Members of The Workers Circle at a pro-democracy march. (Photo/JTA-Courtesy Workers Circle)
Members of The Workers Circle at a pro-democracy march. (Photo/JTA-Courtesy Workers Circle)

The Workers Circle, progressive Jewish group, leaves Conference of Presidents over disagreements on US and Israel advocacy

(JTA) — The Workers Circle has resigned from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, shrinking the umbrella group’s contingent of progressive groups.

The Workers Circle — a Jewish progressive activist group that runs a robust program of Yiddish classes, and that more recently has emphasized advocating for democracy — said it is pulling out of the Conference of Presidents over disagreements regarding policies in the United States, discourse on Israel and how to define antisemitism.

The decision is the latest of a few incidents in recent years that have exposed cracks in the conference, which aims to be a unified voice for dozens of Jewish groups in the United States. The resignation reflects the deep political divisions among American Jews more broadly, and the challenge of trying to unite disparate opinions under one banner in order to preserve a sense of shared Jewish interests in an increasingly polarized climate.

But The Workers Circle decision does not appear to be sparking a trend: Other left-leaning groups in the conference told JTA they would remain in the coalition.

“We believe that the time has come for us to separate,” Ann Toback, CEO of The Workers Circle, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on Tuesday. “Our focus on democracy is not being reflected by this organization’s representation of us.”

Conference of Presidents CEO William Daroff criticized The Workers Circle over the resignation, accusing the group of not raising its issues or being an active participant in the conference prior to its resignation. He said that the resignation does not speak to deeper divisions in the coalition.

This is the first time he knows of when a group has said it is resigning from the conference due to ideological differences.

“It was a complete surprise,” Daroff said. “We had no idea that they had any substantive issues with us, with the conference. They generally have not come to meetings. There are dozens of meetings they could have attended where they could have engaged in these issues.”

He also told JTA that The Workers Circle owed upwards of $15,000 in membership dues to the conference, which vary depending on the size of member groups. Toback disputed that payment was at issue, saying that the group had paid up the invoices it has received and was committed to paying what it owed through the date of its resignation.

“It wasn’t about the dues,” she said of the group’s decision.

Founded in 1900 as the Workmen’s Circle, or Arbeter Ring, by Yiddish-speaking immigrants to the United States as a socialist mutual aid society, The Workers Circle has been a member of the conference since the mid-1990s. In 2016, the organization refocused itself on opposing what it sees as the erosion of democracy in the United States. Toback says protecting democracy fits with the group’s mission because it was founded by immigrants fleeing autocratic countries.

In recent years, the group says, it has hoped that the Conference of Presidents would take more vocal positions on domestic issues like combating voter suppression and gerrymandering that dilutes the voting power of minorities. “The COP’s unwillingness to step in and speak to the erosion of democracy in the United States has been a real issue for us,” she said.

Daroff said The Workers Circle never asked the leadership of the conference to speak out on democratic norms. While Toback acknowledged that she did not raise the issue with conference staff directly, she told JTA, “It its very clear what their positions are and aren’t.” She added later, “Our missions aren’t aligned.”

The conference was founded in the mid-1950s with the aim of more effectively advocating for issues of Jewish concern by speaking in a shared voice. Its roster of 50 groups includes some of the largest Jewish organizations, including the major religious denominations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee. It also includes a number of groups with much smaller staffs and public profiles.

The conference is no stranger to infighting and threats of resignation. Multiple member organizations have called on its leadership over the years to discipline the Zionist Organization of America, whose president, Morton Klein, is a right-wing pro-Israel activist with a history of inflammatory remarks. In 2019, ZOA got a reprimand from the conference for “insults, ad hominem attacks and name-calling.”

The following year, more than a dozen other liberal member organizations of the conference sent an open letter to Klein condemning his bashing of the Black Lives Matter movement. Other member groups pushed the conference to expel ZOA. Klein responded with his own complaint against the refugee aid group HIAS and the heads of the other groups who had attacked himConference leadership attempted to resolve the situation by declining to take action on the complaints.

Watching Israel’s democracy hit this crisis point without calling for real change was the final moment.

The Workers Circle decision means the group will now bow out of those internal debates. In a resignation letter sent Wednesday to the conference’s leadership and shared with JTA, Toback and Workers Circle president Zeev Dagan wrote that their breakup “is not a decision that we have made lightly.”

“We have been a longtime member of the COP and share its concern for the interests of the American and world Jewish communities,” they wrote. Yet the letter, in addition to criticizing the Conference’s “silence” on the domestic issues that have become the focus of Workers Circle, names a host of other reasons for the split, including the Conference’s promotion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism, which some liberal groups say chills free speech on Israel by defining some forms of criticism of the Jewish state as antisemitism.

In his response to The Workers Circle’s resignation, Daroff singled out in particular their objections to the IHRA definition. He said the chorus of people and groups that oppose the Israeli government’s recent judicial overhaul efforts — which includes members of the conference — shows that criticism of Israeli policy is condoned. (At least one member of the conference, ZOA, supports the overhaul legislation.)

“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,” he wrote in a statement.

But that debate over the judicial legislation, Toback said, ended up being the final straw for The Workers Circle. After Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a law last week weakening the power of the Supreme Court, prompting mass protests and charges that such laws would endanger Israeli democracy, the Conference issued a statement that expressed “concern” over the reforms and called on Israel’s leaders “to seek compromise and unity,” adding, “Responsible political actors must ease tensions that have run dangerously high.”

Toback had hoped for a fiercer condemnation of the law. “Watching Israel’s democracy hit this crisis point without calling for real change was the final moment” in the group’s relationship with the Conference, she said.

Progressive groups have floated leaving the coalition before, including in 2014, when the conference declined to extend membership to J Street, the liberal Israel lobby. After that decision — which was made by a secret vote of the conference’s members — Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said one option for his group would be “to simply leave the Conference of Presidents.”

He added at the time, “But this much is certain: We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry.”

The groups that criticized the Conference of Presidents after the J Street vote are all still members, including URJ. Reached for comment on Workers Circle’s exit, Jacobs acknowledged that it’s “a challenge to be in a large, diverse umbrella organization — sometimes it’s very frustrating.”

But, Jacobs added, the URJ and other liberal groups choose to stay because “to increase the progressive, liberal voice on the Conference platform is important.”

“They don’t make statements like the Supreme Court with a majority and a minority view,” Jacobs said of the Conference. “We don’t, either. The Talmud does, but we don’t.’

Daroff told JTA that the conference’s members “all work together to build consensus on behalf of the agenda of the American Jewish community.”

Left-leaning groups in the conference said they respected The Workers Circle’s decision but that they felt they could do more within the coalition than outside of it.

“We’ve gone all in with the Conference of Presidents,” said Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, whose president served on the conference’s executive committee. “We’ve found the more we engage, the more opportunity there is.”

But she added, “I deeply respect the decision that Workers Circle is making based on what I know to be true about the impact they want to make. I’ll miss them there.”

Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of the progressive Americans for Peace Now, said, “We feel it is valuable for us to be there and to be part of the conference, even though it’s not perfect.”

Toback said that The Workers Circle’s decision to leave the Conference is not meant to reflect on the organizations that remain members.

“This is in no way pointing fingers and saying, ‘By being in the Conference, you’re anti-democracy,’” she said. “I want them to continue to be strong activists in the Conference, and encourage them and others to advocate for strong statements in support of democracy.”

Andrew Lapin

Andrew Lapin is the Managing Editor for Local News at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.