“To be a Jew is to be commanded to take actions because they are right, not because they bring personal comfort or material gain. Had Abraham wanted tranquility and prosperity, he would have carried on his father’s idol business.
“To be a Jew is to open one’s tent on all four sides so that any stranger in need of food and shelter can enter from every direction. To be a Jew is to believe that the world can be redeemed. To be a Jew is to be carried by the current of the ancient Jewish river that keeps on flowing. The journey will continue.”
These words by the late Arthur Hertzberg convey what the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sees as its mandate and has lived by since its inception. American Jewry has learned that for this journey to succeed, it must be united in working for the welfare of its community and its country; of Israel; and of world Jewry.
Malcolm Hoenlein, Presidents Conference executive vice chairman and CEO since 1986, notes that the lesson of Jewish history is that every great accomplishment and miracle had one precondition: unity.
When we stand together, others will join us and we are able to achieve the impossible. When we are divided, every challenge seems insurmountable. It’s this unity of purpose, of shared commitment and common aspirations, that enables the Conference to reach out to leaders across the political spectrum.
Working in concert doesn’t require sacrificing principles or suppressing differences, Hoenlein insists. He started as executive vice chairman with a staff of three and thirty-some organizations. Today there are fifty organizations representing the broad spectrum of the American Jewish community.
He acknowledges that “at times there are tensions and difficulties. But we know that what we are doing is a sacred responsibility and the consequences are of great significance.”
Intended as an informal body during its formative years in the mid-1950s, the Conference was formally established in 1959, three years after it played a pivotal role in representing the American Jewish community at meetings at the White House and State Department during the crisis precipitated by the Suez War of October 1956.
The Conference helped marshal public opinion by organizing mass rallies throughout the country and by persistently appealing to the Eisenhower administration to recognize Israel’s right to self-defense and to live in security after Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal and the Suez war ensued.
Repeatedly tested, the Conference demonstrated its ability to speak effectively, forcefully and with dignity for Israel and to galvanize support for it in the U.S.
Nahum Goldmann (chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, president of the World Jewish Congress, and chairman of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims on Germany) and Philip Klutznick (president of B’nai B’rith and B’nai B’rith International) were main forces behind the creation of the Conference. In part, they were responding to U.S. government requests to have one voice speak for the American Jewish community.
As Moshe Fox points out in his extensive work on the history of the Conference, these men and their contemporaries shared a vision of the American Jewish community working together on the world stage to further the Jewish cause, to defend the rights of Jews, and to harness the authority of American public opinion and the support of the American government to strengthen and reinforce the only democracy in the Middle East.
The new forum would not be another Jewish organization; instead it would function as a representative body.
Since all members of this forum were presidents of their membership organizations, the group became known as the Presidents Club, meeting informally. Judd Teller, a prominent journalist and scholar, served as unofficial coordinating secretary. The group’s name was changed in 1959 to reflect its status as an umbrella group for its member organizations.