In the past week, the Jewish media has showered attention on the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations, when its members voted resoundingly to reject J Street’s application to join the group. Much less attention was focussed on its vice chairman and the power behind the throne, Malcolm Hoenlein. He is, as this profile makes clear, one of the most powerful leaders in the American Jewish community. The reporter calls him the “unofficial king of the Jews.” Yet almost no one knows much about him, unless you’re a Jewish politics wonk, as I am.
Hoenlein is a child of Holocaust survivors. His parents were German Jews who escaped just before the war began. He grew up in an Orthodox family in Philadelphia. In the early 1970s, he joined the Soviet Jewry movement and spearheaded the political and activist campaign to free Russian Jews. It was in this crucible that he adopted a Cold War us vs. them political lens. Then it was Russia vs. America. Now it’s Israel vs. the Arab world.
A friend regaled me with this story:
The one time I saw him to all appearances deeply moved, was years ago when talking about his recent experience in the town in Germany from which his parents came. The town fathers had invited him and others with family from the town to come back for a ceremony honoring their parents there, in the place where they’d been persecuted. He looked confused and uncertain while talking about meeting Germans who repeatedly apologized to him for the atrocities committed by their parents and grandparents. It messed him up. The resulting, if ephemeral result was a Hoenlein distracted from the seething certainty that is his weapon of offense in dealing with others.
What’s so touch and disconcerting about this story is that it juxtaposes the aggressive, profane Holocaust-traumatized bully with a decent human being who, when faced with sincere decency and repentance, didn’t know what to make of it.
This comment from my friend also reflects on Hoenlein’s willingness to break bread with the devil if it will advance his interest:
I’ve had other encounters with him that amply showed his ruthless character; but, I must admit, also taught me something about politics the way it’s really practiced…He’s very smart, quite analytical, sucks up information like a vacuum cleaner and networks relentlessly. Once…I remember he was boasting…how they’d influenced Nicolae Ceausescu, via Rabbi Moshe Rosen, to intervene in some matter with Arafat (I think it was), maybe for freeing some Jewish or Israeli prisoner. Hoenlein was exultant: “We can reach out to influence anyone anywhere,” he told me. “It’s just a matter of knowing the right person.” It was like hearing a declamation from the chairman of the Committee of Elders of Zion.
He talks often of his covert relations with many Arab leaders as a no-nonsense, transactional and productive but nonpublic aspect of his work.
Indeed, this is borne out by this 2011 Bloomberg report on a meeting between Hoenlein and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in the midst of the worst of the Syrian civil war:
Joey Allaham, 35, a Syrian Jew living in New York…helped set up a meeting between Assad and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of Jewish groups, in an effort to foster ties between Syria and the American Jewish community.
During their visit, Allaham and Hoenlein toured the Franji synagogue across from the Talisman Hotel in Bab Touma, in the old city of the Syrian capital. The synagogue, also known as Ilfrange, gets its name from the Jews who came from Spain and dates back 400 years, according to Cameo.
“President Assad was kind enough to support us,” Allaham said in an interview. “We are going to bring support financially.”
One has to wonder what one of the most powerful Jews in America is doing breaking bread with the Butcher of Homs. Of course, besides helping the few Jews who remain in Syria, he could also relay messages on behalf of his pal, Bibi Netanyahu and the Mossad. I suppose the members of the Conference would be proud of such connivance without considering it might raise questions of where the primary loyalty of one of America’s most influential Jews lies.
While the entire Tablet profile linked above is fascinating, the most newsworthy passage concerns a discussion between the subject and reporter in which Hoenlein admits ‘sympathy’ with the views of Meir Kahane:
Hoenlein earned a reputation as someone who could…find ways to make common cause with people who threatened to upset the unified front he was seeking to project. In the early 1970s, that meant negotiating with Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, an extreme right-wing group that once staged a sit-in at Hoenlein’s office to complain about where they were scheduled to march in that year’s Solidarity Day parade, Davis recalled. Hoenlein wound up with Kahane in his office debating principles. “I was intellectually sympathetic…” Hoenlein told me. “Security is vital to the Jewish community, and we don’t take it seriously enough.”
