In another era, the nomination of Dianne Lob as incoming chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would have likely gone smoothly and unopposed, viewed as a standard changing of the guard in the world of Jewish organizations.
But as the pitched battle over the Trump administration’s immigration policies rages, Lob – the past chair of the immigrant and refugee charity HIAS – has been slammed as “unqualified” and “hostile” to Israel by a far-right group within the membership of the Conference that is allied with White House.
Lob has defended herself, rallying allies to her side in an effort to prove her pro-Israel bona fides.
The Presidents’ Conference is a coalition of over 50 Jewish organizations from across the ideological spectrum. The fierce criticism of Lob has come from the Zionist Organization of America, which announced on Sunday it was “deeply alarmed” by Lob’s “troubling nomination” and urged that it be withdrawn. Failing that, the group asked to postpone the election of a new chair until after the coronavirus crisis, or, to “hold a competitive election that gives the Presidents’ Conference’s 54 member organizations the opportunity to choose a highly-qualified, fully-vetted, non-conflicted candidate instead of Ms. Lob.”
HIAS is a veteran organization, founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society and initially undertaking the mission of assisting Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. After World War II, it was instrumental in resettling 150,000 Holocaust survivors.
In recent decades, HIAS has focused its efforts on extending assistance to non-Jewish refugees, expanding its mission to do so when support for immigrants was a broadly popular and bipartisan issue. Today, HIAS is one of nine agencies in the United States that help resettle refugees – and the only Jewish one among them.
Throughout HIAS’ long history, partisan politics have interfered little with its mission within the Jewish community. Protecting immigrant rights has traditionally been regarded as a consensus issue and a community priority, as it allowed Jews fleeing oppression around the world to find a safe haven in the U.S.
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But that changed with Trump’s presidential campaign and election in 2016, as Jewish groups close to his administration adopted his harsher stance toward immigration – putting them at odds with the goals of HIAS. The relationship between ZOA and HIAS has been particularly charged, as HIAS has become prominent in challenging Trump’s policies. ZOA’s major funders include Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who were counted among Trump’s biggest campaign donors in 2016 and continue to back pro-Trump PACs.
A 2018 report in The Forward cited sources inside the Presidents’ Conference as saying that HIAS had formally complained against ZOA for breaching internal conduct rules. The complaint, the report said, likely referred to a letter to the editor published in The Forward in 2017, in which Mort Klein, ZOA’s president, suggested that there was a “profit motive” behind the HIAS’ opposition to Trump’s banning of refugees from a list of Muslim countries.
In 2019, The New York Jewish Week reported that the Presidents’ Conference issued a “written warning” to ZOA for violating its internal ban against attacking other member organizations. In one example, ZOA charged that HIAS was part of an “unholy consortium of Jewish and anti-Israel groups” fighting Trump’s immigration policies.
Lob, who is head of global business development for international investment management firm AllianceBernstein, served as HIAS’s board chair from 2016 until 2019, a period that included the turbulent months following the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.
The perpetrator of the that shooting, Robert Bowers, is believed to have chosen the synagogue as the target of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history because he was fixated on HIAS.
In the weeks preceding the shooting, HIAS had promoted its National Refugee Shabbat event, which included participating synagogues, among them the Reconstructionist Congregation that uses the building. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in who screw our people,” Bowers wrote on the social media site Gab before the shooting.
‘Not a Jewish organization’
Lob’s nomination for HIAS board chair was announced on April 17, with a full vote by the conference membership scheduled to take place on April 28. Presidents’ Conference CEO William Daroff had no comment on the ZOA attacks on Lob. In announcing her nomination, he and Vice Chair Malcolm Hoenlein praised her, saying that she “brings a unique and valued outlook from her leadership position as the chair of one of the most storied organizations in American Jewish life and from her senior positions in the financial industry.”
In a lengthy letter to the Presidents’ Conference leaders, ZOA President Morton Klein and chairman Mark S. Levenson published a laundry list of complaints against Lob. The list of concerns included charges that HIAS “has been ‘collaborating’ with Islamic Relief USA” – which, the group charged, has “ties to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.” It also pointed to the group’s cooperation with the Council on Islamic-American relations and defense of Linda Sarsour, attacked by ZOA as “Jew-hating, Israel-hating, BDS-promoting, and a Muslim supremacist.”
The letter also said HIAS “collaborates with anti-Semitic United Nations Agencies” and “repeatedly opposes and undermines Israel’s efforts to contend with and repatriate the thousands of illegal Eritrean migrants whose criminal activities have made life virtually unlivable for Israel’s South Tel Aviv residents.”
Finally, the letter charged, HIAS is “not a Jewish organization,” “has primarily non-Jewish (especially Muslim) clients” and has “ignored” European Jews fleeing anti-Semitism.
Pushing back against the criticism, Lob issued a statement on the same day the ZOA letter was released. Without specifically addressing ZOA’s charges, Lob described herself “as someone deeply devoted to Jewish values and to the importance of safeguarding the special U.S.-Israel relationship” whose “involvement with HIAS developed from my personal history as the child of refugees from Nazi Germany.
“My support for a strong and vibrant Israel is rooted in my belief that the safety and security of Israel is critical to Jews in the US and across the world,” she said, and assured that she would “do everything in my power to assure that strength is maintained and enhanced ... The delegitimization of Israel continues to be a threat we must counter, as is the reprehensible BDS movement, which we must continue to strongly oppose.”
Israel’s consul general in New York, Dani Dayan, who has appeared at ZOA events in the past, nonetheless rallied to Lob’s side, tweeting a “very hearty Mazal Tov” for her nomination.
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, tweeted that she planned to vote for Lob, calling her “thoughtful, inclusive, and strategic” – and said that ZOA’s rhetoric against Lob “violates the membership policies” of the Presidents’ Conference.
ZOA, meanwhile, has found support from allies on the far right, like Frank Gaffney, executive chairman of the Center for Security Policy, and Israel Hayom columnist Caroline Glick.
Even Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor of Arkansas, joined in. He called on the Presidents' Conference to reconsider nominating the "anti-Trump Dianne Lob," because he claimed the president was the best ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had. His comments drew criticism online, with some saying his claim American Jews should care only about Israel or support for Netayahu was itself a form antisemitism.