Conference of Presidents censures two members

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NEW YORK — The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has rebuked two member organizations for what it charged were efforts to undermine the Dec. 10 rally for Israel at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The Conference of Presidents sent letters to the Zionist Organization of America and the National Council of Young Israel accusing them of "censurable" conduct. At issue was a full-page ad taken out by the two groups in The New York Times.

The ad protested the "partisan politics" of the event, which was billed as a unity rally and held primarily to memorialize slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The conference, one of the major planners of the rally, reprimanded the two groups for "actively discouraging attendance at the event."

The ad "goes beyond the acceptable bounds of dissent," said the letter, which was sent by conference president Leon Levy and endorsed by the umbrella group's past chairmen.

The ad and the subsequent reprimand are the latest acts of the drama that engulfed the rally in the wake of Rabin's assassination.

ZOA president Morton Klein said Tuesday that even though he had not yet seen the letter, any such rebuke "comes dangerously close to trying to squash legitimate dissent in the Jewish community."

Klein said he was disappointed that the conference ignored his request to address its concerns before the appropriate parties. And he said the ad nowhere "tells people not to come."

Young Israel president Chaim Kaminetzky said he was "not very happy" about the conference's decision to issue "a letter of censure."

But Kaminetzky said he rejected the claim that his organization violated any rules. Conference members have the right to express different opinions and the obligation to respect those opinions, he said.

The letters were sent partly in response to protests by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

In a Dec. 14 letter to Levy, Foxman said that even though "there have been specific incidents in the past of member-organizations taking actions against agreed-upon conference policy," the ad "so grossly violates the principles of community unity and responsibility that we believe an examination as to whether their behavior warrants their removal from the conference is in order."

Harris called the ad "unfortunate" and asked for "prompt discussion on "acceptable and unacceptable modes of behavior" by members in such circumstances.

On Dec. 26, Levy replied to Foxman in a letter in which he referred to the "infamous ZOA-Young Israel ad."

"We are in accord with you on the need to call to account, in a meaningful way, those individuals/organizations, members of the conference, who sought to undermine our collective efforts," Levy said.

Referring to the ad, Levy also pledged to explore "ways and means of disciplining outrageous behavior by dissidents who take public actions against agreed-upon conference policy."

Foxman said he was satisfied by the conference actions, given that "there are no clear criteria" for proper conduct "beyond the contract of membership" in the conference. But he added that he would press for the formulation of such criteria so members would "know in advance what is and what isn't expected."

For his part, Kaminetzky said he had been shocked by the call for the groups' possible ouster by Foxman. "We never told anyone not to go to the rally," he said.

The conference and other organizers had sought to depoliticize the rally by drawing people from across the ideological spectrum. Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Rabin's widow, Leah Rabin, were among the keynote speakers.

But the ZOA and Young Israel maintained that what was being billed as a "unity rally" was in fact partisan because "all the speakers represent one particular point of view" on the peace process.

That charge was denied by the rally's organizers.