Earlier this year Malcolm Hoenlein announced that he will step down as executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, though he will stay in office as the group looks for his replacement. Hoenlein, 73, is one of the most powerful Jews in America. When Barack Obama wanted to name Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, he reached out to Hoenlein first.
In recent months, the Jewish leader has given interviews and speeches (posted online, links below) that convey his generational world view. Hoenlein’s parents escaped Germany but his grandparents were killed in the Holocaust; and Hoenlein’s core beliefs are: The importance of Jewish power to save Jews; the importance of Jewish unity to maintain that power and produce miracles in Israel. Hoenlein is baffled by young Jews’ indifference to his causes. His response is that we have to “inoculate our kids younger and younger” — as early as five — so that they understand why the news features pictures “of an Israeli killing a kid or an adult.”
Here are some of Hoenlein’s statements. On the Holocaust forming his belief in Jewish power:
I know how strongly I was influenced by the Shoah, and from the time I was ten or eleven years I got involved politically because I believed that only when Jews could have control of their own fate and future and understood the political process and got involved–as Abba Eban said, In World War Two, Jews had influence in many places but power in none. I knew that Jewish power was the key to our survival. And I remember my parents getting the telegram that my grandparents had been killed. As a very young child when those yellow telegrams came and those of our neighbors and others who received them, I know it made a lasting impact. So much of what I have done is to avoid another situation where Jews will live at the sufferance of others, that Jews will not determine their own fate.
On Jewish unity as a key to Jewish action:
Nobody [in the Soviet Jewry movement] cared who was orthodox, reform or conservative. We understood that… achdus [unity in Hebrew] is the one precondition to every great miracle that happened to the Jewish people, and achdus is not attained by putting labels on people, but by finding the common aspirations, the common hopes, common drive that people have and building on that. It’s not what differentiates us, it’s what unites us, and that’s when we succeed.
The fact is that on ninety percent of the issues we can find a common ground. If you understand, most people whether they are extreme left or extreme right whatever stream, most of them…are all motivated by a commitment to the Jewish people… I really believe in klal Yisrael [all of Israel]. I really believe that our strength lies in building together… The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
On his relationship with U.S. politicians:
I have never leaked any of the stories. I maintain the confidence of the people we deal with. Presidents of the United States have told me the most incredible things, that I could have made a lot of headlines with…So one morning you get a headline, the next day you have no access. It’s very important the lessons we have learned over the years about How do you deal with power. You respect power, you don’t worship power. Power is not an end in itself. But if I can just say, To me Jewish power is sacred. That’s the lesson from the Shoah. To me Jewish power is like a muscle. If you exercise it right you build it up. If you abuse it, you destroy it.
On assimilation, and the need to find positive causes for young Jews that bind them to Israel:
Every day we’re losing 100s and 100s of Jews, young Jews in particular. Every single day. That’s the biggest danger…
[Young Jews] drove the movements. Today we put them down, they’re marginalized in a large respects in our community. We have to find ways to capitalize, no matter what their political views are…. We should have something for everyone that draws them to the community…. They are looking for content. We can’t condemn all the ones who have strayed away. We have to think about why they have strayed…What have we not done? What is it we have failed to provide in our education?
You cant just send kids on Birthright– and I’m a big supporter of Birthright– at the age of 18, and ignore the first 17 years of their lives and think they’re going to be OK. It’s not Israel’s responsibility to make up for our failures. Israel is the inspiration. Israel is what unites us. I still believe that Israel is a positive value. The problem is that we try to shuttle off some of our failures on to Israel. Oh they’re responsible for the alienation of our youth. No, they’re not, we’re responsible….[We need] to bring back our youth, to challenge them. To give them ways they can find expression within the larger community. Find causes for them, whether domestic causes, international causes.
On his program to stop intermarriage:
I have tried for years, since prime minister Sharon, to get Israel to undertake, a World Jewish singles event here. There are a million Jewish singles in America, a million Jewish singles here [in Israel], tens of thousands in Europe, who will never meet a Jewish mate. Bring them here, build Jewish families! His answer to me was, Oh you’ll have yeridah [Jews leaving Israel for other countries]. I said, you’ll have aliyah! [Jews moving to Israel]. How do you know– make Israel attractive and we’ll keep them here. They’ll find jobs, they’ll find mates. But if not, at least you’ll have Jewish families.
