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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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When Hoenlein was approached about taking Hellman’s post at the Conference, he was on the cusp of accepting a job at New York’s Jewish Federation, then as now a wealthy, powerful, established organization. But the Conference—nearly bankrupt and ad hoc—offered an unparalleled opportunity. “I had people from the prime minister’s office to the Lubavitcher Rebbe weighing in,” Hoenlein told me, in March. “My son said, ‘Money is never going to be important to you. Where do you think you’ll make a difference? That’s the only thing that will satisfy you.’ ” As it happens, Hoenlein is now generously compensated; according to IRS documents, he made more than $385,000 in cash and benefits from the Conference and a related nonprofit fund in 2008, the last year for which forms are available. But he also told me something else: “I believe this is what God decided for me to do.”

***

In February, Josh Block, the spokesman for AIPAC, told me that I could never hope to understand the extent of Hoenlein’s influence without seeing him in action in Jerusalem. Every year, Hoenlein organizes a “mission” trip to Israel and one other country—this winter, it was South Africa—designed to cement relationships between the members of the Presidents Conference and the Israeli leadership. It also has the effect of reinforcing Hoenlein’s role as a broker between the two groups. (Ravitch told me that when he craves “a fix” of firsthand news from the Jewish state, “I’ll call him and ask what the hell is going on.”)

For the Israelis, Hoenlein provides institutional memory, as well as an extra-diplomatic link to Washington. “The government changes, and the administration changes, but Malcolm is always there,” said Dore Gold, who served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1990s. Hoenlein is also seen as the gatekeeper to the extraordinary wealth and influence of the far-flung American Jewish diaspora.

“The real power behind the throne, both the kingmaker and the one who wields power on a daily basis, is Malcolm,” said Dan Gillerman, who was Israel’s U.N. envoy under Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. “Whenever I wanted anything done or to wield any influence in Washington, I consulted Malcolm. There were times when I thought the request or the alert should be not just the voice of Israel, but the voice of the Jewish community, and in that respect I thought Malcolm had an added value—and often some special connections that did the trick.” Even Yitzhak Rabin—who, several people told me, initially dismissed Hoenlein as a “court Jew”—eventually found use for him. “Rabin was very independent in America—he had a direct line to Clinton, a direct line to the Senate, a direct line to all the newspapers,” Rabin’s former adviser Shimon Sheves told me. “I’m not sure Rabin’s policy was always the same policy of Malcolm Hoenlein, but he was there, and most of the time his presence was very important for us.”

Of course, no Israeli government has had to worry about winding up on the wrong side of a public statement issued by Hoenlein or the Conference—despite the fact that severe fissures do occasionally emerge among the leadership. In 2005, the Conference was fiercely riven over Sharon’s planned disengagement from Gaza, though eventually the group publicly stated its support. The episode revived calls—heard most loudly from Union for Reform Judaism head Eric Yoffie and Abraham Foxman, the longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League—to establish an executive committee that would, in effect, have the power to rein in not just Hoenlein but the group’s lay chairmen and the donors to the independent fund Hoenlein established to pay for the annual missions and for programs like one that offers fellowships for selected journalists to go to Israel. Ultimately, nothing changed. Yoffie, when I met him recently in his midtown office, said he didn’t want to discuss Hoenlein’s politics. “I’m not going to comment on Malcolm. He works tirelessly,” Yoffie told me. “The personal focus on him or anyone is a mistake and distracts from the real issue–which is the structural question, getting the Conference to be run so that it necessarily reflects the shape of the Jewish community and not the whims of its most active members.”

But that gets back to the political question: Despite recent polls that show support for Obama among Jewish voters slipping more rapidly than among the general public, American Jewry remains solidly Democratic, solidly in favor of Obama, and solidly in favor of accelerating movement toward a settlement with the Palestinians. By contrast, those typically counted as the community’s most “active members” include not just the small, conservative groups whose chief outlet is the Conference, but moguls like Lauder and Zuckerman, both former Conference chairs who have been quite public about their relatively conservative views on Israel. (Neither Lauder nor Zuckerman agreed to be interviewed for this story.) Zuckerman, earlier this year, flirted with a bid for New York’s Senate seat as a Republican, and Lauder last month wrote a harshly critical public letter to Obama castigating the administration for calling Netanyahu to the carpet. Other donors to the Conference fund include Thomas Kaplan, the billionaire president of the board of the 92nd Street Y. “I’m not sure where the accountability is,” said Foxman. “This is an umbrella group, and accountability is serious, because when Malcolm speaks, or Alan Solow speaks, it’s in my name, and I should be aware of it, or have some sense that someone out there is helping make decisions.”

***

In late April, I went to the Conference of Presidents’ headquarters for my last formal interview with Hoenlein and finally cornered him into letting me see his personal office, which faces east, overlooking the buildings next door along 41st Street. We walked past the cubby where an assistant sits, in front of a satellite image of Israel similar to the one that hangs outside the Israeli prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, which is unmarked by any of the various borders that have delineated the country’s territory over the years. For nearly an hour, Hoenlein walked me around not just the room where he keeps his computer, but a small anteroom next door, proudly regaling me with the provenance of scores of photographs and tchotchkes that provided ample evidence of his fruitful collaboration with three decades’ worth of politicians of all stripes. There were pictures of him with Carter, with both Bushes, with the Clintons, with Rabin, with Begin, with Reagan, George Shultz, and James Baker; a large photograph of Israeli Air Force jets flying over the gate at Auschwitz signed to him from Ehud Olmert; countless plaques and ephemera from presidents and premiers in countries with small Jewish populations all over the world. Hoenlein challenged me to guess the identities of some sideburned figures who appeared in old candids; I failed miserably, thrown by the unfamiliar angles and by their youth. In one corner was a black-and-white photograph of an Orthodox Jewish doctor, Rick Hodes, taken by Tipper Gore in Ethiopia; Hoenlein said she told him she thought of him when she snapped it.

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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