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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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I did not, however, spot any items documenting the arrival of the Obama administration on the scene. “I can’t say we have regular meetings with the president,” Hoenlein had told me in an earlier session. “But that’s not his style.” Still, he was quick to add, he has access to Dan Shapiro and Dennis Ross, the two National Security Council staffers with greatest direct day-to-day responsibility for dealing with Israel and through them maintains a channel to George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy for the peace process. “I certainly think there is an appreciation of the role of the Presidents’ Conference,” said a current senior administration official who works on Middle East policy. “You can’t be in the role Malcolm’s had for as long as he’s had it and not have a sense of what the pulse is in the community—that’s a role that has value, and that, in particular, may be an important aspect for us right now.”

However, what some members of the Conference would like to see is even greater distance from this White House. Mort Klein, the outspoken head of the Zionist Organization of America, likes to cast himself as the Cassandra of the group. “Every Jewish organization including the Conference of Presidents should have publicly and strongly criticized President Obama for using language to an ally that has never been used—condemn, assault, affront,” Klein told me. “Malcolm says you don’t want to open a breach. You want to maintain access. I say it’s a crisis already.” Yet even Klein recognized the unavoidable truth that more than half of American Jews still approve of Obama’s performance, including on American-Israeli relations. “Half the Jews hate him and half thinks he’s wonderful,” Klein conceded. “There’s no unity. But the leadership does not reflect that.”

Over the past few weeks, Hoenlein’s chief strategy for dealing with the situation has been simply to change the subject, away from the sticky matter of Israel and the Palestinians to one he thinks everyone can agree on: Iran. “This is not about Israel,” Hoenlein told me, after the walk-through of his office. “This is about America’s security.” But even on that front, there has been disquiet in the ranks ahead of today’s conference-wide meeting. “Something has to come out of that,” said Joel Sprayregen, a lawyer who is vice-president of the board at the conservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “It’ll turn into a discussion about what to do about Iran and the White House, and those of us who have concern will have a chance to voice our feelings on it.”

The current split in American Jewish opinion is not, by general consensus, as vicious as it was during the Oslo period, when Kahanist protesters turned out in New York waving signs labeling Rabin a traitor. But its contours point to a structural shift that may not only involve partisanship. The heads around the Conference table are, for the most part, gray; of the most involved participants, only a handful, including the current chair Solow, are younger than the state of Israel. Most can still remember an era when Jews believed it was necessary to band together as Jews. But times have changed; Jewish issues have, perhaps, become everyone’s issues. In the White House, at least, Hoenlein faces a team made up of people—not just Ross and Shapiro, but Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser David Axelrod, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama chief of staff Susan Sher—with their own longstanding, personal connections in the Jewish world, who don’t necessarily mind reversing Dulles’s prescription and going directly to the people who will offer political support. “There’s greater sophistication in White Houses about the Jewish community—they no longer need to call Malcolm and say, ‘Bring us 20 Jews,’” Foxman told me. “They don’t need it and they don’t want it. But there was a time when it was simply easier for them to pick up the phone and say, ‘Fill these 20 seats.’”

For now, though, Hoenlein has tasked himself with finding the way back into the palace. “It is our job to always try to rebuild the relationship,” Hoenlein told me, earnestly. These days, he has his work cut out for him.

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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

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