Hoenlein wraps up a career aimed at helping the Jewish people survive

Honored by Bar Ilan University, Malcolm Hoenlein strives for unity among Diaspora Jewry.

Malcolm Hoenlein (center) receives his honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University  flanked by (from left) Gail Propp, Prof. Arie Zaban, president of BIU, Michael Jesselson s and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky (photo credit: CHEN DAMARI)
Malcolm Hoenlein (center) receives his honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University flanked by (from left) Gail Propp, Prof. Arie Zaban, president of BIU, Michael Jesselson s and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky
(photo credit: CHEN DAMARI)
SITTING IN the executive lounge of Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel on May 8, Malcolm Hoenlein reflects on his 50-year career as an American Jewish leader ahead of a festive ceremony that evening in which he will receive an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University. Already dressed impeccably in a beautiful suit, he articulately reflects on the last three decades during which he has steered the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of more than 50 diverse groups, and appeals for Jewish unity as Israel recently celebrated its 70th anniversary.
Hoenlein is a superb storyteller. I ask him what he thinks about President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14, the day on which David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel. In classic Hoenlein fashion, he answers with the story behind getting what is called the Jerusalem Embassy Act passed by Congress in 1995.
“First of all, I think it’s a recognition of Israel’s capital. I think it’s an important move. It’s the righting of a wrong,” he begins, smiling at the tale he is about to tell.
“I was proud to have played a key role in passing the Jerusalem Embassy legislation, together with [then-]senator Daniel Moynihan, who is not remembered and credited enough. We all worked really hard in both houses, and I spoke to prime minister Rabin about it, and he said, ‘If you get that legislation passed, I will come to Washington for the signing.’ I said, ‘You promise?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ It took us a long time, and many others helped, but it was passed by both houses overwhelmingly, declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by American law.
President [Bill] Clinton told me he wouldn’t veto it and allow it to become law.
“We got the Rotunda in the Capitol, for an event celebrating the Jerusalem law, the last time it was used for any such event, and hundreds of members of Congress came. I called Rabin and told him that the Jerusalem Embassy Act is going to become law. ‘You made me a promise,’ I said. And he said, ‘I will come.’ And he came. He told me it was one of the greatest days of his life. And unfortunately, his life was not to be much longer afterward. And he put his arms around me. One of his top aides came to me and said, ‘I’ve worked with him for 30 years.
He never once put his arms me.’ He gave a speech that was amazing, called ‘My Jerusalem,’ which we have published. The event itself was really incredible. The leaders of both houses spoke, and many others participated, including Moynihan and the prime minister. The law was established then, but I credit President Trump that after everyone else promised, he actually did it. The truth is it could have been done a long time ago. We should never have succumbed to threats of retaliation, and we should never succumb to any blackmail. We should do the right thing, but in the right way.”
Hoenlein adds that what impressed him even more was when Trump first came to Israel as president, his first stop was at the Western Wall.
“I was invited to go along. And I saw him with [Western Wall and Holy Sites] Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and Mrs. [Melania] Trump, and I saw the dignity and respect with which she carried herself and prayed.
I saw him put on a yarmulke and go to the Wall and say something from Tehilim (Psalms), and then he said, ‘This is a Jewish holy site.’ To me, that was as big a move as moving the embassy. And he didn’t have one demonstration against him. That picture tells you that if you do the right thing, and you do it in the right way, people will accept it. The embassy move is symbolic.
It’s a recognition. It did not predetermine anything and doesn’t have to preclude any negotiations. It was really just a historic injustice righted.”
SINCE 1986, Hoenlein has led the powerful but diverse American Jewish community.
In his role as executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he has sought to unite and strengthen the American Jewish community and Israel, while forging close ties with world leaders and helping Diaspora Jews in distress.
He is worried about growing antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment in America and around the world, as well as alienation, assimilation and indifference in his own Jewish community. “The magic formula is when all the Jews can come together,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “That ahdut [Hebrew for unity] is the one precondition for everything, for the great miracle of Jewish survival.”
Hoenlein’s passionate pursuit of Jewish unity was one of the reasons cited by Bar-Ilan University when it conferred on him an honorary doctorate at a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.