The two Jewish leaders both were formed in the crucible of the Holocaust. Just as that traumatic event often crippled survivors, it also turned children of survivors and those who merely lived through the era (Kahane) into personalities both obsessed and even deformed by the slaughter of six-million Jewish souls.
Keep in mind that these meetings Hoenlein describes in the Tablet article weren’t just happenstance. They were regular and ongoing, in which they played out their good-cop/bad-cop persona. Kahane was the violent firebrand. Hoenlein the pragmatic inside player. Hoenlein, who’s a savvy political operative, understood that he and Kahane were two sides of the same coin. If you scratched beneath the surface you’d find that Hoenlein bled, and continues to bleed Kahanist blue and white.
Lest we think that Hoenlein’s closet Kahanism is a one-off phenomenon, recall that one of America’s pre-eminent commentators on Israel affairs, Jeffrey Goldberg, confirms in his memoir that he too, for a significant portion of his teenage and adult life, was a Kahanist. This ideological deformity infects not only Israel, but American Jewish life as well.
Allison Hoffman, who wrote this profile, expands upon Hoenlein’s ultra-nationalist politics:
Nearly everyone who has worked with Hoenlein—fans and detractors alike—unhesitatingly described his politics to me as “conservative” or “right-wing” when it comes to Israel, and no one I spoke with thought it likely that Hoenlein was among the 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In our talks, Hoenlein would only say that he has “strong convictions when it comes to the security of the Jewish people.” Beyond that, he refused to discuss his personal politics. He defied anyone to guess how he votes, though he wouldn’t tell me when I asked him point blank. “I have certain views, certain principles, I adhere to,” he said when I asked why he thinks people assume they know what he thinks. His name does not appear on political-donor lookup lists.
“I am quite sure Malcolm is a…pro-settlement right-winger,” said Jonathan Jacoby, a former official with the progressive Israel Policy Forum. “I don’t think he’s ever pretended to be anything other than what he is ideologically.”
For years, Hoenlein has been a member of the planning committee for the annual New York fundraising gala for the Beit El settlement. In 2010, Arutz Sheva reported that he and Mike Huckabee were the guest speakers. This is the YouTube video of Hoenlein’s speech. Beit El is a hardcore ideological settlement which is the home of the Voice of the Settler (Arutz Sheva). It is built on private, stolen Palestinian land according to the Sasson Report. Lest you think the Reform movement, the largest member organization of the Conference, doesn’t know about this activity, reporters for Jewish media have asked whether they planned to take any action. The answer was always, No.
Returning to Kahanism and Hoenlein’s Soviet Jewry activism, it’s critical to understand the historical context of the period:
The aim of the campaign was to draw attention to the 2.1 million Jews living in the Soviet Union. Unknown to the public was the fact that the anti-Soviet actions were being orchestrated by several militant Israelis, including the Mossad spy agency; Yitzhak Shamir, later Israel’s prime minister, and Guelah Cohen, a leader of the extremist Tehiya Party and member of the Knesset. The Israelis persuaded Kahane to wage the anti-Soviet campaign. The goal was to strain U.S.”“Soviet relations, calculating that Moscow would ease the strain by allowing increased numbers of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel
These disparate individuals, some high-level Israeli political leaders and some anti-Soviet Jewish terrorists, engaged in both violent terror attacks and grassroots activism against the Soviet regime. Also a part of this, was the political thrust offered by Sen. Henry Jackson (author of the Jackson-Vanik amendment) which pressured the Russians to release Soviet Jews.
The ultimate goal of everyone involved was to bring a huge influx of Soviet Jews to Israel. The Israeli nationalist right knew that as long as it refused a settlement to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, Israel would face a demographic deficit. Bringing a million new Jews would assure a Jewish majority for at least a generation. Further, the best and most efficient means of populating the West Bank with Jews and realizing the Greater Israel vision was to seed these territories with new immigrants.
If you review what actually happened, it’s not far from the reality. These new immigrants led by ardent nationalists like Natan Sharansky and Avigdor Lieberman, became the next generation backbone of the Likud; a new constituency to which it could turn during elections. Many of these new immigrants settled in the new towns built for them in the Territories. Even those who settled within the Green Line maintained their harsh nationalist views that militated toward the Likud political perspective.
