Posted by: Alex Traiman
April 24, 2020
ZOA in the news

JNS: Bylaw violations, strong-arming alleged in nomination of new Conference of Presidents chair

Opponents of the recent nomination of Dianne Lob as the next chairperson of the Conference of Presidents charge that the nomination of the former HIAS chairwoman to the Conference’s top position was made following multiple violations of both the letter and spirit of detailed organizational bylaws.

A widely distributed letter to Conference leadership and member organizations outlined a “pattern of failures to comply with the basic procedures set forth in the Conference’s governing document.” Nomination opponents include many longtime dues-paying members of the pro-Israel umbrella organization, as well as large financial supporters.

The letter, signed by 17 Conference members (including JNS publisher Joshua Katzen, a Conference representative), charges that an election to confirm Lob’s nomination “undertaken prior to remediation of the defects would be illegal, illegitimate and unfair if allowed to proceed,” and called for an upcoming April 28 vote via Zoom to be postponed “until completion of a proper and compliant nominating process, rigorously consistent with the terms of the Processes and Procedures of the Conference of Presidents.”

Among the alleged regularities include the composition and timing of the formation of a nominating committee, as well as the lack of time that member organizations were given to consider Lob’s candidacy.

According to conference bylaws obtained by JNS, a nomination committee is to be “appointed in November” and is then to “present a recommendation with elections to be held following the annual Conference Israel Mission, which is usually scheduled in February or March.”

Opponents of Lob’s nomination charge that the nominating committee was not formed until February, after the Conference’s annual Israel Mission. The mission is the largest gathering of Conference members, and is the time when member organizations have historically met and discussed the merits of potential candidates.

It is similarly charged that since one of the nominating committee members, Betsy Korn, the recently installed president of AIPAC, didn’t assume that post until March 1, she was ineligible to serve on the committee whether it was formed in February or November.

In addition, member organizations were made aware just prior to the announcement of Lob’s nomination that Bennett Miller, chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, had curiously removed himself from the nominating committee in order to advance his own candidacy after taking part in a comprehensive interview process with other candidates.

Miller was subsequently replaced by Susan Bass, president of Women for Reform Judaism. It is unclear whether she participated in the entire nomination process.

A major question mark in this year’s nomination process has been the role of newly appointed Conference CEO William Daroff, former senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Daroff was named CEO last August, following the announcement that longtime executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein would be stepping down into a part-time vice chairman position. Prior to Daroff’s hiring, the Conference never had a CEO position. Conference bylaws have not yet been amended to account for the new lead executive post.

Bylaws state that the nine-member nomination committee is to be joined by “the Chairman and Executive Vice Chairman, ex officio, without vote.”

Opponents charge that as CEO, Daroff may have been ineligible to participate in the nomination process in any capacity, and that he actually played an active and influential role in the proceedings, which resulted in a single vote majority for Lob.

The Conference told JNS that as top executive, it should have been Daroff who participated in the meetings, but that in deference to Hoenlein’s longstanding experience, he, too, should have been allowed to participate.

JNS has learned that in the past week, Daroff has been energetically lobbying each of the 53 Conference member organizations to ratify Lob’s candidacy. Daroff also reportedly prohibited Lob from speaking with opponents on the phone unless he was on the line.

Daroff told JNS earlier this week that Lob is a qualified candidate, and expressed his view that she would likely be confirmed during next week’s vote.

The Conference told JNS that indeed, the formation of the committee was announced during a general meeting in November, and that there is no requirement for any other written notice. They also note that there are no lines in the bylaws regarding the substitution of committee members.

In response to the significant backlash, outgoing chairman Arthur Stark wrote a letter this week to the membership stating that the rules of the Conference nominating process “were rigorously followed by the Nominating Committee,” which he said “reflects the wide spectrum of our member organizations. It was a deliberate process that followed the same sequence as previous years, other than the meetings and interviews taking place via video, due to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Opponents of the nomination charge that rather than nominating a consensus candidate or attempting to gain consensus in advance of the nomination, Daroff and Stark are attempting to strong-arm Lob as the sole nominee.

During Hoenlein’s lengthy tenure as the Conference’s lead executive, recent chairs had been recommended unanimously by the nominating committee, even if there were dissenting votes within the committee. Following the split decision—and for the first time in recent memory—nominating committee members refused to advance Lob’s candidacy unanimously.

Lob’s surprise nomination was announced on April 17, just 11 days before a scheduled vote. Conference bylaws state that “the Conference shall endeavor to provide at least two weeks’ notice of all meetings.” The Conference told JNS that the requirement is to provide two weeks’ notice prior to a general meeting, and that the meeting itself was announced more than two weeks in advance, and that there is no requirement to announce the candidates with that notice.

Opponents are also concerned that a possible roll-call vote, which is scheduled to take place on April 28 as part of a Zoom meeting in light of coronavirus travel restrictions, will allow for neither appropriate debate of Lob’s candidacy nor anonymity when the votes are cast. It is expected that members who might otherwise vote against Lob or abstain might feel pressured to vote for her if the vote is public.

Of particular concern to many of the Conference members is Lob’s previous position as chair of HIAS, widely considered to be among the most liberal organizations in the Conference. Many members are now openly questioning whether HIAS is even qualified to be a member of the Conference.

Bylaws state that membership in the Conference is “available to those major national Jewish organizations whose primary purpose is to serve the interests of the American Jewish community and whose activities are consistent with the goals and objectives of the Conference of Presidents.”

The HIAS website states that while it was originally founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, “as we expanded our mission to protect and assist refugees of all faiths and ethnicities, we realized our name no longer represented the organization,” so the word “Hebrew” was removed from the name of the organization.

Conference bylaws require that the membership committee is required to meet annually, to “review periodically the status of current Member and Adjunct Member organizations to assure they continue to meet membership criteria.” Opponents charge that the membership committee never met to discuss HIAS, much less issued a confirmatory report.

They claim that such a report is necessary to ensure “whether the nominee they are being asked to approve is even eligible to run for the office of Chair of the Conference.”

The Conference told JNS that by longstanding practice, a membership committee only meets when there are new applications for membership, which last occurred in 2017.

Addressing opponents’ concerns, Stark wrote that, “some of you who have not had the opportunity to meet Dianne appear to be drawing conclusions about her views or positions. Dianne became involved with HIAS in the days of the Soviet Jewry movement. I would recommend that your view of HIAS should not be conflated with Dianne as a leader. She has demonstrated, in seeking to take on this role, a thoughtful and centrist outlook. My guess is that you will recognize this upon getting to know her.”

Opponents are concerned that Daroff, who worked for years in the Jewish Federation of North America, and Lob, who chaired the far-left HIAS—both organizations that have been highly critical of Israeli government policies—will tilt the centrist pro-Israel Conference towards the left. In particular, many are worried that the Conference may push to add the previously ostracized far-left organization JStreet to its membership.

The Conference noted that it is the member organizations themselves that can approve any new memberships, and that a previous attempt by J Street to apply for membership was rejected by existing member organizations.

Meanwhile, the contested nomination is a noted departure from Hoenlein’s longstanding insistence on building consensus within the politically diverse umbrella organization.

Public opposition to Lob’s candidacy has visibly shaken the Conference leadership, which did not expect major backlash from their nomination. Such discord is becoming commonplace among Jewish communal leadership in an increasingly polarized political environment.

Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

This op-ed was originally published in JNS.