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
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.”