On teaching American Jews at 6 about Israel to counter the images of Israelis killing people:
Find me something that teaches a 6 year old or a 7 year old about what’s going on. Because they see the television reports. They see the news reports. Whoever tells them that that picture of an Israeli killing a kid or an adult– they absorb those images… This is really important to me. The Catholic church says give me a kid till he’s six, you can have them the rest of their lives. We have to start not just with high school students or college students, we have to start with them in elementary school and younger, provide them with positive views of Israel, talk to them about Israel. You’d be shocked how much of the views they ultimately express are shaped in those early years. We don’t do it, we have ignored them.
On inoculating children against Israel hatred by explaining the violence on television. “Start in kindergarten”:
We have to deal with the question of assimilation and the indifference that we find amongst our young people, let alone increasing hostility on our campuses because they fall victim to extremist professors or movements. Because they don’t know, and they don’t have the confidence in their ability to respond to these false charges, to these allegations, to these libels. So we have to do more. Start younger. Start in kindergarten. Start in elementary schools. Educate our kids. Parents take time. Explain to them what they see on television. Give them context to understand what this is about. Talk to them about Israel’s amazing contributions, about what Israeli society is about, What they have done to improve the lives of people, through pharma through med-tech….the number of inventions second only to the United States…. To tell the positive story about Israel to them. To give them the sense that Israel is not just about wars. Because that’s what they see. They see the negatives on television. And nobody sits with an eight year old, a ten year old, to explain it to them. And we pay the price ten years later. So we have to inoculate our kids younger and younger. And parents, take them to Israel but that’s not enough!…
We win most often on campuses on BDS, but our kids are affected by it. They see the propaganda, they see the hatred, and they can get turned off. We see that they don’t so much turn against Israel as they turn toward indifference. … We can’t afford to lose them in support of Israel…. We have to do more to get our young people to understand the relationship to Israel, what Israel has to offer them, and what they have to offer Israel.
On Jewish unity and miracles:
I’m not an ideologue, I’m not ideologically oriented. I really believe in klal Israel… because I believe in bringing the unity of the Jewish people to fruition. That that is the one great precondition for every miracle that happened to the Jewish people. Also unity means also between Israel and the United States, the American Jewry and Diaspora Jewry generally with the people of Israel.
American Jews have no right to criticize Israel’s security arrangements because we are shareholders not partners:
So the divisions [among Jews] are really artificial to a degree. Sure there are ideological positions, there are religious differences. There are differences in principle. And we should respect that and recognize that. What unites us far overwhelms that: the importance of Israel to all of us. None of us has a right to denigrate Israel’s security, Israel’s stnding. We can disagree with it, You can criticize some of the policies of Israel. It doesn’t make you an anti-semite, or anti-Israel. But to deny it’s right– to endanger it, we don’t have that right. We are not equal partners. We are share holders in Israel. If you live there and you send your children to fight, and if you pay half your income in taxes, then you’re an equal partner with Israel.
A few comments. Hoenlein’s views are generational not just because they reflect an idealism about Israel that has long faded from the front pages; but because he remembers his own youth movement fondly as a rebellion– defying the then-passive Jewish leadership and making outspoken Jewish demands during the 1967 War and Yom Kippur War and the fight for Soviet Jewry– even as he refuses to acknowledge today’s rebel Jewish movements, IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, young Jews who want to end his subservient relationship to a militant discriminatory state. But Hoenlein is retiring; they’re coming into the scene. And they don’t like the “Jewish establishment.”
On a related point, Hoenlein’s passion about Jewish unity is authoritarian: he cannot acknowledge the diversity within his own ranks. When Mark Golub asked him about Ron Lauder’s op-ed in the New York Times challenging Israel’s leadership, Hoenlein refused to discuss it.
And when asked about President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement last December in an interview, Hoenlein presumed to speak for the Jewish community in support of Trump:
Across the board there’s been consensus, acceptance, appreciation for what the president said. Even the Reform movement has come aboard. Of course everybody accepts the idea. Initially they expressed some reservations about the timing, but even that has been modified.
This is a misrepresentation. Reform Jews rejected Trump’s move at the time, though they did come on board after a week or two. But Americans for Peace Now, a member of Hoenlein’s Conference of Presidents, said angrily that the move sabotaged peace, and Peace Now has stuck to that position. So Hoenlein is ignoring a leftwing organization in his own shop, which has been vehemently opposed to his own statements. I can’t understand why Peace Now agrees to pay his salary on such terms, except that they actually believe his larger lesson, Jewish unity makes Jewish miracles. Maybe the next generation of leftleaning Jews will see the breakup of this order.
Links to interviews below.