King Without a Crown
Malcolm Hoenlein has served as the unofficial king of the Jews for the past three decades, but a combination of forces threatens his rule
This is the kind of story people tell about Malcolm Hoenlein, a man described to me as “one of the most powerful people, politically, in the United States” and “the most powerful Jew in the Western world.” One day in the early 1990s, as the United States and Israel were embarking on a campaign to repeal the Soviet-backed U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir hosted a meeting in Jerusalem. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat, was there, and so was Shimon Peres; as the conversation went on, differing views emerged about whether it was time to push for a potentially risky vote in the General Assembly. “All of a sudden, Shamir says, ‘Ask Malcolm,’” David Luchins, a longtime aide to Moynihan, recently recalled. “And everyone said, ‘Yes, Malcolm,’ like it was the magic word. So, we went back to the King David and called Malcolm Hoenlein because the prime minister of Israel told us to call him and do what he says.”
By day, Hoenlein is known as the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—an unrevealing title that endows him with responsibility for daily management of the umbrella group that serves as the de facto central council of American Jewry. At 66, he has the thinning hair and rimless glasses of a technocrat, which seems appropriate for his identity as the relatively anonymous functionary who supports the heads of the various organizations he represents. Aside from occasional comments to the press, usually in his capacity as a spokesman for the Conference, Hoenlein maintains a low public profile; he is virtually unknown to the millions of Jews on whose behalf he works.
But behind the scenes in Washington, in Jerusalem, and in the power circles of the organized Jewish world in New York, Hoenlein—usually referred to simply as “Malcolm”—is the face of American Jewry. Prime ministers call him. So do, from time to time, presidents. Ambassadors wait, patiently, to meet with him. Hillary Clinton, as a U.S. senator, attended at his daughter’s wedding; so did Rush Limbaugh. Billionaires like Ronald Lauder and Mortimer Zuckerman rely on him as an adviser on Jewish affairs. In more than 40 years of quasi-public Jewish service, starting in the Soviet Jewry movement, Hoenlein has built “the greatest Rolodex in the world,” according to Shoshana Cardin, a former chairwoman of the Conference. “The value of Malcolm is not that he opens doors,” explained one senior official at a Jewish organization, who first encountered Hoenlein in the 1970s. “It’s that he’s the clearinghouse. The perception is that he knows everything that is going on in American Jewish life.”
Unlike the vast majority of his colleagues and their constituents, Hoenlein is a strictly observant Jew. He wears a black knit kippah every day and has lived for decades in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, a hub of American Orthodoxy; he is as fluent in the language of rabbinic politics as he is in Washington lingo. Most Fridays, unless he is traveling, he leaves the world of the Conference behind and traverses the gap separating mainstream, secular American Jewry, and the religious environment in which he was raised. His Conference colleagues don’t visit his house for Shabbat dinners, because they’d have to break the Sabbath to drive back to their homes in Manhattan, New Jersey, or Westchester; he infrequently spends Shabbat with them, for the same reason.
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 principled, 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.” But Jacoby, like almost all of the dozens of people I interviewed, gave Hoenlein and the Conference’s lay leadership credit for holding together a 52-member coalition that encompasses the political breadth of the Jewish community, from the left-wing Americans for Peace Now to the right-wing Zionist Organization of America—a unified front that, for the last half-century, has been one of the cornerstones of the American Jewish community’s political power.
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.”
Today, nearly a hundred members of the Conference will convene in Manhattan for a daylong retreat to refine their positions three key topics: the Iranian nuclear threat, the anti-Israel boycott and sanctions movement, and the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship. But with the American Jewish community perhaps more deeply—and publicly—at odds over its relationship with Israel than almost at any time since the Jewish state’s creation, J Street is almost the one subject guaranteed to produce consensus. Increasingly, there is a sense of disquiet within the established Jewish world from those who feel the Conference has been slow to counter J Street’s publicity machine with its own public campaign.
This is, in part, the result of the unique structure of the Conference, which every two years rotates its chairmanship—well-known public figures like Mort Zuckerman have filled the position—to keep peace among its various constituent groups. But it is also due to the personal style of Hoenlein, who understands the value of flying under the radar. Several times in the course of a series of interviews we conducted over more than two months, he paused to tell me that his reputation for keeping quiet about sensitive, backchannel negotiations—over, say, the fate of Jonathan Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel—helped him cement his access. Yet what to him seems like appropriate circumspection contributes to the widespread suspicion, particularly on the left, that he uses his position to pursue his own private agenda when it comes to Israel and the wellbeing of the Jewish people. Indeed, it has become something of an open joke even among his own friends. In March, I ran into Hoenlein at a conference in lower Manhattan; he was chatting by the buffet table with one of his longtime backers, an attorney and former Conference chair named Kenneth Bialkin. Hoenlein introduced me as “his biographer.” “Get rid of him, he’s a pernicious guy!” quipped Bialkin, giving Hoenlein a jovial slap on the back.
