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‌Progressive Jewish Nonprofit Exits Conference Of Presidents Citing Democracy Concerns ‌

Workers Circle cites failure to condemn erosion of democracy in Israel and attacks on democracy in the US

The Workers Circle, a 122-year-old progressive Jewish nonprofit, notified the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations today that it is resigning its membership.

It cited the conference’s “failure to condemn the Israeli parliament’s recent steps to erode democracy in Israel” and its silence “in the face of the many attacks on democracy here in the United States.”

The conference, which has 50 other member organizations, was founded in 1956 and received a mandate from President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his administration to unify the U.S. Jewish community.

“For the past two-plus years, the conference has been drama-free as it relates to ideological and political disputes. We’ve been working together,” said William Daroff, CEO of the conference, told Zenger News. “That’s a record that we’re proud of.”

Photo of a conference. Jewish Nonprofit Workers Circle Resigns Conference of Presidents Membership, Citing Democracy Concerns in Israel and U.S. HEADWAY/UNSPLASH. 

In a letter to the conference, which was provided to Zenger News, Zeev Dagan and Ann Toback, Workers Circle president and CEO respectively, wrote that they disagreed the group’s “reluctance to critique Israel, its equation of such critique as antisemitism, its adoption and promotion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and its failure to condemn the Israeli parliament’s recent steps to erode democracy in Israel.”

“We are further dismayed at the silence of COP in the face of the many attacks on democracy here in the United States,” they added.

The two cited gerrymandered districts, “voter suppression laws obstructing the voting power of millions of Americans,” “right wing justices” who “are rolling back critical rights” and white nationalism.

“We cannot be part of an organization that stands idly by in the face of these existential crises,” they added.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Israel group, wished Workers Circle “yasher koach” (congratulations) on X, formerly Twitter. Workers Circle shared the post.

Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, told Zenger News that she respects the decision of Workers Circle and that the group will be missed. “I don’t think it’s a larger trend at this point,” she told Zenger News.

It’s a good idea for organizations that engage with coalitions to regularly evaluate values, staff time, spending and impact, according to Katz. That meant for Workers Circle that the conference wasn’t a good fit, but for Katz’s organization, which she described as left-leaning, the conference has been very helpful, particularly when it comes to building relationships across the political aisle.

“We’ve found it to be a place of great value,” she said.

Photo of a conference. Jewish Nonprofit Workers Circle Resigns Conference of Presidents Membership, Citing Democracy Concerns in Israel and U.S. HEADWAY/UNSPLASH. 

The National Council of Jewish Women supports the IHRA definition but tends to be more vocal than some other members of the conference on issues related to democracy in the United States and Israel.

“But we feel respected and heard and seen,” she said, of her group’s membership at the conference. When there have been issues of concern, and she has approached conference leaders quietly, the latter have been responsive, she told Zenger News.

Katz told Zenger News she “wouldn’t be upset” if the conference was more vocal about “broader issues of democracy in the U.S. and Israel,” but understands the conference’s purpose to be creating “the broadest tent possible.”

Part of the function of a coalition with diverse voices is that public messaging tends to be compromises. “It’s not meant to make us happy. It’s meant to make us happy enough,” she said. She added that the conference has been deliberate in recent years to elevate diverse voices, and that she has been invited to speak at dozens of conference gatherings.

“I’m going to miss Workers Circle and respect their decision,” she said. “And I hope more choose to stay.”

Daroff told Zenger News that the conference wishes “that Workers Circle would have expressed their concerns to us before resigning—or even attended meetings where these issues were discussed.”

“We note dozens of meetings over the past two years in which Workers Circle chose not to participate, including our two national antisemitism convening,” he said.

The conference disagrees with Workers Circle’s criticism, “including their characterization of the IHRA definition of antisemitism,” Daroff said. “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.”

Daroff added that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism has been adopted by 43 countries and hundreds of governments, non-governmental organizations, sports teams and others.

“It was also adopted by 51 of our 53 Conference of Presidents member organizations, and nearly every representative organization of Jewish communities across the globe, indicating its widespread support by our community,” he said.

He added that the conference’s mandate pertains to the U.S.-Israel relationship and U.S. foreign policy that relates to Israel, as well as combatting antisemitism domestically and abroad.

The conference refrains from commenting on issues, such as religious pluralism in Israel, as part of an agreement between religious denominations. Domestic U.S. politics, like that cited in the letter, “is outside the purview,” Daroff said.

Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate

Edited by Suparba Sil and Judy J. Rotich

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