Hoenlein: We cannot take Americans for granted

In an interview with 'the Post' Hoenlein says American support can shift rapidly.

Hoenlein 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hoenlein 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
NEW YORK – Despite downplaying the dire predictions of “naysayers who predicted all sorts of terrible things,” Israel cannot continue to “take for granted the support of the American people,” Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein told The Jerusalem Post late last month.
Interviewed in his office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Hoenlein said that “despite the very large margin of support” that Israel enjoys among Americans, public sentiment “can shift very rapidly” if things should “explode” in the Middle East.
Hoenlein cited an unreleased study of American attitudes toward Israel and the Jewish community conducted by the Conference of Presidents, saying that while it will “take 10 years” to analyze all of the data collected, preliminary indications show that “we have hardcore support of 25-30 percent, hardcore opposition of 10% and... the bulk in the middle that are moving toward indifference.”
Over the course of the year-long research project, he said, the Conference of Presidents studied “every segment” of the American people. We were “polling, studying [and] ascertaining where they stood, what shape[d] their views of Israel and Jews” and how such views can be changed.
Those who are indifferent are not necessarily “against Israel,” Hoenlein stated, “but we found that with certain issues, if you ask is Israel an apartheid state, 50% of people said yes.” However, he added, participants in programs like America’s Voices, an initiative bringing American celebrities such as Omar Epps to Israel, come away with a view of Israel diametrically opposed to their initial impression of the country.
“It just blows their minds across the board,” Hoenlein said, explaining that he believes that such programs and the study prove that if you give people the “right arguments,” “the numbers switch right back” to support of Israel.
Rather than there being hostility toward Israel, he said, there is “an indifference or apathy” that must be combated. “There are misrepresentations by certain people who, by virtue of the fact that it gets them speaking engagements, come out about how everybody is alienated from Israel,” Hoenlein alleged. “It ain’t true, certainly not in the terms that they say.”
A similar situation exists among American Jews, he continued. “One of the problems is our success. We took away a lot of the issues. Like Russia Jewry, it was a great rallying cue [as were] Syrian Jews, Ethiopian Jews [and] Iranian Jews when the Iran 13 were in trouble. So these issues were pure and not political [and] were ways to rally. I don’t believe that there is this great disaffection from Israel. I think that there is a lot of ignorance, I think that there are moves toward general disengagement from everything.”
Expanding on that theme, Hoenlein said that organized American Jewry is going through a transitional period and that many national Jewish institutions “have lost membership, or their agendas have been superseded either by others or by events.”
Moreover, he said, “organizations will have to redefine themselves to be relevant in the 21st century.” “I think the next decade will see a lot of changes in Jewish communal life. Whether it will continue to be gradual or something will occur that will make it more dramatic, we will have to see, but there will be changes in personnel. The key professionals will be retiring.”
Among the results of the changing demographics and priorities among American Jews is a “shrinking of resources” for once flush organizations.
This, Hoenlein said, is “not because the money isn’t there, but because the people are giving in different ways.
There are many more opportunities for people to be involved in secular society, let alone in the Jewish world, and we are going to need to find new sources of funding to fulfill the responsibilities that we have. We have to do much more in terms of the youth of our community.”
“Clearly there is a need for a strong Jewish communal infrastructure.”