WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Joint (Arab) List MK Ayman Odeh refused to address the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Thursday, protesting the fact that the New York offices in which the meeting was to be held also housed the Jewish Agency and other Zionist organizations.

According to the meeting’s organizers, Odeh entered the building’s lobby, but refused to go in, citing the fact that the offices on the floor with the Conference of Presidents also housed the Jewish Agency — a quasi-governmental organization that the Arab List claims participates in discriminatory practices against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

“I came here to represent the Arab public in Israel to American audiences,” Odeh later recounted in a statement. “As their representative, I cannot in good conscience participate in meetings in the offices of organizations whose work displaces Arab citizens, just as in the Knesset, we do not participate in the Ministry of Defense, the Foreign Ministry, and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption.”

With some two dozen representatives of organizations that participate in the Conference of Presidents sitting and waiting upstairs, Conference of Presidents Executive Vice President Malcolm Hoenlein came downstairs to try to find a solution. Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli also attempted to deescalate the situation — and a suggestion was floated to hold the meeting on a different floor of the building, which houses the offices of the Reform Movement.

But that facility, Hoenlein said, was occupied — and he emphasized that even if it had been available, he thought the demand to hold the meeting anywhere but in the organization’s offices was unacceptable.

“To move it because I should acknowledge that a Member of Knesset wouldn’t come a floor as if there is some contamination there because there is a Zionist presence?” he asked. The meeting room where they were supposed to meet, Hoenlein stressed, had no signs from the Jewish Agency.

“I asked him, How do you go to the Knesset?” Hoenlein recounted. “I said to him, I have no choice, I have to go up and tell the truth.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

“They were outraged,” Hoenlein continued, referring to his waiting colleagues. “We will continue to have an open forum but we are going to maintain principles that should be inviolate. They can’t manifest an attitude like that.”

“We have Arab leaders come here all the time. We never had one person tell me I can’t come on to your floor,” he said.

Odeh, however, saw things differently.

“Throughout my visit to the United States, I have spoken with Jewish and Palestinian communities about the need for a joint struggle for our shared future, based on mutual respect and independence for both peoples,” he wrote in his statement. “The Conference of Presidents’ refusal to meet in any other location shows a deep lack of understanding and respect.”

In their official response, Conference of Presidents Chairman Stephen Greenberg and Hoenlein said that the leaders of the umbrella organization were “deeply disturbed and shocked at the refusal” of Odeh “to fulfill his commitment to speak before a meeting of the Conference, because our premises are shared with the Jewish Agency, and other Zionist groups.”

“We received several suggestions that MK Ayman Odeh be invited and, in keeping with the Conference’s decades long tradition of providing a forum for a wide variety of points of view on issues affecting the American Jewish community’s agenda, we extended the invitation,” the two noted. “We have had leaders of virtually every faction and party in the United States, Israel, from friendly and unfriendly countries, and none ever refused to appear. For a member of the Knesset to assert that he will not enter a premises because it has an association with Zionist entities, like the Jewish Agency, is disturbing and dismaying.”

Hoenlein and Greenberg wrote that after the experience, they “now understand the recent demand of the Mayor of the Nazareth, Ali Salem, that Odeh leave his city because his presence promotes divisiveness.” At the time, Salem said Arab List leaders were provoking and encouraging in recent demonstrations, accusing them of “destroying our future” and “destroying coexistence.”

Greenberg and Hoenlein said that “the Conference will continue to provide an open forum but will not compromise our principles and yield to such an outrageous demand.”

“We hope MK Odeh will reconsider his stance if he, indeed, wants to advance coexistence in Israel and promote understanding abroad,” they concluded. “As a leader, he cannot succumb to the pressures of extremists in his constituency, but should take advantage of such opportunities to provide his perspective, and that of those he represents, to an important and interested audience.”

The 40-year-old lawmaker is on a weeklong visit to the United States. In Washington, he met with administration officials, members of Congress, and representatives of liberal think tanks. In New York, the freshman MK was hosted by the Union of Reform Judaism’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs and met with a number of Reform leaders.