“Marking the 70th anniversary year of the State of Israel, Bar-Ilan University bestows an honorary doctorate on Malcolm Isaac Hoenlein, who for over three decades has served at the helm of one of the most influential American Jewish organizations,” a university statement reads. “Ensuring that the voice and the agenda of organized American Jewry resonates in key diplomatic and political circles, and acting as defender and guardian of world Jewry, Hoenlein is a masterful interlocutor between political and communal leaders in Israel, the United States and the world. His dream of attaining Jewish unity is one that he pursues with vigor, authority and passion.”
In a film made for the presentation, Hoenlein says in his typical New York-accented eloquence: “It is very important to have strong Jewish leadership and strong Jewish communities abroad. The National Security Council here in Israel did a study that showed that Diaspora communities are a strategic asset, not just for financial and political support, for the State of Israel. Many foreign countries always tell us how they wish they had the kind of Diaspora that Israel does. As Israel becomes the center of Jewish life, with the majority of the Jewish people living here, it doesn’t denigrate the importance and the significance of Diaspora communities, to make sure that we retain those Jews.
“We need their support to strengthen the US-Israel special relationship, the relationship with European countries and others.
These are all critical to Israel’s security and Israel’s future. It is a special privilege to receive this honorary doctorate in the year that Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary.
When you think back to the founding of Bar-Ilan, and the tremendous progress the university has made paralleled by the great advances that Israeli society has made in every area, we are so proud of this state and all that it’s done, and all that it will do, and what Bar-Ilan has accomplished and will no doubt contribute to the State of Israel.”
In his interview with The Report, Hoenlein, 74, denies reports that he is retiring. “I am not stepping down; I think I’m stepping up. There was one report that said I was re-tiring, but that word was never used, except by one reporter, and everyone just picked it up. What I did say and wrote is that this was my initiative, and I am not leaving without having a successor in place. I want to make sure that there will be an orderly transition.
Next year will be my 50th year of leadership of Jewish organizations, and I am still working 18 hours a day. I don’t know what God has in mind for me, but I wanted to make sure that 33 years of really hard work don’t get dissipated or diminished by virtue of the fact that we didn’t plan properly. What I ask for in the letter is that I want a transition, I want someone coming in who will take over the day-to-day responsibilities. I will be there to help and assist them, and I will stay at the Conference. I will do more external stuff than internal, and then there are other things that I want to do. My priority is still the Jewish community and wanting to benefit the community.”
HOENLEIN WAS born in Philadelphia to German Jewish parents who survived the Holocaust and escaped to the US. He completed his doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a founder of the North American Jewish Student Network. He moved to New Yor, became the founding director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York. He married Frayde and had four children, a son and three daughters. His big break came in 1986, when he was offered the leadership of the Conference of Presidents.
“Money was never a motivator for me. When I took this job, I was also offered to be the executive of the UJA-Federation of New York. The day they took the vote was the day my predecessor died suddenly, and they did a quick search and offered me the job. I had 10 days to choose which job to take. I got calls from everybody, from the prime minister to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, all weighing in and telling me to take one of the jobs. I was really so confused at that point that I couldn’t think straight, and my son, who was a young boy at the time, asked me what the choice was. I said one job pays three times what the other does. And he said, ‘You’ll never do anything for money, so put that aside. He said, ‘Where do you think you’ll make a difference because that’s the only thing that will motivate you.’ And I said, ‘Bingo, that’s it!’ And I took a job that paid one third of the amount of the other and had a staff of three as opposed to hundreds. But I really felt I could make a more unique contribution at the Conference.
“I’m a very demanding boss, I admit it, but I want to create professionals who will serve the community, beyond just the time they spend with us, because I feel that’s one of our responsibilities. I began bridging links and some sense of unity within the community, so I think early on that was the biggest challenge. The other challenge is that I spent my career in umbrella organizations because I really believe in Klal Yisrael (all of Israel): Getting people to understand that everybody can be strengthened if you strengthen the whole. Everyone can benefit. No organization today can do it all or do it alone, nobody. Nobody has the resources nor the capacity, but when you bring everybody together, and different people take on different responsibilities, then you can begin to find out what we can share and utilize the resources to the maximum.”
