Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Can the Conference Kick Out ZOA?

The Zionist Organization of America, helmed by far-right bombthrower Mort Klein, has been an embarrassment to American Jewry for a long time. There's been rumbling for awhile about the need to extirpate them from mainstream Jewish spaces, but it's never really broken out into the mainstream. But now things might be changing. Abe Silberstein posted a column in the Forward urging the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to expel ZOA from the group. And several constituent members of the Conference appear to be taking up the banner -- or at least calling for an explicit censuring -- including Ameinu, the Union for Reform Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, and HIAS (ZOA, for its part, tried to derail a HIAS leader from ascending to the leadership of the Conference and has urged that it should HIAS that is expelled because it seeks to aid Muslim immigrants and is not truly a "Jewish" organization).

ZOA had previously been warned that its fratricidal tactics could lead to escalating discipline, including expulsion. But if it goes to the Conference membership, are there really the votes to kick them out? I'm dubious.

There are 51 members of the Conference, but "major" notwithstanding, not all of them are all that big. There's a fair amount of deadweight, groups that once were prominent but now are basically shells (the American Jewish Congress is a notorious example). Meanwhile, quite a few significant liberal Jewish groups are not members -- J Street was famously denied membership back in 2014, and groups like T'ruah, the New Israel Fund, and Hazon are also on the outside.

When ZOA tried to stop Dianne Lob of HIAS from becoming the next Chair of the Conference, they lost by a vote of 43-8. Those eight votes haven't been released (though one can venture some pretty solid guesses about who they are), but they represent a floor on ZOA's support, not a ceiling. Canvassing the membership, one can certainly see many of the larger players lining up against ZOA if the political winds shift in the right direction. But it is very hard for me to count 26 potential organizations voting to expel ZOA outright. Many of the smaller groups are, at best, studiously "non-confrontational", and at worst outright sympathizers with ZOA's authoritarian agenda.

Of course, this raises the question of whether the Conference itself is antiquated beyond repair, and some have suggested that liberal groups should leave outright if ZOA is allowed to stay. That possibility, unfortunately, has to be taken seriously. But another approach is that, if it's impossible to kick groups out, work harder to incorporate new groups in. True, J Street tried to do just that a few years ago and was blocked out. But J Street is (quite unfairly, but it is what it is) a particular lightning rod for criticism. By contrast, now would be an excellent time to push to include more organizations that explicitly represent Jews of Color (such as Be'chol Leshon). The "soft middle" that might hesitate to outright kick out a group like ZOA might be similarly loathe to obstruct the incorporation of such organizations -- and their inclusion would, in addition to just being the right thing to do, counterbalance the votes of some of the obsolete legacy organizations as well as almost certainly generating greater internal pressure to speak out against the sort of racism and authoritarianism that ZOA has become known for.

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