Workers Circle resigns from Conference of Presidents; others not expected to follow

Group criticizes conference for insufficiently condemning Israeli government and ‘attacks on democracy’ in the U.S.; Daroff says Workers Circle never raised its concerns

The Workers Circle announced it was resigning from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Wednesday, citing differences of opinion over Israeli, American and Jewish communal politics.

The group’s departure brings the number of member organizations in the conference to an even 50, with three more adjunct members.

“We have disagreed with the COP’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,” wrote Workers Circle President Zeev Dagan and CEO Ann Toback in a letter addressed to Conference of Presidents CEO William Daroff and Chair Harriet Schleifer.

“We are further dismayed at the silence of COP in the face of the many attacks on democracy here in the United States,” Dagan and Toback wrote. “We cannot be part of an organization that stands idly by in the face of these existential crises.”

The Workers Circle’s resignation did not appear to be the start of a wider exodus of progressive groups from the conference.

Other organizations that have similarly been critical of the Israeli government and of political developments in the U.S. have said that they plan on remaining in the umbrella group. This includes Americans for Peace Now, the only other member of the conference besides Workers Circle that voted against the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

“We feel it is valuable for us to be there and to be part of the conference, even though it’s not perfect,” Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of APN, told JTA.

Daroff told eJewishPhilanthropy that the Workers Circle had not voiced any such concerns with the Conference of Presidents prior to the resignation and have generally not been involved in the organization for several years. “It’s peculiar,” he said.

Toback confirmed to eJP that the organization had not brought up these issues with the conference or pushed for the conference to work toward its goals. She said the decision to leave was made in light of statements and activities by the conference that didn’t match the Workers Circle’s values. “We’ve seen that they’re not speaking for us in a way that allows us to be active participants in their work,” she said. “There’s no alignment [with our positions] so it made sense for us to step away.”

Daroff noted that, at the time of its resignation, the Workers Circle was $15,000 behind on its dues to the conference. Toback told JTA that the organization would pay what it owed.

Daroff said he had “no reason to doubt” that Dagan and Toback were being genuine with their explanation for why they were leaving.

“They felt out of sync with the Conference of Presidents because they are out of sync with the mainstream community,” he said. “And, if they don’t feel comfortable on Main Street, I absolutely respect their desire to be elsewhere.”

Toback pushed back against Daroff’s claim that the Workers Circle was out of step with mainstream American Jewry. She noted that in the latest poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute, the top ranked issue for American Jews in deciding who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election was “the future of democracy,” which Toback said was one of Workers Circle’s core focuses.

“They’re saying that the future of democracy is critical to them,” Toback said. “It’s critical to us, and we want to continue to work with the national Jewish community to do just that, to strengthen and protect our democracy.”

Initially started as a mutual aid society, providing supports and services such as health care, life insurance and burial assistance to its members, the Workers Circle (formerly Workmen’s Circle), which today has an annual budget of more than $3.5 million, has shifted its focus in recent years to promoting Jewish — and particularly Yiddish — culture and supporting social justice activism.

The Conference of Presidents, which advocates for the Jewish community in the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, has often found itself in the position of having to navigate and negotiate its way to common ground among the politically varied organizations that make up its membership. While the conference includes a broad swath of American Jewish life, its membership is not exhaustive. There are no explicitly Haredi organizations in the group, such as the Agudath Israel of America, nor are there any Jewish groups that identify as anti-Zionist. J Street, which identifies as pro-Israel, was rejected from the conference because of its views.

Responding to Workers Circle’s resignation, Daroff stressed that the conference remains a voice for the majority of American Jews.

“Notwithstanding divisive times, the Conference of Presidents maintains the consensus position of the American Jewish community with the support and engagement of 50 national organizations that span the ideological, political and religious spectrum,” he said. “I commend our community for seeing the importance of convening, coordinating activities and speaking with one voice, where the consensus exists to do so.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to include comments from Workers Circle CEO Ann Toback.