Media barons election to top Jewish post irks liberals

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NEW YORK — Everyone agrees that Mortimer Zuckerman brings clout and cachet to the chairmanship of one of America's most influential Jewish groups.

He may need to draw on that charm to overcome the wariness of a small but vocal liberal faction that voted against Zuckerman, a media and real estate baron, in the May 23 election for chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The groups worry about a potential conflict of interest between Zuckerman's regular column in the magazine he owns — U. S. News & World Report — and the chairman's responsibility to express opinions reached by consensus of the 54 groups that make up the Conference of Presidents.

The six left-leaning groups said after the vote that they will give Zuckerman the benefit of the doubt. But they warned that they'll watch closely to see if his fortnightly column deviates from the conference consensus.

Zuckerman, who was nominated from a pool of eight candidates, triumphed last week by a 46-6 margin. Two groups were absent and did not vote.

The result was a rare instance of dissension in a conference election, where votes usually are unanimous. Zuckerman's supporters, however, say the wide margin represents a strong repudiation of his critics.

Zuckerman also received bipartisan support from Israel's two most recent prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Four of the groups that voted against Zuckerman represent the Reform movement, which says it is the largest of the American Jewish denominations. They were joined by Americans for Peace Now and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

Their primary concern is Zuckerman's column in U.S. News & World Report. Zuckerman also owns and publishes the New York Daily News and is presumed to have some degree of influence over the paper's news coverage and editorials.

One of the Conference chairman's tasks is to publicly voice the "consensus" of the membership — and by extension, the Jewish community.

Generally perceived as right-of-center on Israel, Zuckerman has been vague about whether he will continue to use his column to address Israeli and Middle Eastern issues.

Many observers perceive the Conference as leaning historically to the right on Israel — farther, at least, than the Jewish public at large.

The groups that opposed Zuckerman are concerned that, in the event of a strong disagreement, he could use his column to express his opinions when the conference has failed to achieve consensus.

Articulating the concerns of the Reform movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, addressed the Conference membership just prior to the Zuckerman vote.

"I remain uncomfortable with this arrangement. There's the potential for difficulties for the Conference and for the Jewish community in that anything he writes, particularly on the Middle East, will be seen as reflecting the will of the Conference and of the Jewish community," Yoffie said after the vote. "Therefore, it is my hope Zuckerman will refrain from writing on the Middle East, and if he does, that he be exceedingly cautious."

Yoffie and others now are seeking to strike a conciliatory note with Zuckerman, expressing congratulations and support for him. But they also say they will closely monitor his future columns.

"Our opposition to him was not based on personality but on principle," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of ARZA/World Union. "My hope is that he fully understands the responsibility of the chairman, that at all times, he represents and articulates the consensus and only the consensus."

In his acceptance speech following the vote, Zuckerman acknowledged the importance of consensus.

"At our table, the issues can be discussed and debated with all points of view heard," he said. "And then we can come together and focus on what we have in common, rather than on what we differ. That is the way to advance the causes we hold dear."

The notion of consensus is itself somewhat ambiguous: you know it when you see it.

The issue has been smoldering since January, when outgoing Chairman Ronald Lauder appeared at a massive rally in support of an undivided Jerusalem.

Lauder had failed to gain consensus approval from the Conference to speak at the event, and therefore tried to present himself to the crowd as "an individual" expressing his own concern.

The media, however, identified Lauder as the Conference chairman and described the rally as opposed to the policies of Barak, then Israel's premier.

Critics charged that Lauder breached a cardinal rule of the Conference — unconditional support for any Israeli government.

The Conference subsequently codified rules on when a chairman can and cannot speak publicly: only if he has first achieved consensus and expresses policies arrived at by consensus. In effect, the conference decided, the chairman waives the right to speak as "an individual."

Some observers expect Zuckerman's column to challenge that policy, perhaps soon.

The Middle East is just one issue Zuckerman writes about. He recently wrote in favor of the search for alternate energy sources and oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

This week, however, several Jewish religious leaders joined interfaith colleagues in criticizing the Bush administration's new energy policy, calling for "the safest, cleanest and most sustainable sources of energy to protect and preserve God's creation."

If Zuckerman is seen as "speaking for the Jews," would his stance on energy undermine the efforts of fellow Jewish leaders?

It's rare to find an "issue that could be written about that does not in some way affect the Jewish community," Hirsch said.

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