What is the greatest challenge you faced during your career?
“Survival. I knew what I wanted to do since I was very young, that I wanted to work for the Jewish people. I tried to get the best credentials for it, which is why I did my doctorate in Middle East affairs. I knew that I would face, let’s say, some restrictions or challenges because I was young, Orthodox, an activist, and a Zionist, and when I came to New York, it was one of the things that was raised.
“One of the biggest challenges was getting the people in New York to accept the idea that there could be one community. When I started the Soviet Jewry Conference, the gap between the communities and the establishment was very great. After a few years, we really built up the local councils, and that created a whole new dynamic in the Jewish community. The uniqueness of the Soviet Jewry operation is that it was a movement, not an organization, that it defied all the standards and all the previous conceptions of how you organize.”
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
“Honestly, saving Jewish lives. Being able to look at the Russian Jews here in Israel, and the Ethiopian Jews and the Syrian Jews, and we played a role in each case. With the Syrian Jews, we played a critical role, and I met with the president, with Assad, just before the trouble there began. On Ethiopian Jews, they turned us down initially, but we ultimately succeeded in sending a mission there and getting them to Israel. And of course, with Russian Jewry. There’s no greater reward than that. There’s the Jewish precept, ‘Whoever saves a life saves the world.’ You can say it, but you can also really feel it. I mean look at what a difference Russian Jews have made here and around the world. There isn’t today a Jew who can’t leave the country in which they live, probably for the first time in 2,000 years. Individuals may have problems, but even Iranian Jews can leave. And of course, saving the Iran 13, especially getting those three who were going to be executed, and then the other 10 to Israel, was a major accomplishment. I even met with the Iranian foreign minister over that issue. Anything that saves a life or makes a difference in Jewish future and the future of the Jewish state, there’s no reward and no compensation greater than that.”
Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever met?
“I’ve met many incredible people and Jordan’s King Hussein was one of them. It was at a time when there was a lot of tension and he was already sick. And against some of his people, who didn’t like the close association we had, we walked into the room holding hands; he held my hand and his guys – especially the hostile ones – almost died. And he made them move so I would sit next to him. We had a very good relationship with him, and with the king of Morocco. I met [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi, I met [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak. I knew good guys and bad guys. You don’t choose who the leaders of the world are, including in America, but you have to deal with them.
“I would say one of the people who most influenced me was Scoop [Henry Martin] Jackson. He was a mentor to me, one of the great figures of America, a great friend and courageous supporter of Israel, and unfortunately, he died too young. He had a great impact on me. He asked me to be his campaign manager when he ran for president. There were other individuals who influenced me, including some great rabbis whom I greatly respect. Over the years it changed. I’m close to the Belzer Rebbe now, who I think is very smart and with whom I talk, but there were others who had an important role in shaping my life and I try to be always open to learn. I had close relationships with people across the board. I taught in Conservative schools, I had close relationships with rabbis across all the streams of Judaism, but obviously my personal practice is traditional.
“[Reform leader] Rabbi Alexander Schindler was not chairman of the Conference in my time, but I had a relationship with him when I was at JCRC, and I support the rule that he put in place that kept the Conference from getting involved in Halachic issues, in matters of Jewish law. You can’t deal with them on the basis of consensus, and I think that was very important in maintaining the unity and integrity of the Conference.
“I would say that the chairs of the Conference during my tenure were all amazing people. I started with Morris Abram, a prince and an amazing man who served four presidents and was so smart and caring. As were all of those who followed: Shoshana Cardin, Jim Tisch, Leon Levy, Mort Zuckerman, Alan Solow, Ron Lauder, Robert Sugarman, Stephen Greenberg and Richard Stone. Each one was different, but each one I saw as a partner, and it was my job to make them look good. It’s the professional’s job to adjust to the lay leader. In each case, I developed a personal relationship that has sustained throughout, and I made sure to keep them involved because they are a great reservoir and tribute to the community.”
What concerns you most?