Hoenlein’s insistence on obscuring his own work habits also helps him maintain an almost magical aura of top-secret insiderdom. In March, I attended an off-the-record breakfast briefing the Conference hosted for Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, in a plush meeting room at the Weizmann Institute of Science offices in a midtown Manhattan, one floor below the modest suite the Conference sublets from the Jewish Agency. After the breakfast wrapped up, Hoenlein invited me to accompany him back upstairs for an impromptu interview. When we arrived, he pointed me toward a colleague’s darkened office, rather than into his, apologizing that his office was too messy. I asked if I could at least take a peek inside the inner sanctum, since our earlier interviews had taken place in a bare meeting room. He shook his head, and gestured at the teetering towers of cardboard file boxes visible through the doorway. “You’d get scared,” he said, deflecting me with a smile, and guided me across the hall.
Over the course of our interviews, I discovered that Hoenlein’s desire for privacy extended not just to journalists but to dignitaries: In April, as we were wrapping up a conversation in a Jewish Agency meeting room overlooking Third Avenue, he directed his next visitor, American diplomat James Cunningham—the current U.S. ambassador to Israel—into a cramped, windowless space nearby and kept him waiting for a few minutes after their 5 p.m. appointment so that I could finish my questions.
Now, though, Hoenlein’s demeanor belies a degree of anxiety about the future. Over the last two months, the Obama administration—whose chief voices on Israel include Daniel Shapiro and Dennis Ross, men who know and have worked with Hoenlein—has proven willing to deal directly, and harshly, with the Netanyahu government, most recently on the question of new construction in East Jerusalem, bypassing American Jewish groups in the process. When President Barack Obama was ready to reach out to American Jews in the wake of that disagreement—and in advance of the new round of shuttle diplomacy that began this weekend—he sent a letter to the Conference reaffirming his commitment to the special relationship between Israel and the United States. Following protocol, the president addressed his letter not to Hoenlein, but to the current Conference chair, Alan Solow, a Chicago lawyer who has been one of Obama’s most faithful supporters in the Jewish community. The letter did not apologize or even take note of the friction that resulted from the administration’s decision to take Netanyahu to task after a low-level committee approved a new housing development during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in March. Hoenlein said he was far from placated. “I’m not calm. Honestly, I don’t see anybody, left or right, who feels comfortable at this moment,” he told me. “I think people sense that a lot of the plates are shifting right now.”
Every day, Hoenlein gets into his Conference-leased Lexus and drives himself from his modest street in Brooklyn across the East River and into midtown Manhattan. He makes calls on the way from the old flip phone he uses for talking. He carries a BlackBerry, and is quick with email, but the currency of his trade is live contact, by which he transmits an effective mix of information, advice, and empathy. By nature, he is a coalition-builder, and he revels in the horse-trading aspect of working with politicians—the daily exchange of information and favors that, over time, constitute political capital. His conversations sound like this: “Do you know what the status of the Armenian resolution is? No? Oh, boy. Better get ready. Right, right. Right. Both houses? Both houses? Both houses? Right. Right. But what about in the Senate? I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you. Because I got a couple calls from the Turkish Jewish community, and I got calls from … Right, that I knew. Right. Right. Right. Hold on a second. Right. No, I know. OK. Then everything’s fine. Yeah, that’ll be better for us, too. OK, thanks a lot. I will call you back. Yeah. OK. Bye.”
Hoenlein has been a force in New York politics since he arrived from Philadelphia, in 1971, to work with the Soviet Jewry movement, and over the years he managed to develop close relationships with everyone from the Republican former Sen. Al D’Amato to Hillary Clinton, calling and encouraging them to support this or that initiative or to engage in the elaborate game of assembling co-sponsors for bills. Yet Hoenlein, a political chessmaster who prides himself on working well with members of both parties, has repeatedly found himself cast as an antagonist to Obama during the president’s first year in office, and he is more acutely sensitive to criticism now than ever. “So, are you going to hang me out to dry?” he asked me, only half joking, the first time we met.
