When Malcolm Hoenlein made his acceptance speech after receiving the Guardian of Zion Award from Bar-Ilan University’s Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies in Jerusalem last month, he quoted Rashi’s opening to his commentary on the Bible. Hoenlein, the longtime executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wasn’t engaging in talmudic casuistry, however. What he was doing was making an impassioned defense of Israel’s legitimacy and its historic connection and right to the land, and in particular to Jerusalem.
Answering the question, put in the name of Rabbi Isaac, as to why the Torah does not begin with the first mitzva, Rashi replies that the Torah begins with an account of the Creation so that if there ever comes a time when the nations of the world accuse the Jewish people of having stolen the Land of Israel, the Jews can respond: “The entire world was created by and belongs to God. He created it and He granted it to whomever He deemed fit.” For Hoenlein, that time has come.
Current attempts to deny the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, and in particular to deny the Jewish claim to Jerusalem, bear out the wisdom of that commentary, says Hoenlein. “The dismissal of the biblical account by people who supposedly believe in the Bible and say they took the Bible and added to it, I think underscores the hypocrisy of the position, but also reveals their true intent,” he declares.
More specifically, Hoenlein points a finger at the Palestinian Authority, at the participation of “authority figures” in acts of incitement against Israel and in denial of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem. “Don’t dismiss this stuff, don’t think it’s unimportant,” he warns. “This stuff has consequences. And we’ve learned through history that words of violence lead to violence, and words of hate lead to hate. We’re seeing it all over the world.”
Hoenlein’s thinking has been deeply shaped by his experiences as the child of parents who fled Nazi Germany. “From very early on,” he says, “I was involved in political issues; from very early on I had a predilection for political issues and believed that Jews must take control of their destiny. Abba Eban once said Jews had influence in many places in World War II but power in none.”
At 66, Hoenlein, an observant Jew, has stood at the head of the Conference of Presidents for 25 years and has a reputation as one of the most powerful people in the Jewish world, a power broker with access to every office in Washington. It is not an image that he likes or cultivates, but then again he admits that in politics “perception is as important as reality.”
“I have good relations with many people in government,” he says of his influence. “That comes from the credibility of the cases you make and the legitimacy of the arguments you put forward. If you establish relationships where people know they can trust you and that the interests are not your own and that there is no aggrandizement for me, but it is for the causes we represent... I care about the issues, I have no PR person, no elaborate stamps, none of the trappings. I fulfill many different roles. I’m a mediator, I can be a negotiator, I can be an advocate, I can be a speaker, I can be an educator, I can be a secretary. I can be a lot of things.”
His own personal politics are a tightly guarded secret. “People always try to box others into standard classifications,” Hoenlein says. “I’m not an ideologue, I have never subscribed to a particular ideology. I have beliefs and principles that I try to abide by. But I’ve never been associated with a singular political party, not in the US and not here. I think every chairman I have worked with would tell you he has no idea how I voted. I have great relationships with Democrats, I have great relationships with Republicans.”
Democrat or Republican, power broker or mere technocrat, Hoenlein is in a better position than most to know which way the wind blows in Washington, and his perception of the current administration is that it is trying to “put the cat in the bag” after recent tensions over building in east Jerusalem and to “focus on the important issues.” The problem, Hoenlein says, is that “once you do it, it’s hard to undo in terms of damage done to the perceptions held by Israel’s enemies and others.”
Public daylight between Israel and the United States, he continues, is something that works against the interests of both countries but also against the chance for peace, a position that he says he has put to President Barack Obama.
“The Arabs look to the degree to which the United States stands with Israel as a measure of their own confidence in their relationship and they feel if Israel can’t rely on it then what chance do they have? The Arabs believe a lot of the stories about Washington and the controls, the influence, etc. [of Jews]. What happens is those who don’t want to negotiate, if they interpret or perceive – even if that’s not the intention – you have to undo that perception and make it very clear where each party stands.
