Downplaying Durban: An Inside Look at the Jewish Organizational Strategy

Conference of Presidents’ Hoenlein sits down with JointMedia News Service, says the community shunned large rallies in order to draw attention away from Durban III and UDI, not to it.

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(Click photo to download. Caption: This Sept. 21 pro-Israel rally at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York was organized by the International Center for Christian Leadership—not the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which opted against large rallies during UN Week to draw attention away from Durban III, not to it. Credit: Jacob Kamaras.)

Malcolm Hoenlein can honestly say he has “organized more demonstrations than any Jew in America over the last four decades,” on issues ranging from Soviet Jewry to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Israel solidarity.

Yet, with global attention swirling around New York last week amid expectations of Durban III’s anti-Semitic overtones and unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence at the United Nations, the longtime executive vice chairman of the central coordinating body that represents 50 national Jewish organizations chose a different course.

From conversations with Israeli, American and UN officials, it was clear to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that the sentiment “across the board” was to “relegate [Durban III] to insignificance” because it was a commemoration of Durban I, not a conference in itself, Hoenlein told JointMedia News Service in an interview from his office in Manhattan during UN Week.

Thus, the Conference of Presidents staged no major rallies outside the UN as it did with the Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Federation systems in previous years. With the lack of attention Durban III received, it was apparent that the organized Jewish community’s strategy worked.

“There was no point in a demonstration because we’re not demonstrating against anybody and we’re going to demonstrate against an empty hall, hopefully,” Hoenlein said. “So the point was, not to draw attention to [Durban III] but to draw attention away.”

Hoenlein said the Conference of Presidents planned “at least nine or 10 months” for Durban III and began working on the issue of unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence (UDI) as the prospect of a statehood bid became apparent in the spring. Though Hoenlein is “absolutely for going to the streets when it’s necessary and productive,” he said the ultimate goal for both issues was “to do something that would be effective and have the result we wanted.”

In that vein, he said, there were two factors that made staging large rallies impractical: the abovementioned desire to downplay Durban III and the statehood bid, as well as the logistical issue of having New York City in shutdown with President Barack Obama and 60 world leaders at the UN. For past rallies against Ahmadinejad’s Iran, Hoenlein said it was difficult for large crowds to attend because of the harsh travel situation in New York.

“For us to put our name onto it [as the Conference of Presidents], means you have to have a big turnout,” Hoenlein said.

There was also an issue of credibility, he said.

“The next time we pull people out [for a rally], they know that it’s really because it makes a difference, not just for the exercise,” Hoenlein said.

When it comes to major Jewish community issues, the Conference of Presidents’ goal is always to create unity. Hoenlein said unity “doesn’t mean homogeneity, we don’t take away anybody’s autonomy, but we do provide the biggest common forum for the community where people from all stripes and all walks can come together for common deliberation and where possible common action.”

“At least, you know that you can ultimately arrive on 95 percent of the issues at some sort of a consensus position, and it’s not based on votes,” he said, “it’s based on understanding where people are at and finding that common ground, and then you can built it. I think on [Durban III and UDI], it certainly was true.”

The Conference of Presidents started the campaign to get countries to drop out of Durban III, through consultations with groups in America and visit abroad. Sixteen countries dropped out and many told the Conference of Presidents they wouldn’t make an official announcement to that end but would still elect not to show up at Durban.

“People did not want this and they were annoyed by it, and they did not want it to become an Israel-bashing session,” Hoenlein said, noting that the UN limited Durban III to one day and then limited public speaking time for each country to three minutes.

On UDI, the Conference of Presidents had a 100-day plan from June until Sept. 20, beginning with a grassroots campaign including consultations with U.S. communities, ambassadors in Washington, ambassadors in UN, and meetings with foreign ministers and prime ministers. Through the distribution of educational material and briefings, “We tried to get across the message of what was wrong with UDI, what it was about,” Hoenlein said.

Not just Jews were fed up with UDI, according to Hoenlein.

“Many Arab countries expressed frustration about it, thinking that it was a diversion, it was an unnecessary exercise,” Hoenlein said. “Many felt that it would be ultimately counterproductive for the Palestinian people, they feared for events in the region.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “overplayed his hand” by waffling on the course of his statehood, regarding whether it would go through the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, neither, or both, Hoenlein said.

“He kept raising the stakes for himself on this issue,” Hoenlein said.

Before the statehood bid, the Conference of Presidents convened over 100 experts from 60 organizations to debate how the community should respond, Hoenlein said, and the plan was followed to a “T.”

“The community was remarkably in sync throughout, and we kept saying that we don’t want to create a reality that may not happen and that Abbas will play this until the last minute but won’t go all the way,” he said.

Other Conference of Presidents initiatives included forming a special task force on Durban III and UDI, an interagency task force on the delegitimization of Israel, and a UN committee. Nonmembers of the conference like campus groups even joined the response effort, Hoenlein said.

“The community, I think, can really proudly show its record of the immense amount of work that has gone into it,” Hoenlein said. “I don’t remember such a consistent campaign since Soviet Jewry where all the elements of the community were in it and working on it, and using the new media, the old media, creative stuff, Internet creations and so many other manifestations.”

The next step for the Conference of Presidents following Durban III and UDI, Hoenlein said, is to get the threat of Iran “back in focus,” give the country’s nuclear program and support for terrorism. However, with Iran being a global issue, he said the most serious Jewish-specific challenge is to address the delegitimization of Israel.

“The lesson is that you can’t fight a 21st century war with 18th century weapons. That we have to get the community into Facebook, Twitter, all of the new media, that we have to utilize the new techniques and new capacities, and to be much more effective in not just playing defense but going on offense,” Hoenlein said.

Delegitimization permeates every sector, Hoenlein said, including unions, commerce, churches, academics, politics and more. It’s a gradual and “cancerous” process, he said, that is being combated by the Conference of Presidents’ strategic communications center—which Hoenlein has worked on for five years now.

Having a “common forum” of the Conference of Presidents is key in responding to delegitimization, so people can discuss what they can do uniquely and what they can do collectively, Hoenlein said. Offering another reminder of his organization’s mission, Hoenlein identified the one precondition for every great thing that has happened to the Jewish people: unity.

“It means that Jews have to recognize that what we have in common is far more than our differences and far more important,” he said. “And once you understand it, then find ways to come together and maximize our resources and our ability to make Jewish power a legend not a myth.”


Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.


Posted on September 20, 2011 and filed under U.S..