A call for collaboration: Malcolm Hoenlein speaks out

The heads of 50 Jewish groups from across the US will meet with Israeli politicians next week.

Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, visits the offices of ‘The Jerusalem Post.’ (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, visits the offices of ‘The Jerusalem Post.’
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
On Sunday, a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will arrive to meet with Israeli politicians, civil society leaders and others to discuss the issues facing both Israel and the Diaspora.
As the heads of 50 Jewish groups from across the US, they form a powerful lobbying group for Jewish interests in the biggest national community outside the Jewish state.
The group’s longtime leader, Malcolm Hoenlein, sat down with the Magazine in advance of his group’s mission, their 41st, to discuss Iran, European anti-Semitism and other issues of concern for contemporary Jewry.
Leaning back in a leather chair in The Jerusalem Post’s conference room, Hoenlein appears completely at ease, both with the issues he is discussing and the media itself. This man is used to proximity to power, both the “soft” media kind and that of politicians.
During the conversation, he casually references ties with senior political figures across the spectrum, his relationship with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, and world leaders with whom he has met and maintains relations in order to lobby for the interests of his community.
In previous conversations with the Post, Hoenlein has focused on issues ranging from assimilation and intermarriage to Israel’s inability to prevent the desecration of graves on the Mount of Olives (a cause close to his heart), to his view that Western leaders have shown no inclination to hold Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accountable for incitement that leads to violence.
However, as American and Israeli politicians on both the Right and the Left debate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impending speech before Congress – to warn of what he sees as the consequences of a deal with Iran over its nuclear program – Hoenlein turned to a different set of issues.
Without taking a stance one way or another on the speech, Hoenlein recalled an article he had read comparing Netanyahu’s speech to a hypothetical Jewish figure warning the world of the impending Nazi Holocaust in 1939, which he said he believes can help explain the premier’s motivations.
“I read this and I thought it was a very important consideration about why Bibi sees this as so critical – that if somebody in 1939 would have had the opportunity to go before Congress and present the facts as they saw it, would there be any circumstance by which they wouldn’t do it?” he asked.
While he steadfastly refused to render a judgment on the propriety of the controversial speech itself, Hoenlein affirms that “we have to make sure Israel is never a partisan issue. It isn’t.”
The Obama administration and Israel must be on the same page on a range of issues if “we are going to be successful,” he added.
“I think the split, the focus on this, can detract from the energies that have to be expended now... in dealing with the threat that Iran poses in the region, whether it is ballistic missiles or Iran’s extending influence in the Middle East and elsewhere. We have to deal with all this, and this is a diversion from all those important issues.”
Hoenlein, who has cultivated good relations with a succession of administrations of both parties, said the Israeli-American relationship is fundamentally strong despite tensions.
“We are allies and we should be sharing each other’s interests, even though they are not going to be identical – because each nation has its own interests, its own priorities. Even on an issue on which they agree, they may come at it with different perspectives, about the sense of urgency or the best approach to dealing with it. But there is always an imbalance when you have a great power and individual countries,” he noted.
However, he continued, it is important to remember that while the relationship is mutually beneficial to both sides and is “not a one-way street,” America is still a great power and Israel, while itself a power, is a lesser one.
Asked what the highest priorities are for the wide-ranging coalition of Jewish groups he represents, from hard Right to hard Left, Hoenlein replied that the Iranian nuclear program and the Islamic Republic’s “destabilizing role” throughout the Middle East and other regions (such as South America) is one of the most important issues facing the Conference of Presidents today.
The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the anti-Israel movement on US college campuses are also major concerns, he added. And while figures from the Anti-Defamation League indicate that anti-Semitism is much lower in the US than in other countries, Hoenlein believes that increasing anti-Israel sentiment on campuses needs to be dealt with and nipped in the bud.