In the 1990s, it was right-wing critics, largely from the religious Zionist wing of the Orthodox world, who accused Hoenlein of being too soft on issues like Pollard’s release. But the simmering resentment on the progressive Jewish left that built up during the Bush years over the rightward drift of established Jewish organizations boiled over during the Obama campaign. The first warning came in September 2008, when Hoenlein extended an invitation to Sarah Palin to speak alongside Hillary Clinton at a rally outside the United Nations protesting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Clinton, then still New York’s senator and by that time campaigning for Obama, angrily dropped out, and Palin was subsequently disinvited. Hoenlein told me he was simply trying to be inclusive, but he was nonetheless widely blamed for ruining a major event with what looked like a Republican ploy.
Hoenlein, at lower left, joining other Jewish communal leaders for a meeting with Obama in July 2009.
After Obama hosted Jewish leaders at the White House’s Roosevelt Room last July, to discuss Israel, Hoenlein was cited by the New York Times as the president’s toughest skeptic. Obama sat in the middle of the gathering; Solow sat immediately to his right, Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, to his left. Photographs reveal that Hoenlein, wearing a sharp black suit, sat at the cramped opposite corner of the polished wood table, as far away as he could have been seated from the president in a gathering of fewer than two dozen people. “Mr. Hoenlein told the president that diplomatic progress in the Middle East has traditionally occurred when there is ‘no light’ between the positions of the United States and Israel,’” the Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported, citing two unnamed participants. “But Mr. Obama pushed back.” The episode still rankles Hoenlein, who brought it up to me as an example of how he has become a lightning rod for partisan disputes. “All I said was that history teaches us that when there is daylight between us it is harmful,” Hoenlein told me. “He said, ‘For eight years there has been no daylight, and for eight years there has been no progress.’ I said no, there was Annapolis, disengagement.”
Hoenlein prides himself on his ability to find a way to work with almost anyone and bristles at being painted as the political opponent of a Democratic president who still retains support among a majority of American Jews. One of the anecdotes he most likes to repeat in defense of his bipartisan reach is about a phone call he once got at home from then-President Jimmy Carter. In its original version, Carter calls and asks Hoenlein for advice on how to handle negotiations at Camp David. In our interviews, Hoenlein said he was called more than once, but the first time, he thought it was a prank. “I picked up the phone and they said it was the president calling, and I remember saying, ‘Who is this really?’ ” Hoenlein recounted. “And then I hear this voice on the line, going”—he paused and gathered his tongue for an attempt at slow Georgia peach—“’Maaal-cumm, you got uh minute?’” In this telling, the president overheard Hoenlein’s son in the background asking who it was, asked to speak with him, and invited him down to the White House to play with the first daughter, Amy. “Well,” Hoenlein continued, “he said he goes to a yeshiva and doesn’t play with girls.” I heard the story twice from Hoenlein, once in early March and again in late April, by which time I had discovered it has been an enduring favorite: Cynthia Ozick, writing in the New Leader before the 1980 presidential election, noted that Hoenlein told it to her two or three times in a single sitting.
The Conference itself has its roots not in partisanship but on the presumption that the capacity to speak with a single voice on Israel would greatly benefit the American Jewish community—mainly by saving busy politicians in Washington the bother of talking to dozens of individual groups. It was established in 1954 in response to a request from John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of State, that Jewish leaders figure out among themselves what they wanted him to hear about Israel rather than coming to him one at a time.
Julius Berman, a lawyer and prominent figure in New York’s Modern Orthodox community who chaired the group in the early 1980s, recalled being summoned at short notice to a meeting in Washington with George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s second secretary of State. “I said, either we get together and we agree, or we go home, because we can’t tell Reagan we’re all over the lot,” Berman told me. By its own charter, the Conference is not an independent Jewish interest group but a vehicle for conveying displays of communal unity. In addition to the newcomer J Street, there are two other Jewish organizations that certainly qualify as “major” but have not joined the Conference: Chabad-Lubavitch and Agudath Israel, the central American council of non-Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jewry. Levi Shemtov, who heads Chabad’s Washington office—and who grew up down the street from Hoenlein’s parents in Philadelphia—gave me a blunt answer when I asked him why his group remains separate. “I don’t see what we would gain, just that we’d have to clear every statement through a group of people who don’t agree with us,” he told me.
