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
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.