“I think one of the issues we are dealing with, obviously, is US-Israel relations and always making sure that it is on a solid footing,” he said. “The American public understands why the relationship is so important to both sides, and then we are dealing in that context with trying to get Israel’s message across; fighting BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement] on the campuses and the delegitimizing campaign, which today is a more serious [threat], perhaps.
We see a rise in anti-Semitism in a lot of places, we’ve seen the rise of anti-Semitic incidents on American campuses and anti-Israel incidents, physical assaults against Jews and Jewish institutions.”
Asked if that meant he foresaw a spike in anti-Semitism in the US comparable to the significant increase in anti-Jewish sentiments in Europe, Hoenlein replied in the negative, stating that there are “fundamental differences” between the two.
However, he warned, “we shouldn’t think we are immune to it.”
While a grassroots increase in anti-Semitism such as in France is not in the cards in the US, the British “topdown” model could presage events in America.
That model, he explained, is one in which the “elites” on campuses, those who form the thoughts of the younger generation, push anti-Israel sentiments, which he called “thinly veiled anti-Semitism.”
While he doesn’t believe that being critical of Israel is anti-Semitic, those who challenge Israel’s right to defend itself and to exist as a Jewish nation-state are definitely crossing that line.
Such people “call it an apartheid state and try to undermine its interests,” he explained.
“I do not think that we are comparable to Europe but I do not think we are immune, and if we see ourselves as invulnerable, we will miss the important steps – and in this case, as in most issues, the earlier [it is,] the [greater the] chance of success.”
Hoenlein noted that security is increasingly a concern for Jewish institutions, in the wake of attacks on European communities and incidents such as the shooting at a Kansas City Jewish community center last year.
Responding to critics who have said the Jewish community has received a disproportionate share of federal funds earmarked for security at nonprofits, Hoenlein said every group has an equal shot at the money during the application process, but that “Jews are a priority target.”
“Everybody has an equal chance, but you have to make a case and frankly, I think in many respects, the case for Jewish institutions is a very strong one,” he averred, calling for greater cooperation and information- sharing between Jewish organizations around the world.
Asked about comments he made regarding the necessity of a global approach among Jewish communities, in terms of what laws they want passed and what pressures they want to bring to bear, Hoenlein stated there needs to be a “global approach for us to deal with the rising phenomenon of anti-Semitism.”
Such an approach can work on a range of issues, he added.
“How do we learn from each other? How do we share experiences and set up a network of information, some of which we are trying to do. There is increased sharing between the Jewish communal security infrastructures in France, Britain, the US and Australia. They meet, they talk; we learn from each other. The circumstances may be somewhat unique but the trends are the same, the lessons you can learn are the same.”
Hoenlein announced that another meeting between Jewish leaders from the EU and US will soon be held.
“It’s great to express unity, but the communities need to tell us what is best and what they need. Sometimes its good when other communities come and put pressure on the governments, to show that people are being watched and give backing and encouragement to community.”
Turning to France and the rise in anti-Semitism there, which has prompted increased Jewish emigration, Hoenlein said more needs to be done about returning fighters who travel to the Middle East to volunteer with Islamic State, Jabhat Al-Nusra and other groups.
Yet beyond this, he said, the problem is that radicalization is hastened by the failure of Muslim integration into French society, which breeds animosity.
“Here you are not really integrating the populations; that is part of the problem. You are bringing masses who live in isolation, who don’t, like other groups, intermarry or mix into general society,” he said. “The question is: Do their children have a role within society, are they taught that the society in which they live is evil or something to be challenged? Is the goal to live within a French country, or any other, where you adopt the language, you adopt the culture? “The feeling is that the process of radicalization among the youth is creating a completely different dynamic, which could pose a threat to the Muslim communities, too – because they are usually the first victims of the Islamists.
“The problem is not just them, it’s educating them so they can get jobs; people who have jobs tend not to become terrorists. [They need to] find ways that they can identify or create an identity as a French person, not just as a Muslim.”
All of these issues and more will come up this week as the president, prime minister, defense minister, opposition leader and others address the conference. It should be most interesting.