The founding executive of the Conference was Yehuda Hellman, a Lithuanian-born Labor Zionist who came to New York to cover the United Nations for Jewish papers in Mandatory Palestine. For 30 years, he took a back seat to the chairs of the Conference—he literally sat in the second row with other staff at official meetings with the White House. In May 1986, he died unexpectedly, at 65, after suffering a heart attack in the middle of a speech to the trustees of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Chesterfield, Missouri. There was no plan for succession and few paper records documenting the day-to-day affairs of the Conference. “Most of the members were in arrears,” Bialkin, then the Conference chair, told me. “It was much less formal.”
Partly on the advice of his friend George Klein, a New York investor and prominent Republican donor, Bialkin recruited Hoenlein for the job. Not everyone was a fan of the choice. Ted Mann, a civil rights attorney from Philadelphia who chaired the Conference from 1978 to 1980, sent Hoenlein a letter explaining that he had lodged his opposition with Bialkin. “I told Ken that in my judgment you were the best community relations professional in America but the wrong person for this particular position,” Mann wrote, according to a copy he recently gave me. “I am counting on you to prove me wrong.” Mann’s problem with Hoenlein wasn’t partisan; it was a question of style. “It comes down to the problem the United States had in 1786—do you want a strong executive or none at all?” Mann explained, in a recent interview. “The Conference does, even if it doesn’t try to, stifle dissent. But I regard dissent as one of the precious jewels of Jewish life in its 4,000 years.”
Hoenlein, for his part, says he never pretended to be someone who would take direction as a hired hand. “I told them when they were interviewing me that if you don’t want an activist executive, that’s fine,” he told me during a conversation in March. “But I’m not somebody who would just sit and be a bureaucrat.”
When Hoenlein spoke to Cynthia Ozick for the New Leader piece, in 1980, he told her his “obsessions are creative Jewish survival.” It was a lesson impressed on him early by his parents, Ephraim and Erna, who both managed to flee Nazi Germany but were denied entry to Mandatory Palestine and wound up joining extended family in Philadelphia, where they raised Hoenlein and his brother, Steven. The threat somehow remained present, even in America. As a yeshiva boy in suburban Philadelphia, Hoenlein told me, he was offered “literature” by a neo-Nazi group, presumably on the strength of his German surname. As an undergraduate at Temple University, Hoenlein was quick to join the campus Hillel and went on to organize the North American arm of the World Union of Jewish Students. In 1966, he told me, he was arrested on suspicion of working for the CIA while traveling in Jerusalem’s American Colony, then under Jordanian control. Five years later, he and his wife, Frieda, were held by Soviet authorities in Moldova and deported, via Hungary, as “Zionist provocateurs.”
As a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, he specialized in Soviet affairs but left before completing his degree to join the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council, which was launching a new campaign for Soviet Jewry. Al Chernin, the legendary Jewish community-relations activist who hired Hoenlein, taught him the rudiments of grassroots political work. In 1971, Hoenlein was recruited to launch a new umbrella group for organizing various initiatives on Soviet Jewry in New York. “I told him it was the kind of position on which you could either break your neck or launch your career,” Chernin told me recently. Hoenlein’s timing was fortuitous: He arrived just as an ad hoc group was organizing a Hanukkah celebration at Madison Square Garden that came to be known as “Freedom Lights for Soviet Jewry.” Twenty-five thousand people turned up. “There was this generation of young people who were either the children of survivors, or were growing up in an environment where their parents were saying, ‘Why didn’t we do more?’” said Margy-Ruth Davis, a New York political consultant who was one of the first three people to sign on with Hoenlein’s new organization.
Hoenlein earned a reputation as someone who could not only turn people out at rallies but could also 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 when he started,” Hoenlein told me. “Security is vital to the Jewish community, and we don’t take it seriously enough.”
In 1976, he was asked to take over the launch of a Jewish community-relations council for New York, something the city, unlike most smaller Jewish hubs around the country, had never had. The job gave Hoenlein entree into nearly every corner of New York’s Jewish world, from the political fundraising circles of the Upper East Side to the Orthodox hierarchy in Brooklyn to the state’s Congressional delegation. Hoenlein established close relationships with politiciants; in 1981, he and D’Amato shared an El Al flight to New York with Menachem Begin. “Malcolm had seichel, smarts,” Richard Ravitch, who helped establish the the Community Relations Council and is now New York’s lieutenant governor, told me. “Very few people have that kind of seichel.”