“I think that the administration has now made a really extensive effort, but I think people will want to see what actions have been taken to measure it and to see the future course of the Israel-US relationship.”Do you think we have reached a turning point for the better now in relation with the Obama administration, or is it inevitable that tensions will resurface?
There will always be tensions between the US and Israel, but it doesn’t affect the relationship, it doesn’t affect the fundamental commitment. That’s the danger, that we allow these tensions to be seen as undermining the fundamental core relationship. I remember with [president Ronald] Reagan we had Bitburg and AWACS and other things. It wasn’t that there weren’t differences, but they were always contained.
When you say there shouldn’t be daylight, it doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be differences. The differences should be dealt with as between friends and resolved quietly as friends. Once you go public, everybody gets locked into hardened positions. Two countries, no matter how close, will always have things come up where their particular interests don’t always coincide completely. But overwhelmingly they do... and the polls are just astonishingly positive. Almost two-thirds of the American people say they want the president of the United States to be a staunch supporter of Israel, and I think they don’t want to see an ally treated as the newspapers reported.
The US’s and Israel’s common interests are so overwhelming – look at Iran and what it is doing in Somalia, Eritrea and Yemen and South America, look at what’s happening with Turkey. [The interview took place prior to the flotilla incident.] In all these areas American and Israeli interests overlap so much, are so much akin to one another, and these are really the important things, these are really what is critical. I think that the administration has also come around on the idea that while the Palestinian-Israeli issue is important, it recognizes that not everything hinges on it and some of the formulations of the early months have changed. Every administration goes through this transition.
Many administrations tried engagement. [President Bill] Clinton and [secretary of state Warren] Christopher went two dozen times to Syria. Many tried engagement in different forms and different ways. It’s a question both of policy and how policy is executed, but the bottom line in the past came to realize that the US-Israeli relationship is the most important and vital without denigrating the relationship to others.So the heat is off?
No, I don’t know yet that the heat is off. I think that an effort is being made to reduce tensions. Will there be demands made of Israel? Probably. The US administration wants the process to move forward. I have to think there is a lot of disappointment today with the Palestinians, with the naming of squares after terrorists, the dumping of food is something that can’t rest well, the divisions inside, between them. All these undermine their ability to be serious interlocutors. So I don’t believe the administration will come up with a plan now. It may come up with ideas and stuff, but I think that it’s not something that’s in the cards anytime in the foreseeable future.Do you see America trying to impose a solution?
No imposed solution will work. No process, no proposal that didn’t emerge from negotiations or wasn’t filtered through the process of direct negotiations of the parties or imposed from the outside can work in the Middle East. It has to be organic, you can give ideas, you can help with what they used to call origin proposals. [US special envoy George] Mitchell is trying now to build a basis but for what, for direct negotiations, because he knows that you can’t come up with a peace process through indirect negotiations. You can try to build confidence, you can try to create a circumstance where the Arab League will allow them to negotiate, which in and of itself is a strange circumstance. The whole reason for creating the Palestinian Authority was to give the Palestinians their own voice and not to be dictated to by the Arab League.What is your position on settlements?
It’s not my job to determine what settlements should be there and not be there. I believe there are limits for people who live abroad and don’t pay the price. Generally the policy of the Conference of Presidents is to be supportive of the government. So now we’ll be supportive of [Binyamin] Netanyahu and people will say we are right wing – in the last government people said that we were left wing. Neither is true. We represent an American Jewish constituency, and we try to be supportive of Israel in ways which are consistent with our mandate and our responsibility. For instance, we don’t get involved in religious issues. We’re a consensus body and you don’t deal with religious issues when you’re a consensus. It’s an issue that tends to divide.
I really believe in Klal Yisrael
. I really believe in the unity of the Jewish people. I believe that it is the precondition that has been true throughout all our history, and that when it’s absent we are weak and that when it’s present we can do anything. Every great thing that happened to us only happened when we had that one precondition.
