Why did US Jewish orgs. go to Saudi Arabia, and why did they hide it?

The fact that nearly all the participants are hiding their involvement is a worrisome sign.

FROM LEFT, The Conference of Presidents’ Malcolm Hoenlein, Arthur Stark and William Daroff at a press conference in Jerusalem last month about their visit to Saudi Arabia. (photo credit: AVI HAYOUN)
FROM LEFT, The Conference of Presidents’ Malcolm Hoenlein, Arthur Stark and William Daroff at a press conference in Jerusalem last month about their visit to Saudi Arabia.
(photo credit: AVI HAYOUN)
More than 30 officials of American Jewish organizations recently visited Saudi Arabia. What was the purpose of this visit? Who paid for it? And why are most of the participants hiding their involvement?
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has stated that the goal of the visit was “bridge-building,” which he thinks “happened,” as indicated by the fact that “we had kosher meals for four days, that we had a minyan there.” Two years ago, there was similar talk about fabulous silk pajamas that the leaders of Qatar bestowed upon Jewish officials who visited that Gulf kingdom.
We have seen no results from that trip of benefit to the American Jewish community or to any Jewish interest, and here we are, two years later, with another one, under mysterious circumstances. “Bridge-building” – for what? What is on the other end of the bridge? And when will the American Jewish public be let in on the secret?
“We heard [from the Saudis] about the intentions to build and make change,” Hoenlein said. Is he claiming that the Conference of Presidents is playing a role in bringing about fundamental change in one of the world’s premier abusers of human rights? If so, that is something deserving of full disclosure. If not, what is the point of that assertion? Of what relevance are stated Saudi intentions without specifics?
If officials of American Jewish organizations choose to visit Arab kingdoms as private individuals, that is their business. But when they visit Saudi Arabia or Qatar as representatives of Jewish organizations – as they did in this case – then the Jewish community has a right to know the purpose of the visit, its content and results; who went and who paid the bills. If the Jewish groups paid, their members have a right to ask whether that was an appropriate use of their membership dollars. If the Saudis paid, there is reason for concern that they are trying to buy influence. If so, to what ends?
The fact that nearly all the participants are hiding their involvement is a worrisome sign. Mr. Hoenlein told reporters that he, along with Conference chairman Arthur Stark, and CEO William Daroff, led the delegation. He said that he was not naming the other 27 participants because the Saudis need to know “that they can talk to us at the highest level of their government, and know that we will treat it with the appropriate confidence. It’s nice to get headlines, but it’s more appropriate to build the relationship.”
However, in announcing the visit, Hoenlein put himself in the headlines, with the clear implication that it had some strategic purpose, yet without even the most general indication of what that might be. There have been reports over the years about a few American Jewish officials serving as conduits in back-room international diplomacy. But that kind of explanation would not seem relevant in this case; secret diplomacy is not conducted with 30 officials of different, and often competing, organizations.
IF SAUDI leaders had never before met an American Jew, perhaps the Presidents Conference could make the case that it was breaking new ground. But representatives of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League visited Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. And Martin Oliner, leader of the Religious Zionists of America, states in his bio that he has represented the Riyadh-based Saudi British Bank.
We are left to assume that the Saudis believed they had something to gain from hosting this large Jewish delegation. And since it is unthinkable that the Conference of Presidents leadership would reveal the fact of the visit to the press against the wishes of its hosts, it is reasonable to conclude that the Saudi Arabian leadership wanted the Jewish world to know it, and anticipated benefit from its revelation.
Indeed, the Saudis revealed the trip not to major national or world organs of opinion, such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, but to the Jewish news media, via the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which suggests that the Saudis were targeting American Jewry with the news.
Why? Why would Riyadh want to cultivate American Jewish opinion?
Saudi Arabia has a horrific record of human rights abuses, including capital punishment for gays; whipping of women rape victims, who are blamed for their own victimization; severe restrictions of the physical movements and autonomy of all women; and the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Do the Saudis seek to use ties with leaders of American Jewish organizations in an effort to repair their public image? If so, why do so via prominent Jews?
The Anti-Defamation League’s review of textbooks used in Saudi schools in 2018-2019 found that they “teach that Zionist Jews use control of media, money, politicians, women and drugs as part of a supposed scheme to conquer much of the Arab world.” Does the Saudi regime seek the appearance of American Jewish support because of longstanding Saudi stereotypes about Jews dominating the American news media – one of the oldest Jew-hating libels around?
The Saudis likely are also worried about the Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act (H.R.554/S.357), a bipartisan congressional initiative to force Riyadh to reform its school curricula. We are glad that the ADL and various human rights groups have endorsed the bill.
But will other American Jewish organizations – those whose leaders participated in this trip – endorse it?
Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations are not waning. According to Amnesty International, the Saudi authorities in the past year “escalated repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.” Severe mistreatment of women, political dissidents and religious minorities persists.
Do American Jews want their representatives hobnobbing with the leaders of such a regime under flimsy claims of intent to reform? By hiding their participation in the delegation, the groups that took part in it are withholding information and accountability to which their members, and the Jewish community as a whole, are entitled. Transparency and accountability are basic expectations in professional Jewish life. The questions about this and similar trips must be answered.
The writers are members of the steering committee of the Committee on Ethics in Jewish Leadership, jewishleadershipethics.org.