Interview with Malcolm Hoenlein

Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents, previewed the group’s annual gathering in Jerusalem in a wide-ranging interview with Jewish Insider.

“We are going to listen to the different parties as a chance to introduce people they don’t know to them,” Hoenlein said about this year’s conference, held during Israeli election season. “You get a pretty good sense of a person in a half hour speech or in a question and answer discussion where they can’t avoid the answers so much. It’s something they value. They want to build bridges with American Jewry, they want us to know who they are and why they think that they can help address some of the very concerns of our community. So they will all talk about the stresses and strains and some of the issues that have come up.”

Hoenlein criticized Israeli politicians who travel to the U.S. for fundraising purposes: “I do not think this is a good idea. I think it distorts democracy,” he explained. “I don’t want to see Israelis contributing and getting involved in American domestic politics either. I think it’s unhealthy, it’s a distortion of the democratic process when that happens. When Russians do stuff to interfere in the election or foreigners give money for campaigns, it’s not healthy. The candidates should be making their case based on their beliefs, based on what they’re ready to do, and should be judged for their positions, their accomplishments, and their prospects for the future.”

Hoenlein on dealing with the new Congress when it comes to Israel: “Israel cannot be seen as a left or right issue. We don’t write off anybody, any sector. There are individuals I think we can write off. I think we have to be smart and strategic in how we deal with those who are really hostile; not lump everybody together that aren’t and paint them with one broad brush. It’s not true. There are nuances and differences. Many of them operate out of ignorance. Many of them are just caught in clichés, and some of them are really hostile, and we have to identify and isolate and oppose them. I think we should try to educate and encourage the ones that may be educable and open to it.”

“But this is something we can’t afford to be partisan because the pendulum will swing back at one point and you’ll have the Democrats in the White House, and the House and Senate can move one way or another. I welcome the creation of this new Democratic group that will be pro-Israel, not Jewish, and do what many in the Republican party, evangelicals and other Christians do in standing with Israel. We can’t win if it’s just the Jewish community, and we can’t win if we apply litmus tests. What we have to do is to find the fundamentals on which we can agree — Israel’s right to exist, Israel’s security, and fighting BDS. People can be critical of Israel and not be an anti-Semite, or else every Israeli would be an anti-Semite because there aren’t any of them that don’t criticize Israel.”

On Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s recent comments on Israel: “I can tell you that I’ve spoken to more Democratic Congresspeople, and they’re more concerned or concerned as we are about them. I don’t lump people together. You have to take each case and look at it individually. There were a lot of reasons why some of these people got elected, and what we have to do is make sure that in the next election, the voters come out and pick people who will be more supportive and move away from these extremist ideologies and approaches. But I think the leadership has a responsibility here, too. I don’t think that the leadership is indifferent to it from what I know and from people I’ve talked to. I think the creation of this new Democratic group (The Democratic Majority for Israel) is a very good step.”

“I think that the new Congress is probably as supportive, if not more supportive of Israel than the old one was. So even though everybody highlights these couple of more radical extremists, the fact is that overall we have a more pro-Israel group in Congress than we had. And even many of the young people who are coming in. So we have to identify and educate young Jews and pro-Israel people, and support them. And people who have the right values and the right norms to be in key positions, to become the next chairs of committees, and to be elected and appointed. We have to get people more involved and more committed to the process. Politics should never be a pejorative. We have to learn how to play the game and we should not be ashamed of Jewish power. Jewish power means that people are involved. That’s the definition of Jewish power in a democracy because people that are involved have a say. People who are not involved have no say. And it’s like a muscle, you exercise it, you build it up. If you abuse it, you destroy it.”

On what he expects to see from leaders in the U.S.: “I don’t want anymore crocodile tears for Jews. I’m really tired of it. I don’t want any more memorials to dead Jews. I want people to stand up for a living and vibrant Jewish state and Jewish people. I want that to be the test. I don’t want them to tell me how much they mourn the Holocaust. I want them to tell me how they’re going to prevent another holocaust. I want to know now what are they going to do about anti-Semitism? A society isn’t judged by whether they have haters; it’s judged by how do those in authority deal with the haters. Martin Luther King said, ‘I’m not going to be judged by the attacks of our enemies, but by the silence of our friends.’ That’s the test now. Anti-Semitism is real.”

On Pittsburgh: “I think Pittsburgh was the end of the age of innocence for American Jews because nobody can say anymore that they didn’t know, that they didn’t see it, that they didn’t recognize it. I think Kristallnacht, whose 80th anniversary was celebrated just at the same time, was the end of the age of deniability for Germany, and Germans could no longer say they didn’t know. Everybody knew. Pittsburgh was a watershed event for American Jews, and I see that there’s much greater awareness and concern. It will dissipate. It dissipates after a week. It dissipates even more after a month. But still, more people are concerned today about security and paying more attention to it. It was a wake up call to get people to understand what the nature of this is, that we hold to account those who engage in it, those who support it, or those who fail to act against it. That we not accept that people could stand with Louis Farrakhan and yet be accepted by the Jewish community as if it means nothing. When you’re standing next to a hater like David Duke or like Farrakhan or others, people have to be held to account because you give credibility to them. It’s not to be dismissed.”

Hoenlein on 2020: “When you have 25-30 candidates, you’re obviously not going to have all of them be friendly, and I hope that the ones who are aren’t are going to be defeated. We should have people in every camp of people who are acceptable, who have the values and that things that we can support. People, I think, less and less vote the label. They vote the individual.”

“It is true that because Trump is seen as so pro-Israel, that if you’re against Trump, you say things against Israel. When Stephen Harper was prime minister, the anti-Israel numbers went up sharply in Canada because they were associating the two. The President and the administration is seen as very pro-Israel, and Netanyahu pictured with him. So you have a phenomena where people express their hostility of the administration by saying ‘We’re anti-Israel, too,’ because being pro-Israel was seen as being sympathetic with Trump’s positions. I don’t want a hostile president, and even if it’s not this president, if it’s a Democratic president who’s very pro-Israel and the Republicans don’t like him, that we’re not going to say, ‘Be anti-Israel so that they will like you.’ I do think there’s a broad support for Israel in both parties. We have to keep Israel as bipartisan as we can.”

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