“I am concerned about any division between Jews, especially between the Jewish state and Jewish communities in the Diaspora. I think that there are people who exploit those differences, here and there, for their own reasons, political and ideological or whatever it is. There’s a lack of sensitivity. I put part of the blame on the Israeli side, on the media, which doesn’t accurately report on what the concerns and interests are of Jewish communities abroad. But we are voluntary communities and this is a state, and we’re not playing on an even field. We have to recognize the difference that exists. We, Diaspora Jewry, are not equal shareholders, we’re interested parties. When our kids don’t go to the army and when we don’t pay 50 percent of our income to the Jewish state, then we are not equal partners with anybody who walks the streets of Israel. That does not mean, though, that the concerns and interests of Diaspora communities should be mitigated or diminished. The magic formula is when all the Jews can come together. That ahdut (unity) is the one precondition to everything good for all, to the great miracle. The divisions between us weaken all of us and will be exploited by the enemies of both.
“We in the Diaspora shouldn’t let criticism for Israel’s actions be a substitute for facing our own problems. The alienation of our youth is not because of Israel, but because we have failed in terms of Jewish education and many other things. Israel has at times made mistakes and contributed to the sense of alienation. So, I think greater sensitivity is required on both sides, and an understanding of what’s at stake. We cannot afford to have a divided Jewish community, a divided Jewish nation. The security of both rests on it.
“No one today could imagine what it would be like to be a Jew without Israel. We look to Israel for inspiration, for connection. We have failed in the United States and other places in producing the right kind of Jewish education and making it available to all. I think Birthright is a very good venture, and a very creative idea, but what’s the follow- up? We do not pay enough attention to our young kids. What we find in our study of young Jews is that they’re not turning to animosity toward Israel, they’re moving toward indifference. The number who hate Israel on campuses is very small. The big, loud voices, their numbers are not great. The bulk of them, even yeshiva-educated kids, don’t feel comfortable to respond to the charges by the more vocal professors and groups, and fall victim then to the lies because they simply don’t know the facts.
“The big problem is alienation. We lose hundreds of Jews every day in America to assimilation, acculturation and indifference, or a combination of them. We can talk about the growth of the Orthodox community, but relative to the totality, it’s still a small percentage. They will grow and maybe even become a majority in the future because of the diminution of others, but nobody should celebrate that. Nobody should think that’s a good thing. We have to find a home for every Jew, who should be able to relate to the community, and bring thing back to our traditions, community and people.”
What is the biggest challenge ahead for the American Jewish community?
“We need to allocate the funds for creative Hasbara and Jewish education and creative approaches toward Israel. Tell me what you can find meaningful material for a kid who’s five or six years old? What do we do to educate him or her to build a connection and a love for Israel and the Jewish people? The Catholic Church says give me a kid till he’s six, and you can have them for the rest of their lives. My mother was a kindergarten teacher. She had hundreds of students, who I meet all over the world, and they tell me, ‘I am who I am because of what your mother did.’ A kindergarten teacher can become the greatest influence on a young person’s life, and we’re not there with the kind of creative material that can reach today’s younger people.
“We have tried several programs, including America’s Voices, to find out who reaches those target audiences that we’re missing, and who are being alienated. And the answer was, get movie stars, get TV stars, get football and basketball players. Because when they come back and say, ‘Israel is an amazing place,’ then it really makes a difference. I sat with one football player, who happened to be black, and I asked him what’s one thing you feel differently about Israel? He said, ‘This is no apartheid state.’ I said, ‘Bingo.’ He and others in the group tweeted and posted on Facebook to millions people who follow them. And unfortunately, it’s not very easy to get the government of Israel to understand how important these things are. There are certain ministers who are very responsive, and many others who are not.
