In the business of presenting American Jewry as a united front to the world, Malcolm Hoenlein does not make a habit of publicizing his own personal views – particularly on contentious matters.
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But during a recent interview, the longstanding executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations let on where he stands – or rather, does not stand – on one of the most divisive issues to test Israeli-Diaspora relations of late: the right of women to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall.
Asked to respond to highly-publicized remarks made last week in Jerusalem by Barbra Streisand in support of Women of the Wall – the group of activists leading the fight for equal prayer rights -- Hoenlein said: “I think it is certainly legitimate to discuss concerns and issues, but I think this is something that gets exploited, and I would have hoped she would have also talked about the rights of women in neighboring countries, about women who have emerged here in powerful positions, and about the increasing number of women in the Knesset and in high tech.”
Hoenlein, an observant Jew who sports a black kippah, added that the issue of women’s prayer at the wall was “far more complex than what Streisand’s comments made of it.”
Although he refused to respond to the question of whether he personally supports Women of the Wall, Hoenlein said: “I’m not saying that people should compromise on their principles – if people have principles, they should advocate for them, but you can do it in a different atmosphere, one of respect.”
Among the most influential figures in the Jewish-American organizational world, Hoenlein, like Streisand, was in Jerusalem last week to participate in the 90th birthday celebrations for President Shimon Peres during the annual Israeli Presidential Conference. He made far less effort to measure his words when asked to comment on the absence of another big-name invitee who pulled out at the last minute in response to pressure from Palestinian colleagues.
“I think everyone understands there’s no left, right or center when it comes to this issue,” said Hoenlein, referring to Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott the conference. “This is an effort to delegitimize and destroy the Jewish state. It’s not about policy, it’s not about settlements, it’s not about '67 -- it’s about '47, and it’s about Israel’s right to exist.”
To his mind at least, world Jewry had grown far too nonchalant about efforts to delegitimize Israel. “It’s we who raise the barriers about what we can tolerate, and that’s got to stop. The Jewish community has got to say ‘Enough. We’re not gonna tolerate it.’”
The Presidents’ Conference, comprising more than 50 national organizations in the United States, plans to launch a huge campaign this August to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel, Hoenlein disclosed. “It will be a major Internet and social media campaign, in which we hope to reach every single college student in America. The goal is to educate in creative ways and win the public back.” Leading this effort on a pro-bono basis, he said, will be Jerry Ostrov, a former top executive at Johnson & Johnson and at Bausch & Lomb.
At the same time, Hoenlein cautioned against overstating the impact of the boycott movement. “It is still a very limited group of people. They get resonance and they get publicity because attacking Israel makes news. Supporting Israel does not make news. But the fact is that most campuses have rejected the BDS movement.”
Hoenlein, known as a hardliner on Iran, has long argued that its nuclear ambitions pose no less of a threat to the United States than they do to Israel. Asked whether he felt encouraged by the election of the more moderate candidate, Hasan Rowhani, in the recent presidential race, he said: “We shouldn’t be deluded by the outcome. First of all, the power still rests with Khamenei, and second of all, this guy is not a moderate. I mean he may be relative to others, but he has talked about the destruction of Israel and has attacked Zionism and the Jewish state. All they really want is to buy time.”
In dealing with Iran, Hoenlein said he still believed that “the price of inaction will be far greater than the price of action.”
Widely thought to embrace right-wing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jewish-American leader said he did, in fact, support a two-state solution. “I don’t know any alternative to it right now, but I don’t see it when you don’t have a partner.” Asked if he supported continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he said: “My personal views are not relevant. I believe that we have a right to Israel, but we also have a right to say that in the interest of peace we will make concessions.”
Hoenlein, who travels widely in the Middle East, was somewhat more upbeat on the prospect of peace with the rest of the Arab world. “I believe the changes in the region are producing some opportunities, and we’ll have to see how it develops. But there is definitely a reorientation in the Middle East, and many countries that were hostile – I’m not saying they’re flipping around and becoming Zionists – but I see different attitudes and possibilities opening up.”
Two months before the uprising in Syria erupted, Hoenlein met with President Bashar Assad, who told him then that if what happened Egypt happened in his own country, he would refuse to step down. “There is no winning side in this situation either for Israel or the United States right now,” said Hoenlein. “Syria is very complex, and I think people who press for simplistic solutions are missing the point.”
Asked to share his thoughts about all the money spent on the big Peres birthday bash, Hoelein said that from his own selfish perspective at least, it was worthwhile. “Just look at all the interchanges in the hallways. I do a month’s work frankly in two days here because I see all the people I need to see here in a few minutes Whether you need all the extravaganza and stuff, that’s another question. “