Howard Kohr is the sort of leader who “comes along every decade or so, and makes a major impact on Jewish life in their generation,” said Chabad Rabbi Levi Shemtov.

AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr speaking at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2020. Credit: AIPAC.
AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr speaking at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2020. Credit: AIPAC.

Leaders of U.S. Jewish groups who have worked with Howard Kohr over the years told JNS that the longtime American Israel Public Affairs Committee CEO, who announced that he intends to retire in December, has been instrumental in making the group the most important one in Washington building support for the Jewish state.

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JNS that he first met Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO of 27 years, in 2000.

“I returned to Washington after being in politics and going to school and working in government, and really from almost the first time we met, he became a mentor and a friend,” Daroff said.

“We are both Clevelanders and so we have a bond as all Clevelanders do,” he said. “Particularly, Clevelanders involved in the Jewish community, of whom there were many involved at the highest levels, so that connection was also something that brought us together.”

Between Kohr’s announcement that he is retiring, coupled with the death of former senator and vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman on Wednesday, U.S. Jewish leadership is entering a new chapter, according to Daroff. There is “a passing of the guard of amazing individuals who lead the American Jewish community and the pro-Israel community through the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century,” he said.

“These individuals are iconic in their impact: Howard Kohr, David Harris, Abe Foxman, Malcolm Hoenlein,” added Daroff, citing the former CEO of the American Jewish Committee, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, respectively.

“Many of them continue to have impact, and we in the Jewish community are in a better place that many of them continue to have a voice and are so engaged,” Daroff said. “But obviously, it’s natural, and God willing, we’re able to take the success—the groundwork they laid out—and standing on their shoulders, we’ll be able to lead us from success to success.”

‘Friday night was sacrosanct’

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington, D.C., told JNS that Kohr had a generational impact.

“Howard Kohr is an iconic figure in the pro-Israel and Jewish community—the type of which comes along every decade or so and makes a major impact on Jewish life in their generation,” he said. “His ability to achieve such a broad reach in the political realm is almost unprecedented, all the while remaining humble in the process.”

For “a very long time,” Shemtov tried to convince Kohr to come to his house for Friday-night dinner.

“His assistant, after several tries, says, ‘You know, rabbi, I think you have to pick a different time. He doesn’t do Friday nights. That’s personal time for his family,’” Shemtov said. “In other words, he did not allow her to schedule anything for Friday night, even a Shabbat dinner. As busy as his life was, Friday night was sacrosanct.”

In recent years, Kohr oversaw AIPAC’s shift from lobbying to directly funding political candidates and campaigns, after it founded the AIPAC PAC in 2021 and the United Democracy Project super PAC in 2022.

Between the two, AIPAC will likely spend about $100 million in the 2024 election cycle, with a particular focus on unseating members of the so-called “Squad” of anti-Israel progressives, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Politico reported earlier in March.

Unlike some Jewish groups that have taken a particular ideological slant, AIPAC remains stubbornly non-partisan, donating to progressive Democrats and rock-ribbed Republicans alike.

In 2022, the group touted having donated more money to progressive Democrats than J Street, Justice Democrats and Emily’s List combined, while also backing 89% of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

Shemtov said that one of Kohr’s greatest skills has been navigating Washington’s complex political waters.

“His position requires a keen insight into the political terrain, the realities of operation within that terrain and a focus on efficacy,” he said.

“The achievement of goals that he has presided over is legend, and I hope whoever will succeed him—as I doubt he can actually be replaced—will take all of his career’s work to the next level,” Shemtov added.

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