When Hoenlein was approached about taking Hellman’s post at the Conference, he was on the cusp of accepting a job at New York’s Jewish Federation, then as now a wealthy, powerful, established organization. But the Conference—nearly bankrupt and ad hoc—offered an unparalleled opportunity. “I had people from the prime minister’s office to the Lubavitcher Rebbe weighing in,” Hoenlein told me, in March. “My son said, ‘Money is never going to be important to you. Where do you think you’ll make a difference? That’s the only thing that will satisfy you.’ ” As it happens, Hoenlein is now generously compensated; according to IRS documents, he made more than $385,000 in cash and benefits from the Conference and a related nonprofit fund in 2008, the last year for which forms are available. But he also told me something else: “I believe this is what God decided for me to do.”
In February, Josh Block, the spokesman for AIPAC, told me that I could never hope to understand the extent of Hoenlein’s influence without seeing him in action in Jerusalem. Every year, Hoenlein organizes a “mission” trip to Israel and one other country—this winter, it was South Africa—designed to cement relationships between the members of the Presidents Conference and the Israeli leadership. It also has the effect of reinforcing Hoenlein’s role as a broker between the two groups. (Ravitch told me that when he craves “a fix” of firsthand news from the Jewish state, “I’ll call him and ask what the hell is going on.”)
For the Israelis, Hoenlein provides institutional memory, as well as an extra-diplomatic link to Washington. “The government changes, and the administration changes, but Malcolm is always there,” said Dore Gold, who served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1990s. Hoenlein is also seen as the gatekeeper to the extraordinary wealth and influence of the far-flung American Jewish diaspora.
“The real power behind the throne, both the kingmaker and the one who wields power on a daily basis, is Malcolm,” said Dan Gillerman, who was Israel’s U.N. envoy under Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. “Whenever I wanted anything done or to wield any influence in Washington, I consulted Malcolm. There were times when I thought the request or the alert should be not just the voice of Israel, but the voice of the Jewish community, and in that respect I thought Malcolm had an added value—and often some special connections that did the trick.” Even Yitzhak Rabin—who, several people told me, initially dismissed Hoenlein as a “court Jew”—eventually found use for him. “Rabin was very independent in America—he had a direct line to Clinton, a direct line to the Senate, a direct line to all the newspapers,” Rabin’s former adviser Shimon Sheves told me. “I’m not sure Rabin’s policy was always the same policy of Malcolm Hoenlein, but he was there, and most of the time his presence was very important for us.”
Of course, no Israeli government has had to worry about winding up on the wrong side of a public statement issued by Hoenlein or the Conference—despite the fact that severe fissures do occasionally emerge among the leadership. In 2005, the Conference was fiercely riven over Sharon’s planned disengagement from Gaza, though eventually the group publicly stated its support. The episode revived calls—heard most loudly from Union for Reform Judaism head Eric Yoffie and Abraham Foxman, the longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League—to establish an executive committee that would, in effect, have the power to rein in not just Hoenlein but the group’s lay chairmen and the donors to the independent fund Hoenlein established to pay for the annual missions and for programs like one that offers fellowships for selected journalists to go to Israel. Ultimately, nothing changed. Yoffie, when I met him recently in his midtown office, said he didn’t want to discuss Hoenlein’s politics. “I’m not going to comment on Malcolm. He works tirelessly,” Yoffie told me. “The personal focus on him or anyone is a mistake and distracts from the real issue–which is the structural question, getting the Conference to be run so that it necessarily reflects the shape of the Jewish community and not the whims of its most active members.”
But that gets back to the political question: Despite recent polls that show support for Obama among Jewish voters slipping more rapidly than among the general public, American Jewry remains solidly Democratic, solidly in favor of Obama, and solidly in favor of accelerating movement toward a settlement with the Palestinians. By contrast, those typically counted as the community’s most “active members” include not just the small, conservative groups whose chief outlet is the Conference, but moguls like Lauder and Zuckerman, both former Conference chairs who have been quite public about their relatively conservative views on Israel. (Neither Lauder nor Zuckerman agreed to be interviewed for this story.) Zuckerman, earlier this year, flirted with a bid for New York’s Senate seat as a Republican, and Lauder last month wrote a harshly critical public letter to Obama castigating the administration for calling Netanyahu to the carpet. Other donors to the Conference fund include Thomas Kaplan, the billionaire president of the board of the 92nd Street Y. “I’m not sure where the accountability is,” said Foxman. “This is an umbrella group, and accountability is serious, because when Malcolm speaks, or Alan Solow speaks, it’s in my name, and I should be aware of it, or have some sense that someone out there is helping make decisions.”
