After 32 Years, Malcolm Hoenlein Steps Down as Conference of Presidents Chief

Malcolm Hoenlein is stepping aside after more than three decades of helming the umbrella foreign policy group for the U.S. Jewish community

Benjamin Netanyahu (c), Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Stephen Greenberg (r) and vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein (l) at the Conference in Jerusalem. February 21, 2018.
AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is stepping aside after more than three decades of helming the umbrella foreign policy group for the U.S. Jewish community. He will remain with the conference in an as yet undetermined capacity.

An email Monday from the current conference chairman, Stephen Greenberg, said Hoenlein, 73, who has been the group’s top professional since 1986, was timing the move to coincide with the search for a new chairman. Greenberg has been chair since April 2015.

“While Malcolm continues to be a uniquely vital and energetic leader, and an irreplaceable asset, he felt that a transition process should be put in place,” Greenberg said in the email. “Specifically, Malcolm will continue to serve the Conference as he has so effectively for more than three decades, as we seek an executive to assume responsibility for the Conference’s ongoing operations and activities. Malcolm will then focus on external relations as well as plans to structure the Conference for the years ahead.”

In an interview, Hoenlein said the process could take a year, and that he would remain on board beyond that to make his expertise available. “It was the responsible thing to do, I wanted it to be orderly, however long it takes, to put it in stages, it won’t be a one-shot deal,” he said. “It seems apparently simple, it is not at all.”

He would remain executive vice chairman until the transition, and his future title was not yet determined, Hoenlein said. “My intention will be to stay with the conference and all my expertise will be available, I will stay with the conference, I’ll support it, I love it,” he said. “Both of us don’t want to see 30 years of experience dissipated,” he said of himself and Greenberg.

Hoenlein said there would be other structural changes. “We have other moves in mind that will help the conference move into the 21st century — I should say the 22nd, maybe even the 23rd,” he said.

Few Jewish leaders have had as much influence over a longer time than Hoenlein, whose group is a coalition of more than 50 Jewish organizations from across the ideological spectrum. The group’s purpose is to provide consensus on hot-button issues and in approaching the Executive Branch, and in doing so tends to reflect the positions of the Israeli government in power at the time. While volunteer chairs are selected every two years, Hoenlein is a constant presence and is perceived as a key interlocutor between political leaders and the Jewish community.

According to his official biography, he previously served as the founding executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, and as the founding executive director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry.

A Conference of Presidents delegation recently visited the United Arab Emirates, which Hoenlein described as a member of a “moderate Sunni Arab world” that sees the “American Jewish community as an important voice with common interests. And we are able to have our voice heard because we are clear in our intentions from the outset; we make it clear that we do not represent the governments of the United States nor Israel.”