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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

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Malcolm Hoenlein speaking at a New York press conference demanding international action in Darfur, April 2006. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

White House meeting

Hoenlein, at lower left, joining other Jewish communal leaders for a meeting with Obama in July 2009.
CREDIT: JStreet.org

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.

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Diana Kindzred says:

Nothing last forever ……… including Mr. Hoenlein,
he’s not a dictator is he ? Thirty plus years in power
for any human being is way too much. Let’s move on to
some one new, younger and a moderate!

Diana Kindzred

Malcolm Hoenlein does not speak for me!

Ruth Gutmann says:

Thank you for that informative article. I am relieved to read that it is not Mr. Hoenlein who is asked to fill those 20 White House seats “reserved for Jews”. The Neo-Cons’ influence on the Bush Administration was anything but beneficial.
Where was Mr. Hoenlein when Bibi Netanyahu chose his Foreign Minister? A little of that vaunted seichel of his, wispered in Bibi’s ear — might have benefited Israel.

The article left me wonder whom the Conference aims to benefit: American Jewry — no less split than the rest of America’s population — or Israel, no less vacillating.

Arnie Lustiger says:

Every week on Friday at 7:45 you can hear Malcolm Hoenlein interviewed on the Nachum Siegal Show, 91.1 FM – an important fact that this article omits. If the writer had listened to the show even once, she would find that his views are not as opaque and more moderate than this article implies. With or without a crown, the Jewish community could not have a better representative.

Ruth Gutmann says:

Just yesterday, we had a visitor from London. He comes here regularly and is struck by the stark differences between the British and American Jewish communities. British Jews are not happy at the prospect of being outvoted by the Muslim community in the not too distant future. What strikes me is that the British Jewish community still lives under the old, European constraints — they do not speak their mind as we (I hope) would. –

And as for the Baroness Tonge — that Middle-East “expert” of the Liberal Dems.: according to our visitor, apart from her other attributes, she is a holocaust denier, a characteristic not mentioned by your Mr. Miller.

ira kellman says:

There is no more knowlegable,committed or articulate spokesman for the Jewish people and State than Malcolm.He has consistently been years ahead of others in seeing the problems we faced and raising issues crucial to our future. As anyone who tries to remain neutral in the midst of conflict knows you are always subject to attack from both extremes.The community has been fortunate to have Malcolm as a leader .The President does himself a disservice in not listening more closely to him.

Joel says:

There is a whiff of old fashion antisemitism here with the stereotyping of a Jew as some secret powerful figure manipulating the political world behind the scene. This is the stuff of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Amazing how Jews writing about Jews end up reproducing old the ugly stereotypes about Jews.

I’ve always had a problem with the coronation of certain Jewish activists by the press as “Jewish leaders.” Why is it that every time anti-Semitism pops up, the press always goes to Hoenlein, Foxman, and Dershowitz for a quote? Same old people, same old quotes. Spice it up a little.

Shalom Freedman says:

Malcolm Hoenlein is a sane responsible Jewish leader and one who as this article indicates has worked diligently for the well- being of Israel through the years. If If he faces a far more difficult task today it is because of the openly hostile onee- sided stance against Israel and in favor of the Palestinians the Obama Administration has taken until now. This has included abuse and humiliation of the Israeli Prime Minister.
There have always been divisions within the Jewish community. JStreet does have a constituency but it is of people who have less concern for Israel, less Jewish knowledge and connection than do the majority.
It is to be hoped that the sane , sensible pro- Israel line taken by Hoenlein will moderate the current Administration’s tilting in the wrong direction.

Shalom, Israel has to sit out Obama’s Administration and hope for (work towards) his non-reelection next time around.

Have never heard of him, but if he’s upholding fundamentally corrupt neo-con politicos and claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community, than he can count on 0% support from me.
Why have we disintegrated into this. Does social justice take a back seat to cash? Power perhaps?

Important article. Not all of us are as politically involved and we exist on the sidelines supporting local community resources. Being aware of the complicated issues involved in jewish survival is important . Thank you. Looking forward to continued education.

Aharon Velvel says:

It’s terrible. We need to present a unified front, even if in reality we could not be farther from that. J Street is damaging themselves and the community at large, clearly they have people they represent but rather than just doing their own thing without regard for other groups they should join the Conference.

am sending my comment by separate mail

the Shtetl Hustler says:

Does anybody know if he really got to sit next to Tom Kaplan in scumbag Tropper’ son wedding ? it was sort of funny that between the sex conversations Tropper mentioned that Malcolm Hoenlein begged him to be seated next to Kaplan.

Haim says:

American liberal Jews are slouching towards open betrayal of Israel, and the day Malcolm Hoenlein falls will be the day of the open breach. Israel will survive, but American non-Orthodox Jewry is doomed for sure.

Recently, Mrs. Palin was asked by Barbara Walters if she supported the building freeze demanded by Mr. Obama on Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Mrs. Palin responded with an emphatic no.

“More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand,” she said.

Pleasant says:

I really am concerned. In order to fulfill messianic prophecy it is NOT necessary to reinstate David’s line on the throne. Samuel the prophet warned Israel not to do so, and why. They didn’t listen and look what happened! I am certainly not happy with anyone being on a throne in Israel besides YHVH ever again.

H. Felton says:

The only ¨reform Jews¨ I recognize are those who rejected Judaism two thousand years ago-they are called Christians. There is virtually no Jewish content in the lives of most left-wing Jews, but luckily for Israel, what with intermarriage and chidlessness, in about twenty years no Israeli Prime Minister will have to bother speaking to so-called ¨reform Jews.¨ They will have just about disappeared.
It’s a sad state of affairs when an Israeli PM receives a warmer reception from U.S. Christians than from left-wing U.S. Jews, but that situation obtains today, so I say good riddance to those fair weather friends.

We were neighbors for many years and he is a very good person. Israel is his top priority.
Once met Elie Weisel and the late Henry “Scoop” Jackson at his house.
I felt badly that one time his house got field mice but we didn’t. Hmm!

College Student says:

I heard Mr. Hoenlein speak in my College about the danger J Street is posing to Israel-American relations. Thank you Mr. Hoenlein for standing up and speaking out for the entire Jewish community.

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Ari says:

Nice article, I would love to read Malcolm’s memoir one day, perhaps an American companion to Yehuda Avner’s book. But calling him “King” is misleading and ready is not reflected in the article.

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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