Returning to J Street, given that almost all the major Jewish organizations in the Conference announced publicly before the J Street vote that they would support it, one has to guess how the applicant could’ve failed so miserably in its effort. The simple answer: Malcolm Hoenlein. He clearly despises J Street, which is closely allied with the Obama administration. There is no love lost from Jeremy Ben Ami’s perspective either:
Lately, though, the Conference’s position as the sole voice on behalf of American Jewry has been challenged by the rise of J Street—the two-year-old lobbying group that casts itself as a progressive alternative to established Jewish groups and that has become the chief venue for Jews who wish to indicate full-throated support of the approach the Obama White House has taken in the Middle East. The fledgling group’s political loyalty was rewarded last summer with an invitation to join a small group of Jewish communal representatives invited to the White House for a meeting with the president—a move that also telegraphed the administration’s disregard for the established hierarchies. While still tiny compared to the powerhouse organizations that are represented by the Conference—among them AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, and the major religious branches—J Street’s evident ability to thrive outside of Hoenlein’s orbit strikes at the notion of a single unified “Jewish” voice. “You can’t speak for everyone—nothing gets a hundred percent vote,” Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street’s executive director, told me. “I’m not saying this to invalidate either Malcolm Hoenlein or the Conference, but to speak for an entire community is presumptuous.”
The Conference boss is not one to brook opposition nor does he ever forget a slight. He would never forgive Ben Ami for making such a comment and would certainly do everything in his power to deny J Street membership in his exclusive Jewish club.
Just to get a better “flavor” of Hoenlein and his managerial style, I turn to a story published in Jewish Week back in 1997. It deals with the discrepancy between the Conference’s then tiny budget and the contrastingly robust financial health of a Conference charitable fund established to finance Hoenlein’s various pet projects. The charitable fund and the money it disbursed were in the almost exclusive control of Hoenlein. Those listed as directors of the fund either didn’t know it existed or had barely a clue about what it did:
Now it turns out that at least half of that [Conference] budget, and perhaps as much as two-thirds, comes from outsiders…The Presidents Conference charitable fund was incorporated in 1982 as a fund-raising tool for the perenially cash-strapped umbrella group.
Established in an effort to bolster the budget, which until then came almost exclusively from membership dues, this fund for many years attracted little money. But between 1993 and 1995,it has more than tripled, from $121,000 to more than $432,000. The fund’s net assets by 1995 were almost $709,000 vs. a net deficit of $146,000 for the conference itself.
Luke Ford also published this tidbit about Hoenlein’s personal life:
Malcolm Hoenlein carried on a public and highly disruptive relationship during the late ’80s and early ’90s with his wealthy socialite employee Lisa Belzberg who went on to marry Mathew Bronfman, son of Edgar…Malcolm is a grandfather and married about 40 years.
Not only is he a grandfather and married man, he’s an Orthodox Jew who runs one of the most powerful organizations in the American Jewish community. How does such a thing happen? I’ll tell you how–his members allow it to happen. Malcolm Hoenlein is the indispensable man. He knows everyone. He knows where the corpses are buried. He probably has embarrassing information on every one of his member organizations and wouldn’t shrink from using it to pursue his interests.
The bottom line is that the members of the Conference have only themselves to blame for allowing Hoenlein to run rampant and determine the policies of the organization. As long as Hoenlein runs the show, the Conference will be a fire-breathing settlement-pushing, Likudist operation. As such, it will be entirely out of touch with the rest of American Jewry and continue the slide into irrelevance that besets much of the organized Jewish community.
Threats by the Reform movement to bolt the Conference are hollow until they show they mean business. My bet is that they’ll suck it up and stay put. They don’t have the guts to cut loose from the Conference and create a truly transparent, responsive and democratic body. If I’m right, that makes Rick Jacobs, his entire movement and all of the mainstream groups who stay in the Conference hypocrites. They whine about Hoenlein, but when push comes to shove, they do nothing to change things. To anyone who says I’m being uncharitable or unfair, I say: prove me wrong.