Richard B. Stone: A rock-solid American Jewish leader

Editor's Notes: When it’s necessary, he knows how to pack a punch.

RICHARD B. STONE 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
If you’re looking for a strong, new American Jewish leader to defend Israel and US Jewry, Richard B. Stone may be the man.
When it’s necessary, he knows how to pack a punch.
“There’s a very important lesson that we would really like to be able to communicate to the world, and that is that the Israel-Palestinian conflict, if it were resolved tomorrow, would not remotely resolve the problems of the Middle East,” he told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview. “I think a lot of people really don’t understand that, and think that if Israel made certain concessions and peace broke out, the Middle East would be a stable and nonthreatening region.”
Stone looks like a law professor from the film The Paper Chase, and speaks like one too.
Actually, he is a professor of law at Columbia University, where he has held the Wilbur Friedman Chair in Tax Law since 1991.
He took over as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (an umbrella body representing some 50 Jewish groups in the US) on June 1, 2011, from Alan Solow.
Next week (February 19-23), he will be at the helm of the Conference of Presidents’ 38th Israel Leadership Mission at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel, which is bringing together more than 100 American Jewish leaders.
He will address them on the challenges ahead, together with his veteran executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, who has been serving since 1986.
They will also hear from Israeli leaders, including President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat as well as top security officials and academics.
Throughout the five-day conference, speakers and panels will address issues ranging from the international community’s response to the Iranian nuclear threat and Iranian-sponsored terrorism, regional developments and the delegitimization of Israel, to social trends here, anti-Semitism and Jewish identity.
Following the twin terrorist attacks on Monday targeting the Israeli diplomatic missions in India and Georgia, Stone and Hoenlein issued a harsh statement pointing a finger at Iran and its agents, Hezbollah and Hamas.
“Evidence from earlier instances of terrorist attacks points to the involvement of Iranian agents, and certainly their support for Hamas and Hezbollah and other terrorists around the world put them at the forefront of likely perpetrators,” they said in the joint statement. “Iran and its agents must be held to account by the international community.”
Unlike Hoenlein, who is a master of the media and could teach a class on how to talk to reporters and politicians with authority and clarity, Stone is more down-to-earth and matter- of-fact, but comes across as a natural leader with inner strength and conviction.
Stone has said that his goals as chairman include prioritizing the fight against the delegitimization of Israel, strengthening ties with Israel and promoting unity among the American Jewish community.
He, like Hoenlein, is convinced that American Jewish leaders – and Israel – should be conveying an image of strength to the world.
“Malcolm made the point that it’s very important to not show weakness, and perceptions in this part of the world of weakness come very, very easily,” he argued. “There was no more eloquent statement of this that I’ve ever heard than when we met with Arab leaders for the first time as the Arab Spring was in its infancy and [Hosni] Mubarak had been deposed. The first thing they raised was that America would pay a price for a long time in terms of the trust allies would have in the United States because of the way it had not stood up for Mubarak.
“I’m not saying what we should have done or not have done about Mubarak, but that was a very important statement on their part about the way things are perceived.”
When it comes to fighting the delegitimization of Israel around the globe, Stone is especially tough: “It’s very important to understand, contrary to what some scholars and even well-meaning people have said, that delegitimization is not simply criticism of Israeli policies or disagreement with Israeli policies.
“It’s a whole new way of attack that is based on pounding away at repeating large lies, that if you don’t counter them, and they’re said by enough people over time, they’re very difficult to refute.
“There’s a double standard that really is today’s form of respectable anti-Semitism. And you have to recognize it for that. It’s a tremendous amount of the effort that we are exerting now as a Conference... and we need to do much more.”
Asked about the role of US Jewry in this year’s presidential elections, Stone stressed that the US-Israel relationship should remain strong, no matter what the result.
“I don’t know how the Jewish vote is going to come out in this election. Before every election, there seems to be a prediction that the Jewish vote is going to be more heavily Republican than in the last election, and a lot of times it doesn’t happen, although I agree that the demography of the Jewish community in a number of ways – Orthodox Jews, Russians, younger people etc. – is moving, probably, so that it will be more evenly divided,” he said. “I think two things are important.
One, it’s good that no party can take the Jewish vote for granted. That’s as simple a statement as you can make. If Jews are to have influence over issues, particularly international issues, it’s very important that it’s not discounted beforehand as an 80- 20 percent Democratic vote.
“Second, I think this discussion should always take place with the understanding that though we may have disagreements, and it depends who the candidate is and what the conversation during the election is, the suggestion that the Jewish vote might be more heavily Republican than it normally is ought not to obscure the fact that the America-Israel relationship has remained – with quibbles here and there – extremely strong throughout this administration.”
Stone is a strong advocate for the release of Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in an American jail for spying on behalf of Israel.
“I want to make one comment, with the perspective now of 27 years,” he said. “Some of the intelligence people, and some people involved in the prosecution who were opposed to his release on humanitarian grounds earlier, have come back and explicitly said that it’s time now to let him go, one of whom is James Woolsey, who was head of the CIA.
“We were very upset and made a statement on behalf of the Conference when he was not allowed in his 27th year in jail to attend his father’s funeral.
It was a dreadful moment, and I hope at this point that people can come to understand that neither Pollard nor his supporters are suggesting that this be an exoneration of what he did, but simply a release on humanitarian grounds for someone who is quite sick and who has been there far longer than anyone else convicted of a similar crime.”
Originally from New Orleans, Stone now lives in New York City and has four children. He is, inter alia, a member of the Executive Committee of the New York JCRC, is on the board of NCSJ, which advocates for the Jewish communities in the 15 republics that emerged from the Soviet Union, and served under mayor Rudolph Giuliani on the board of CUNY, the City University of New York.
He noted, incidentally, that his middle initial stands for Berenson.
“Berenson was the name of my Litvak grandfather who settled in a town on the Louisiana- Mississippi called Bogalusa,” he said.