“We also have to think about not just the alienation in the Jewish community, but the alienation on the Left in America. When it comes to support for Israel, we need everybody. We have to be creative in reaching out to other segments of the population. For us, reaching out to the Democratic Left is important because we can’t afford to lose them or take our supporters for granted. But the biggest thing is we can’t take our kids for granted. And for too long we have. You can’t stress enough these amazing archaeological discoveries, especially in Jerusalem, in which kids can see the connection between Israel and history and biblical figures and our biblical past. When you find a gold bell from a garment worn by the High Priest in the Beit Hamikdash (Temple), or an ancient rock with a menorah carved into it by someone who visited the Temple, or the gates of Sha’arayim, where David fought Goliath, kids get excited about it. I always ask parents, ‘Who of you have talked to your kids about this?’ And I get dead silence. Give them a sense of identity and identification, and Israel should be so exciting to them.”
How serious is antisemitism in America?
“We have many, many challenges both externally and internally that are too often ignored because there are no resources or because people don’t want to take on additional burdens. We cannot afford to ignore the reality of the challenges we face because in the end we pay a much higher price. I think antisemitism, especially in America, is a much more serious challenge than people are willing to recognize today. It’s very easy for us to look at Europe and talk about the problems that they have with antisemitism; it’s a lot harder to deal with the things that are closer to you. Distance gives you clarity, and it’s harder to admit to the things that are closest to you, to the challenges. But I think that there is really a poison spreading on our campuses that we see a growing acceptance of; people will say things that they would not have said before, distancing from the Shoah, the divisiveness in American society, the growing partisanship which exacerbates that, and, of course, the first expression is often antisemitism. We met recently with a senator, who brought up Islamophobia and other things, and I told her that she is right, there is no place for such things, but still more attacks are against Jews in the US than any other group.”
How do you see the solution to this problem?
“Normally, external challenges bring people together, but I believe we should not come together in response to negatives but rather because of positives. For example, I don’t talk about aliya in the negative. I think aliya should be a positive expression of people wanting Jewish identity and to build a Jewish state and be part of it, not because we’re running away from something. I’m glad Israel’s there for them, but that shouldn’t be the reason we should use to motivate them. And the same thing applies in the US. I don’t want people to be only motivated by negatives. I want young people to have positive associations with the Jewish community, about the victory and the celebration of being a Jew, not just the tsoris (Yiddish for trouble) of being a Jew.
“The Shoah is important, and I’m a supporter of the March of the Living because the students come to Israel afterward. It’s important to educate them about the Shoah but that’s not the be-all and end-all. Talking about the miracles of Israel and getting them to understand what a privileged generation we are, that we have seen so many things that our parents and grandparents would have given anything to see. Too often we take it for granted and focus on the tsoris and the negatives and the conflicts within the community, rather than looking at all the positives and at how much the community has achieved in America and Israel. If we give young people negative images of Israel and the community in America, why should they associate themselves? “So, I believe that we have to try to find ways to find common grounds to get people involved. And that’s why Soviet Jewry was so important. How many tens of thousands of people who had no association and did not have any involvement got involved? And today we don’t have an issue like that which rallies people in the same way. Iran is an issue that there is a consensus about, but it’s a negative association. It’s important, and we have to do it, but I want to give them positives. That’s one of the reasons that I’ve always pushed the archeological discoveries in Israel. They are mind-blowing!” “To fight antisemitism we must advance a police of zero tolerance. We must hold our government officials, legislators, law enforcement, opinion molders, media and entertainers to account. They must speak out and act. University administrators can’t hid behind the ivory tower. There must be clear definitions and clear courses of action. We must build coalitions and enlist all those who are ready to act. Jews remain the most significant victims of recent, and this must be addressed with the seriousness it deserves.”
What is your vision for the future?
“I think Israel has immense opportunities. They say that by the 100th anniversary, there will be 15 million people here. I can see peace in the future if finally the Palestinians have a leader who will really sit down and talk seriously and negotiate, then the outcome will have to be determined by the parties. The idea of Israel moving toward being a magnet state in the region is really catching on. We’re working on a Mediterranean initiative to try to move Israel together with others in the Mediterranean, starting with Cyprus and Greece. I can see Israel becoming the hub for the Mediterranean, and many countries and leaders have told me that they want to be part of this, even [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Sisi, who not only said he already is a partner but he would also help bring in Saudi Arabia and others. There is a growing acceptance of Israel in the Arab world, even in countries with which Israel doesn’t have relations, and I believe there is great potential for the future."