On the World Stage // A conversation with Malcolm Hoenlein

A conversation with Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations 


It is told that the Kotzker Rebbe once asked a chasid of Rav Moshe of Kobrin, “What was the most important thing for your master?” The chasid reflected for a moment and then replied, “Whatever he was engaged in at the moment.” Having done so many important things, I believe that the same could be said about you. 

That’s a very interesting observation. Now that I’m speaking to you, if I could reach young Jews through your publication and inspire them to become activists and leaders of the Jewish community, that would be very rewarding. The reason I’ve been talking so much publicly of late, which I never did in the past, is that I want young people to know that they can make a difference. It doesn’t matter where you come from. My parents weren’t wealthy or big shots, and they lived in Philadelphia, not New York. At the time, Philadelphia was called an ir hanidachas. But they shouldn’t do it in a way that screams for headlines. 

Where does one even begin? 

The first step is to study the issues so they are well understood and build relationships. I want to tell young people, “You can do this. You can get involved with presidents and heads of state, senators and congressmembers. Invite them to shuls and to the community. Talk to them about the issues.” You have to develop trust. It’s not something you can demand. I never had PR guys; I didn’t believe in it. I always felt that you become known by what you do, not what you say you do. I don’t use social media because I think a lot of people question how much confidence they can have in you if every time you meet with someone, his picture appears somewhere. 

Of course, when you invite members of Congress to shuls and yeshivos, you have to make sure to prepare and know what to ask of them. That also goes for your assemblyman and city councilmember, as many of them move up to higher office. Reach out to others as well. You would be amazed at what a difference people can make over time. 

With anti-Semitism on the rise, do you still feel optimistic that every person can effect positive change?

The optimist says that this is the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist agrees. I do believe that you have to believe that you can make a difference, even if that doesn’t mean that you can always determine the outcome. I tell people not to get frustrated just because they can’t achieve everything they want, because each thing you do brings you closer to your goal. The important thing to remember is that it’s not about you and your visibility. The visibility is only a tool to get the cause in front of the public and to motivate people.

I think this was easier to do in the first few decades after the Holocaust because there was an element of rachmanus in the zeitgeist. You were active during those years, and while it was never easy, it was probably easier than it is today. 

I wasn’t born until after the war, and I didn’t become an activist until much later, but your point is well taken: the further away we get from the Holocaust, the less rachmanus there is. During the Bitburg controversy, I had a meeting with Ronald Reagan in the White House. We always used to talk because he collected jokes about Russia—he was very anti-Russian—and I would bring him jokes from Soviet Jews. Whenever we met, he would ask me to tell him the latest jokes. He would write some of them down and then tell me some of his latest jokes. 

One time, after one of our regular meetings, he said, “I’m going to tell you something that I have never mentioned publicly. I committed a crime.” I said, “Are you sure you want to tell me this?” He said, “I stole a film when I left the army. I was in the film unit. I took a reel of the concentration camps, because I felt the time would come when people would deny this ever happened, and I wanted that at least my children and grandchildren would give testimony as to what occurred.” He had already thought of that in 1945. And this was during the Bitburg controversy, which was about visiting a German military cemetery where some SS soldiers were also buried. 

I remember the pushback from Elie Wiesel and others. 

Right. We organized that event. First Elie Wiesel got a gold medal, then we had a ceremony with Reagan for Jewish Heritage Week. We were fighting against Pat Buchanan at the time. Presidents are human beings, and you have to approach them the right way . If you make it about you, they’ll do it for you and give you a nice picture, but that will be the end of it. But if they know that you care about how they succeed and about the issues and you make a good case… Baruch Hashem, we have a lot of young frum people who are interested in getting involved in this. 

Having a relationship with heads of state, as you did and still do, is more than what most young people dream of ever achieving.

Jimmy Carter used to call me at home to talk about the Middle East and other issues. One time, after we finished our conversation he said, “I see that you follow this in great detail.” I replied, “Mr. President, when it comes to life and death, nothing is insignificant.” He was smart and was always interested in the details. He would also test people. 

That’s also true about many other leaders, especially in the Arab world. The first hour of a meeting is about testing you. When I went to see Assad in Damascus, I spent three hours with him. For the first hour, all he did was try to determine if I knew what I was talking about or was just another person looking for publicity. By the second hour, he was telling me some of his most intimate secrets. This also happened with presidents of the United States. They told me things that were unbelievable because they knew that I never leaked information and was trustworthy. That’s a relationship that you develop over time. You gain a reputation. 

Was it always about klal Yisrael?

There were also broader issues, such as America’s interests in dealing with Russia and Iran, but my main focus was on things that impacted klal Yisrael and Israel. A couple of months ago, I was at a conference in Kazakhstan for religious leaders. I didn’t want to go, but the president kept writing to invite me, and then the ambassador called me to say that the president’s office had called because they thought it was very important that I attend. They had religious leaders from 107 countries there, including every Muslim country, as well as the pope and the head of the al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. I was seated up front between an ayatollah from Iran and the prime minister of Pakistan. 

Later, they took a “family photo” of all the heads of the delegations. I wasn’t a head of a delegation so I didn’t go, but the person from the Foreign Ministry who had been assigned to me came rushing over and said, “Come, they’re waiting for you.” They told me where to stand, and then all of a sudden the pope walked over to stand next to me. Then the president of Kazakhstan and the head of its senate came over to stand next to me as well. They were very anxious to have that picture. The pope told me that he remembered me from when we met in Rome. Afterwards, the president invited me to a private meeting. The opportunities that exist today are amazing. Every session, no matter where it was held, had two kosher tables under the supervision of mashgichim. 

How did you become the go-to person for anything related to Iran?

I was the first person to talk about the issue back in the 1980s. I was on all the radio shows that were popular with the frum community like JM in the AM, which I’ve done for over 30 years, and the John Bachelor Show, in addition to my printed columns. I’ve been warning people about Iran for decades. I went to see Clinton eight times about it, and I also went to Bush. 

What did you see that others didn’t?


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