Editor's Notes: Bob Sugarman braces for the Triathlon – and leading US Jewry

New chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations sits down with the "Post."

MALCOLM HOENLEIN, Robert Sugarman and Richard Stone370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
MALCOLM HOENLEIN, Robert Sugarman and Richard Stone370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 Organizations.
“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 successfully.”
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 me on.”
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 Binyamin Netanyahu.
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 the world.”
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 now.
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 this.
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 issues.”
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.
I think 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.”
Stone 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.
“The 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 Israel.”
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.”