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Workers Circle quits Conference of Presidents

The progressive Jewish group claims that the conference has not been criticizing conservatives in the United States and Israel sufficiently.

Menachem Begin addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in September 1978. Credit: Milner Moshe/GPO.
Menachem Begin addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in September 1978. Credit: Milner Moshe/GPO.

The Workers Circle, a 122-year-old progressive Jewish nonprofit known in earlier days as the Workmen’s Circle, notified the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that it is resigning its membership, as of Aug. 2.

It cited the conference’s “failure to condemn the Israeli parliament’s recent steps to erode democracy in Israel” and its silence “in the face of the many attacks on democracy here in the United States.”

The conference, which has 50 other member organizations, was founded in 1956 and received a mandate from President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his administration to unify the U.S. Jewish community.

“For the past two-plus years, the conference has been drama-free as it relates to ideological and political disputes. We’ve been working together,” William Daroff, CEO of the conference, told JNS. “That’s a record that we’re proud of.”

In a letter to the conference, which was provided to JNS, Zeev Dagan and Ann Toback, Workers Circle president and CEO respectively, wrote that they disagreed with the group’s “reluctance to critique Israel, its equation of such critique as antisemitism, its adoption and promotion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and its failure to condemn the Israeli parliament’s recent steps to erode democracy in Israel.”

“We are further dismayed at the silence of COP in the face of the many attacks on democracy here in the United States,” they added.

The two cited gerrymandered districts; “voter suppression laws obstructing the voting power of millions of Americans”; “right-wing justices” who “are rolling back critical rights”; and white nationalism.

“We cannot be part of an organization that stands idly by in the face of these existential crises,” they stated.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace, wished Workers Circle yasher koach (“congratulations”) on X, formerly Twitter. Workers Circle shared the post.

Not part of the mission

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, told JNS that Workers Circle, formerly Workmen’s Circle, is an “extremist socialist group,” which “almost never attended Conference of Presidents meetings” and is now “absconding” from the conference “based on misinformation and falsehoods.”

“They claim the conference didn’t take a position against Israel’s judicial reforms, yet the COP expressed concerns about these reforms and refused to allow the judicial reform’s leaders to even speak to the COP while giving a podium to opposition leaders,” Klein said.

The Conference of Presidents “generally takes left-of-center positions, which the Workers Circle should favor,” Klein said.

The Workers Circle reveals that it doesn’t understand the mission of the Conference of Presidents when it criticizes it for not taking a position on domestic, U.S. policy, which has nothing to do with Jews or Israel, according to Klein.

“We only concern ourselves with Israeli Jewish issues,” he said. “These erroneous allegations by these extremist socialists make it likely they simply don’t want to continue paying the Conference of Presidents dues.”

Not a larger trend

Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, told JNS that she respects the decision of Workers Circle and that the group will be missed. “I don’t think it’s a larger trend at this point,” she told JNS.

It’s a good idea for organizations that engage with coalitions to regularly evaluate values, staff time, spending and impact, according to Katz. That meant for Workers Circle that the conference wasn’t a good fit, but for Katz’s organization, which she described as left-leaning, the conference has been very helpful, particularly when it comes to building relationships across the political aisle.

“We’ve found it to be a place of great value,” she said.

The National Council of Jewish Women supports the IHRA definition but tends to be more vocal than some other members of the conference on issues related to democracy in the United States and Israel.

“But we feel respected and heard and seen,” she said, of her group’s membership at the conference. When there have been issues of concern, and she has approached conference leaders quietly, the latter have been responsive, she told JNS.

Katz told JNS she “wouldn’t be upset” if the conference was more vocal about “broader issues of democracy in the U.S. and Israel,” but understands the conference’s purpose to be creating “the broadest tent possible.”

Part of the function of a coalition with diverse voices is that public messaging tends to be compromises. “It’s not meant to make us happy. It’s meant to make us happy enough,” she said. She added that the conference has been deliberate in recent years to elevate diverse voices and that she has been invited to speak at dozens of conference gatherings.

“I’m going to miss Workers Circle and respect their decision,” she said. “And I hope more choose to stay.”

Meeting absences

Daroff told JNS that the conference wishes “that Workers Circle would have expressed their concerns to us before resigning or even attended meetings where these issues were discussed.”

“We note dozens of meetings over the past two years in which Workers Circle chose not to participate, including our two national antisemitism convenings,” he said.

The conference disagrees with Workers Circle’s criticism, “including their characterization of the IHRA definition of antisemitism,” Daroff said. “One need only look at the last six months of vociferous criticism of the Israeli government’s policies, wherein no one is claiming that such criticism is antisemitic, to dispute the preposterous canard that the definition—and the conference, by extension—stifles legitimate criticism of Israel.”

Daroff added that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism has been adopted by 43 countries and hundreds of governments, nongovernmental organizations, sports teams and others.

“It was also adopted by 51 of our 53 Conference of Presidents member organizations, and nearly every representative organization of Jewish communities across the globe, indicating its widespread support by our community,” he said.

He added that the conference’s mandate pertains to the U.S.-Israel relationship and U.S. foreign policy that relates to Israel, as well as combatting antisemitism domestically and abroad.

The conference refrains from commenting on issues, such as religious pluralism in Israel, as part of an agreement between religious denominations. Domestic U.S. politics, like that cited in the letter, “is outside of the purview,” Daroff said.

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