Former ADL chair gets the nod from Conference of Presidents

NEW YORK– After months of anticipation and speculation, the nomination is in for the next chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

It is Melvin Salberg, a prominent attorney and former chairman of the Anti-Defamation League.

Several members of the umbrella organization expressed surprise at the news, but welcomed it.

They cited Salberg as a fair and moderate man who can bring people together at a juncture of tension and fragmentation in the Jewish world.

"It is a victory for moderation at a time of polarization," said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the ADL, who worked closely with Salberg in recent years. "He is both a leader and a mediator."

"It's a very wise choice," agreed Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs and community relations for the Orthodox Union.

"Mel seems to be someone who can really build a consensus" given his "balanced political views," she said. "He has been outgoing and open with everyone in the conference."

The decision by the nominating committee was unanimous, according to Lester Pollack, its chairman, and is expected to be ratified in the coming weeks through an election by the full conference, which has more than 50 member-organizations.

The race to succeed Leon Levy, whose term expires in June, has been closely watched.

Speculation was rife for a time that the post would go to Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir and new president of the Jewish National Fund.

While not widely known among the grass roots, the organization is seen as the central address for Jewish affairs by governments around the world, including the United States.

The chairmanship, thus, holds glamour and prestige. Meetings are routine with heads of state in exotic places, from Qatar to Uzbekistan, whose government hosted the conference earlier this month.

But the job is also filled with pressure.

The chairman's mandate is to find consensus on divisive issues at a time when the Jewish community is highly fragmented, particularly over the politics of the Middle East peace process.

Reached at the conference's New York headquarters moments before the formal announcement Tuesday, Salberg reflected on his mandate.

"In the days ahead, the unity and comity among the constituent agencies of the conference will be essential to the mission, and that is, to give support to Israel in its pursuit of peace and security," he said.

Salberg, a senior partner in the New York law firm of Anderson, Kill, Olick & Oshinsky, is a seasoned labor negotiator and, by many accounts, will be a low-key but effective conciliator.

He led efforts to defend the ADL when it faced charges in California a few years ago that the activities it employed to monitor organizations violated privacy laws. The case was settled out of court, with the ADL admitting no wrongdoing.

More recently, he was legal counsel to the Jewish National Fund, where revelations surfaced last year of problems in accounting and spending practices. He also serves as JNF's chairman of the International Arid Lands Consortium and Forest Service Programs.

Salberg also was elected this week to be president of the American Zionist Movement.

Seymour Reich, AZM outgoing president and a former conference president, said Salberg would be an asset to the conference for his "stability" and "ability to bring people together."

He pointed out that Salberg "held a steady course" and was "patient and calm" during the ADL's legal troubles and that the "ADL came out on top."

He also said Salberg is pragmatic rather than dogmatic. He said "he will support the government of Israel and be firm in his dealings with Washington."

"But when he thinks that the Netanyahu government is going astray, I have no doubt he will tell the prime minister, one on one," Reich said.

Gail Pressberg, representing the left-leaning Americans for Peace Now, said it was a "very good" decision and that she considered Salberg very supportive of the peace process.

"I would put him on the spectrum where [Yitzhak] Rabin was," she said. She also called him "fair," saying that he would "care about the processes and decision-making procedures of the conference."

On the other side of the political spectrum, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has been critical of the nominating process, saying that it is not open enough.

In response to the selection, Klein said, "American Jewry expects the new chairman to strongly defend Jerusalem and expose [Yasser] Arafat's continuing belligerent and anti-peace behavior."

"I have confidence that Mel Salberg can provide the needed leadership on these issues."

The conference sees its role as the champion of Israel and of Jewish interests.

According to an ADL profile, Salberg comes from an observant Jewish family in which that impulse comes naturally.

His parents grew up in Poland and lived in Warsaw after World War I before immigrating to the United States in 1920.

His mother's entire family perished in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.

"A safe and secure American Jewry," he said in the 1990 profile, "is a bulwark for the security of Jews in other parts of the world, including Israel."

Phil Baum, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, agreed.

"He has the capacity to bring various factions and points of view together," Baum said. "He's willing to look at all sides without having any prejudgments" and "he is not a contentious person."

Said Pollack: "Given his experience in areas of concern to the conference, we deemed him to be the best consensus builder."