In late April, I went to the Conference of Presidents’ headquarters for my last formal interview with Hoenlein and finally cornered him into letting me see his personal office, which faces east, overlooking the buildings next door along 41st Street. We walked past the cubby where an assistant sits, in front of a satellite image of Israel similar to the one that hangs outside the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, which is unmarked by any of the various borders that have delineated the country’s territory over the years. For nearly an hour, Hoenlein walked me around not just the room where he keeps his computer, but a small anteroom next door, proudly regaling me with the provenance of scores of photographs and tchotchkes that provided ample evidence of his fruitful collaboration with three decades’ worth of politicians of all stripes. There were pictures of him with Carter, with both Bushes, with the Clintons, with Rabin, with Begin, with Reagan, George Shultz, and James Baker; a large photograph of Israeli Air Force jets flying over the gate at Auschwitz signed to him from Ehud Olmert; countless plaques and ephemera from presidents and premiers in countries with small Jewish populations all over the world. Hoenlein challenged me to guess the identities of some sideburned figures who appeared in old candids; I failed miserably, thrown by the unfamiliar angles and by their youth. In one corner was a black-and-white photograph of an Orthodox Jewish doctor, Rick Hodes, taken by Tipper Gore in Ethiopia; Hoenlein said she told him she thought of him when she snapped it.
I did not, however, spot any items documenting the arrival of the Obama administration on the scene. “I can’t say we have regular meetings with the president,” Hoenlein had told me in an earlier session. “But that’s not his style.” Still, he was quick to add, he has access to Dan Shapiro and Dennis Ross, the two National Security Council staffers with greatest direct day-to-day responsibility for dealing with Israel and through them maintains a channel to George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy for the peace process. “I certainly think there is an appreciation of the role of the Presidents’ Conference,” said a current senior administration official who works on Middle East policy. “You can’t be in the role Malcolm’s had for as long as he’s had it and not have a sense of what the pulse is in the community—that’s a role that has value, and that, in particular, may be an important aspect for us right now.”
However, what some members of the Conference would like to see is even greater distance from this White House. Mort Klein, the outspoken head of the Zionist Organization of America, likes to cast himself as the Cassandra of the group. “Every Jewish organization including the Conference of Presidents should have publicly and strongly criticized President Obama for using language to an ally that has never been used—condemn, assault, affront,” Klein told me. “Malcolm says you don’t want to open a breach. You want to maintain access. I say it’s a crisis already.” Yet even Klein recognized the unavoidable truth that more than half of American Jews still approve of Obama’s performance, including on American-Israeli relations. “Half the Jews hate him and half thinks he’s wonderful,” Klein conceded. “There’s no unity. But the leadership does not reflect that.”
Over the past few weeks, Hoenlein’s chief strategy for dealing with the situation has been simply to change the subject, away from the sticky matter of Israel and the Palestinians to one he thinks everyone can agree on: Iran. “This is not about Israel,” Hoenlein told me, after the walk-through of his office. “This is about America’s security.” But even on that front, there has been disquiet in the ranks ahead of today’s conference-wide meeting. “Something has to come out of that,” said Joel Sprayregen, a lawyer who is vice-president of the board at the conservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “It’ll turn into a discussion about what to do about Iran and the White House, and those of us who have concern will have a chance to voice our feelings on it.”
The current split in American Jewish opinion is not, by general consensus, as vicious as it was during the Oslo period, when Kahanist protesters turned out in New York waving signs labeling Rabin a traitor. But its contours point to a structural shift that may not only involve partisanship. The heads around the Conference table are, for the most part, gray; of the most involved participants, only a handful, including the current chair Solow, are younger than the state of Israel. Most can still remember an era when Jews believed it was necessary to band together as Jews. But times have changed; Jewish issues have, perhaps, become everyone’s issues. In the White House, at least, Hoenlein faces a team made up of people—not just Ross and Shapiro, but Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama chief of staff Susan Sher—with their own longstanding, personal connections in the Jewish world, who don’t necessarily mind reversing Dulles’s prescription and going directly to the people who will offer political support. “There’s greater sophistication in White Houses about the Jewish community—they no longer need to call Malcolm and say, ‘Bring us 20 Jews,’” Foxman told me. “They don’t need it and they don’t want it. But there was a time when it was simply easier for them to pick up the phone and say, ‘Fill these 20 seats.’”
For now, though, Hoenlein has tasked himself with finding the way back into the palace. “It is our job to always try to rebuild the relationship,” Hoenlein told me, earnestly. These days, he has his work cut out for him.
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Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at email@example.com. Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.
We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.