When Jews put aside their differences and recognize that what unites us is probably what divides us. That we have one faith and one fate, that what happens to one part of the Jewish people affects all the rest of the Jewish people. When we marched for Soviet Jewry, when we demonstrated for Syrian Jewry, people said to me, “Why do you do it? You don’t see other peoples demonstrating for their brethren in other countries.” And it’s because we have this unique bond. Some people have tried to describe this as a conspiracy. I think it’s a conspiracy of love.
BUT HOENLEIN concurs that this is not a moment when Jews are united, and states that splits in Israeli and Jewish society, be they between Orthodox and secular or Left and Right, “rend us apart, waste energy and resources and give our enemies an opportunity to exploit them.”
“In the meantime [Israel’s enemies] are delegitimizing and demonizing Israel,” he asserts. “They are denying Israelis the right to speak on campuses. Is that a right-wing or a left-wing thing? No, it’s an assault against all of us. They don’t make the distinctions. That doesn’t mean there can’t be differences, that doesn’t mean there can’t be criticism of Israel.
“You’re not an anti-Semite if you differ with Israel or you have some criticism. What is wrong is not that they are asking Israel to live by a higher standard; Israel already lives by a higher standard. What is wrong is they are asking for a double standard, an impossible standard. They want Israel to abide by rules that nobody else has to live by. This is not acceptable, this is anti-Semitism.
“Also when Israeli professors run around the world talking about Israel, joining boycotts of Israeli academic institutions, that is not acceptable. This is not freedom of speech, this is denial of freedom of speech, and I think universities and others should do more to express themselves on it. Again, if there are people who are critical, who want to demonstrate, that’s what called for in a democracy. People have a right to express different views, but that’s a lot different than guys who are traveling around the world undermining Israel’s interests, undermining Jewish interests and giving aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies.”Can the perceived rift with the Obama administration be a pulling point for the Republicans?
We have very strong support from Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress. We get support on Israel-related issues whether it’s on Goldstone or Iran sanctions. We shouldn’t look at the rift as Democrat-Republican or that’s it’s irreparable. I try to say that every administration comes in with its own character, its own quality, its own approach. Many of them have new ideas and they adjust with time to reality.
There are a lot of questions that people have, and it is reflected in
the polls that the Democrats have lost some of the support of the
Jewish community, but they still get more support from Jews than
certainly from the general population. Jews have traditionally voted
Democratic, but I think there is a trend toward voting more for the
individual. It depends on the candidate the Democrats put up, and it
depends on the candidate the Republicans put up.
In politics five months [until the mid-term elections] is a lifetime,
let alone two years to the 2012 election. The Tea Party is an unknown
factor, and I believe it doesn’t just draw from Republicans, it draws
from Democrats as well. You have Democrats running to the right of
Republicans on some issues, and certainly to the right of the
administration. It’s a strange political year, very volatile and I
The day after the election I can tell you what is likely to happen. I
think, by the way, among younger Jews, Russian Jews, other segments,
there is more of an openness to register Republican.Is there a shift in attitudes toward Israel among the younger generation of American Jews?
We have a real job to do in terms of education. We have taken our kids
for granted. We are appreciative of the efforts that have been made on
campus and of Birthright and things like that, but we have to reach
them much younger. What is it that the Catholic Church used to say:
“Give me a child until he is seven and he will remain a Catholic for
the rest of his life.” We have neglected our youth. We take it for
granted. Even the kids who get a Jewish education don’t necessarily
know – they know more, but they don’t know enough, they don’t know how
And that goes back to Rashi. It’s not because when the nations have
doubts, it’s when the Jews have doubts. If Jews don’t have the
confidence to make the case – and our young people don’t have the
confidence because they don’t know enough. The propagandists on the
other side are trained and educated, they feel they can go out there
and say whatever they want and they can lie even, because the Jewish
kids don’t know how to refute it. We have to do much more to inoculate
them for what they will face later.