The lure of a second medal for Team USA in the 19th Maccabiah is the first thing
Robert B. Sugarman mentions as we sit down to discuss his new position as
chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
“I’m doing the Triathlon.
Four years ago, I got a
silver medal in my [Masters] age group, and I’m doing it a week from now, on
Friday,” says Sugarman, 73, smiling broadly. “It was thrilling four years ago,
and I’m really looking forward to doing it again, hopefully
Wearing a Maccabiah pin on the lapel of his black suit,
the white-haired, soft-spoken and instantly-affable Sugarman says he is
delighted that his wife, four children and six grandchildren are here “to cheer
Sitting alongside outgoing chairman Richard B. Stone and
CEO/executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein at a lounge table at Jerusalem’s
Inbal Hotel on Thursday, Sugarman uses another sporting term to describe the
real purpose of this visit.
“It’s the traditional passing of the baton to
introduce me and thank Richard for his two years of very, very effective
service,” he says, adding that the three men have had a series of meetings this
week with Israeli leaders, including President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister
Sugarman, a Yale graduate with a distinguished law
career in New York, served for three decades with the Anti-Defamation League,
culminating in his becoming its national chairman from 2009 until 2012. His
friends and colleagues call him Bob.
He was elected unanimously for a
one-year term as chairman at a general meeting of the Conference of Presidents
last month, and sees the role as “a significant opportunity” to steer the
umbrella group of US Jewry into the future.
“I think that the conference
is a hugely influential body,” he says. “Its strength is that it represents 49
organizations spanning the spectrum of religious, Zionist, political and
non-political opinion in the United States, and can make a real impact in the
two areas in which its mission is focused: One, enhancing the US-Israel
relationship, and secondly, protecting the security and dignity of Jews all over
Asked whether President Barack Obama can be trusted to stop
Iran’s nuclear drive, Sugarman says, “The president has said containment is not
an option, prevention is the policy.
I have confidence at the end of the
day that the president will do what he said he was going to do, realizing that
nobody is in favor of a military option.”
What does that mean? “On a very
personal level, I have a sister-in-law and a brother-in-law and 12 nieces and
nephews who live in Beit Shemesh,” he explains. “One of them is in the IDF right
The last thing that I want to see is a military situation. Having
said that, the Iranian nuclear threat is a threat to the Western world, to the
United States, certainly to Israel, and if it comes to military action, which I
hope it doesn’t, we’ll have to deal with that.”
Will Secretary of State
John Kerry be successful in his efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace
talks? “You have to give the secretary an enormous amount of credit for his
relentless pursuit of the goal of getting the parties back together,” he says.
“I think the prime minister has reiterated many, many times that he will go
anywhere to meet without preconditions.
[Palestinian Authority President]
Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] has time and again put additional conditions on
Hopefully, the secretary has figured out a formula to get them to
the table, and I think that would be a positive step.”
Stone, asked what
he has achieved during his two-year tenure, points to a consensus among the
American Jewish leadership.
“There has been relative unity on the fact
that one, we cannot live with an Iranian nuclear power. That has been the
conference’s main focus during the last two years,” he says. “The fight against
BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel] has been the
second major focus, but we’re nowhere close to winning that one yet. Still, the
conference and world Jewry are as united as I can remember it being on those
Hoenlein adds a third issue on the agenda.
“We have a lot
of new initiatives now, including outreach to Muslim countries, and 90 percent
of what we do we do is behind the scenes, like meeting with Arab leaders,
because that’s what gives us credibility and effectiveness,” he says. “I think
that the events in the Middle East have produced new opportunities that we have
to explore to see what is really possible. It’s not all negative.
the revolution could move in the right direction, if it is handled right. So the
West has to pick the right partners, and we can all play a role.”
asks to make “a bigger point.”
“In the history of the Jewish people,
we’ve had a hard time persuading the world about our just claims and our right
to exist, in spite of the fact that our contributions to civilization have been
utterly unique and crazily out of proportion to our population,” he says. “The
important thing, of course, is to try to change that perception, but the most
important people who have to have that perception are ourselves.
most important thing is for the Jewish people to walk with pride and with
absolutely no question at all of its right to exist, of the importance of its
existence to the world, and particularly right now, of the fact that the State
of Israel has an unquestionable right to exist, and that the world needs the
State of Israel almost as much as the Jews need the State of
Sugarman, Stone and Hoenlein all believe the US administration
should immediately grant clemency to Jonathan Pollard, who has served more than
28 years in jail for spying for Israel.
“I think that the Jewish
community and I personally believe that it is time for Pollard to be released on
humanitarian grounds,” says Sugarman.
“He has served longer than any
other person convicted of similar offenses, and it is time for him to be free.”