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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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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.”

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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