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
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.