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May 19, 1989 - Image 28

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-05-19

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FRIDAY, MAY 19, 1989


High Ground

Continued from preceding page

been around far longer. He's
like the senior rabbi who's
been 30 or 40 years at his
post, and then somebody new
comes along and has to fill his
shoes. When you look at him
in action, he seems to be do-
ing a good job."
Another factor is the nature
of the job itself. In a curious
way, the chairmanship of the
President's Conference serves
as a kind of overflow valve for
pressures that are always
building up within the
Jewish community.
During Abram's tenure,
there was always a barely-
concealed undercurrent of
discontent among Jewish ac-
tivists, a concern revolving
around Abram's conser-
vatism, his competence.
Today, many of the same ac-
tivists are expressing similar
concerns about Reich — and
holding Abram up as a kind
of paragon of Jewish
"There is no question that
there was some concern, some
trepidation about filling Mor-
ris' shoes," Reich said now.
"I'm putting those shoes on
one at a time, and I'm comfor-
table. I had apprehensions in
terms of contacts; Morris was
part of the Civil Rights Com-
mission, part of the Reagan
administration; he knew a
tremendous number of
"But I am finding that the
position itself commands
respect. If you handle yourself
right, you can not only attain
the respect of your peers, but
that of government officials."
His first few months as
head of the President's Con-
ference have gotten off to a
slow start, he said — in part
a function of the transition at
the White House, and the dif-
ficulty in making contact
with a half-formed
And recent events, in-
cluding the growing din over
Israel's response to the in-
tifada and the new U.S.-PLO
dialogue, have come together
to add new layers of complex-
ity to Reich's job. In fact, these
events have nudged to the
surface the other dominant
theme in Reich's public life —
the need for Jewish unity on
the question of Israel.
Recently, when some
Jewish leaders were balking
at the invitation to attend the
"Prime Ministers Con-
ference" in Jerusalem, an
event designed to convey the
impression of unity on the eve
of Prime Minister Shamir's
trip to Washington, Reich us-
ed the power and influence of
his office to pull together a
consensus statement in sup-
port of the conference, signed

by a long list of major Jewish
Reich clearly believes that
public criticism of Israel
represents a threat to that
country's security.
In answer to a question
about whether there might be
circumstances under which
he might be forced to make
his criticisms of Israeli policy
public — if, for example, ex-
pulsion of the Arab popula-
tion became a serious
possibility in Israel — Reich
declined to provide a direct
"I don't like to hypothesize,"
he said. "I think you have to
respond to issues as they oc-
cur. I have faith in Israel, in
the Israeli people. When
Shamir leaves Washington,
it's my expectation that he
will have made his mark with
the new administration.
Peace is not going to break
out the day he leaves. They
don't trust Arafat, and
nobody blames them. I've
spoken to many corporate
leaders in the last few
months, and they say,
`Seymour, Israel's got to be
crazy if they trust the PLO!
So there's this basic
understanding out there as to
what the PLO is."
Michael Lerner, editor of
the magazine Tikkun and the
unofficial spokesman for an
opposing movement within
the American Jewish com-

Reich is an
American classic:
a politician who
relishes the
process of
whose success is
measured as much
by stamina as by

munity, suggests that this
emphasis on a facade of uni-
ty saps the vitality of the
Jewish community.
Lerner sees Reich as a kind
of personification of the
generational schism that
some observers suggest is slic-
ing through the heart of the
Jewish community.
"He's a perfect example of
the anti-intellectual, conser-
vative voices in the Jewish
world who are out of touch
with the majority," Lerner
said. "He does represent a
segment of American Jews
who are involved in the
organized Jewish world. But
I think they understand they
have no base whatsoever in
Jews under 45; they have
totally failed to recruit

significant numbers of
younger Jews. This consti-
tuency is not represented one
inch inside the Conference of

and weaknesses

Some of Seymour Reich's
critics tend to oversimplify
the man's character with
generalizations about his
competence, his ego and his
penchant for publicity. There
is a sense among some that
Reich's public persona is the
beginning and end of his per-
sonality, that it is all glossy
But clearly, there is more to
Reich than the striving
organization man, the Jewish
leader with the stainless steel
Without actually spelling it
out, Reich depicts himself as
the defender of a long tradi-
tion of Jewish activism — a
tradition typified by B'nai
B'rith, a style of activism
criticized by people like
Michael Lerner as hopelessly
out of date.
Like any good politician,
Reich generally sticks to
general statements about ser-
vice to the community, about
Jewish unity. Some people
who have worked with him
suggest that he is a man who
shies away from controversy;
his detractors suggest that
this indicates a lack of vision,
and his supporters argue that
this quality represents the
kind of mature diplomacy
needed to navigate the
treacherous waters of Jewish
communal activity.
When asked to assess his
own strengths and
weaknesses as a leader,
Reich's answers are revealing.
Without pausing to collect his
thoughts, he ticks off his
strengths. "The ability to
listen to other people, to care
about other views, to pull the
group together," he said. "To
sometimes be articulate, to be
aggressive when necessary, to
stand firm when appropriate.
And a deep sense of Jewish
When asked about his
weaknesses, there is a long
pause. "I have no doubt that
there are many. The question
is to put them on a sheet of
paper . . . "
He stops, asks a colleague
whether he can name any
weaknesses. When pressed
about whether his style of
leadership sometimes causes
him problems, he expresses
puzzlement at the question.
"Why should it?"
Finally he agrees that one
weakness is his non-stop ac-
tivity. "Without any slight, I
can do Argentina in a day and

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