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.