New Conference of Presidents’ leader should look inward - analysis

The times have changed, and American Jewry has changed significantly since Hoenlein took over in 1986.

By
August 7, 2019 04:56
3 minute read.
Obama and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Obama and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (photo credit: PETE SOUZA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

When William Daroff – named this week to replace Malcolm Hoenlein as head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CoP) – moves into his office in New York, he may very well be taking over an organization whose glory days are behind it.

Not that the CoP – the umbrella organization of some 50 American Jewish groups widely viewed in Washington and other capitals as the address for American Jewry – is unimportant. It is important. But as American Jewry has changed, as Israel has changed and as the world’s attitude toward Israel has also changed, the organization’s diplomatic importance from an Israeli point of view has declined.

The group’s glory days were arguably in the 1990s, in the early years of Hoenlein’s 33-year tenure, when the Iron Curtain fell and Central and Eastern European countries came out from under the Soviet yoke and were looking for ways to develop good relations with the US.

The Conference of Presidents was one vehicle to do so. In various capitals in Eastern and Central Europe, leaders sought, through the CoP, to reach out to American Jews and to dangle the possibility of improved ties with Israel, in the hopes that Hoenlein – who enjoyed good access to the White House across administrations, both Democratic and Republican – would put in a good word.

The same was also true of leaders of various Arab countries, for whom it was often easier and more palatable to meet with American Jewish leaders, than with Israeli ones.

Over the last three decades, Hoenlein traveled the globe, often taking CoP missions before or after their annual conference in Israel everywhere from Kazakhstan to the United Arab Emirates. Among other countries visited in previous years – and this is just a partial list – were Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

Hoenlein had access in Washington, and that access was seen by leaders abroad who, as a result, were keen on developing a relationship with him to perhaps use that access to their own advantage. This was a case where the perception of influence led to an increase in actual influence.

Meetings with Hoenlein were always spiced with the names of various world leaders whom he met, and he gave off the impression that he could go virtually anywhere and talk with almost anyone. Hoenlein used that access to relay messages, and to lobby for what his organization deemed was in the interests of American Jewry, Israel and the Jews of the world.

And not only were doors open to the CoP in Washington, but in Jerusalem as well. His access to the leadership in the US made him a sought out personality when he came to Israel.

In the ’90s, as one official said, when Hoenlein came to Jerusalem, it was a news item.

Much less so of late.

One reason is that Israel has itself now established relations with those former Soviet bloc countries that Hoenlein was traveling to soon after the Iron Curtain’s collapse. Jerusalem doesn’t need Hoenlein or the CoP to have a dialogue with the presidents of Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan. It can do so on its own.

The same is true in the Arab world. So many channels of communication exist today between Israel and the Arab world, that the CoP’s being able to travel to Qatar or the UAE or Morocco or Tunisia is not what it once was. Foreign Minister Israel Katz can meet with the leaders of these countries on his own.

Also in regards to the administration of US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not need Hoenlein to open doors to the Oval Office, he can do it by himself or through Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.

As a result, when Daroff takes control of the organization – after 33 years of Hoenlein’s tenure – it may be worth rethinking its functions and where its energy should be focused.

The times have changed, and American Jewry has changed significantly since Hoenlein took over in 1986. It is less identified Jewishly, it is less connected to Israel and it has less use for the traditional organizations and their old-school leaders.

With Israel showing that it is able to fend diplomatically pretty well on its own, this may be the time for Daroff to look inward and focus the organization’s energies less on high diplomacy, and more on strengthening the American Jewish community – its identity and its relationship to Israel.

Less sexy, perhaps, but equally important.


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