ToI Podcast Interview'There's a higher level of fear than I remember any time'

LISTEN: ‘People are afraid,’ says Hoenlein, as anti-Semitism changes US Jewry

Leaders of umbrella Jewish group warns US Jews are facing a reckoning: ‘It’s the end of the age of innocence for American Jewry’

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

The heads of American Jewry’s main umbrella group said that rising anti-Semitism in the United States is sowing fear among Jewish communities, changing the nature of what it means to be a Jew in America, and shaping a new discourse on US Jewish identity.

“There’s a higher level of fear than I remember any time,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a wide ranging conversation on Thursday with The Times of Israel on the major trends and challenges facing US Jews and the Israel-US relationship.

Interviewed alongside the Conference of Presidents’ newly appointed CEO, William Daroff, ahead of the group’s annual leadership mission to Israel later this month, Hoenlein warned, “There’s a sense of tension in the air that there’s something happening.”

According to statistics released by the FBI last November, Jews were again the victims of the majority of hate crimes based on religion in the United States in 2019. A surge of fatal attacks on the Jewish community, including shooting rampages at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 and at a synagogue in Poway, California, in April 2019, have caused consternation nationwide.

Between a December 10 fatal shooting at a Jewish grocery store in Jersey City and the end of the first week of January, there were more than 30 anti-Semitic incidents in the US — including a stabbing attack at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York — according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Hoenlein described the deadly violence as “the end of the age of innocence for American Jewry.”

Daroff, who officially took the helm of the organization representing 50-plus Jewish groups just days before this interview, said that both the “fear” and the “hurt” is felt across the board, and that, conversely, it is helping to build a new sense of united Jewish identity.

“This is part of our connectivity and our attachment and something that maybe we need to remind people of more,” he said.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein (R) and CEO William Daroff (2R) speak with Times of Israel staff, February 6, 2020. (Times of Israel)

At the same time, Daroff and Hoenlein said, security concerns have grown from an oft-ignored marginal issue to a central discussion of any community.

US Jews now realize that “we need to be protected and should be protected,” Daroff said, admitting that American Jewish communities need to learn more from both the security expertise and the wider experience of European Jews.

While worried about the long-term future of US Jewry, and indeed predicting a “greatly diminished” European Jewry in some 50 years, Hoenlein says that the situation for American Jews today is different from that of prewar Europe “because we have a state of Israel… That is the number one difference between now and the 1930s.”

On recent developments in the Israel-US relationship, Hoenlein and Daroff described US President Donald Trump’s newly unveiled peace plan as a watershed moment.

Calling it “a thoughtful approach,” Hoenlein said, “There are aspects you may not like, but one has to recognize that it’s a legitimate proposal that for the first time says the onus isn’t just on Israel.”

According to Daroff, “a great benefit of this plan is that we were talking about a peace process. You have Donald Trump and [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu talking about a two-state solution, which is something that a week ago no one on the right could talk about it.”

And as for their self-described task of keeping Israel a bipartisan issue, both see the Trump plan as they do US Jewry’s response to anti-Semitism: a process that must be navigated carefully and determinedly.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation, which can also be heard on our weekly podcast. The Times of Israel podcast is available for download on iTunesSoundcloudTuneIn, Pocket CastsStitcher and PlayerFM.

Times of Israel: There are those saying that this is the worst situation for Jews worldwide since World War II in terms of the rise of anti-Semitism. Is that true?

Malcolm Hoenlein: This is not 1939 or 1935, and most of all because we have a state of Israel with an Israeli army, air force, navy. That is the number one difference between now and the 1930s. It isn’t that the world has changed. It’s not more caring, less indifferent, even to anti-Semitism. It is that we have a state of Israel and hopefully “never again” resonates in this generation and it’s a pledge that every generation has to take now. The events of the 75th anniversary [of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp] were a reminder to people in a unique way which we’ll come to. But the fact that 50 world leaders came together to Jerusalem…to address, to ask for forgiveness, to acknowledge that not enough is being done in addressing anti-Semitism, that is a difference from the 1930s when world leaders got together in various places and all decided to do nothing for the Jews. That’s not happening here.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews on a street in New York City, January 1, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

I do think, though, that there is a sharp increase [in anti-Semitism]. In New York 70% or 68% of the hate crimes are against Jews. There’s a double-digit increase; Los Angeles 70% and other places across the United States are seeing anti-Semitism that they didn’t see before, or more of it is being reported. So it is a very serious time, and still the majority of incidents are not reported. So the numbers are really much greater and we see it manifest in different ways — on our campuses, in our communities, coming from the left, coming from the right, coming from minorities, coming from Muslims, coming from other sectors. The imperative is to address it, to look at the sources and to enlist those who can influence, meaning that government has a role…at the federal level, state level and city level. We have appointments of anti-Semitism czars, allocation of funds to protect Jewish institutions, declarations, passage of bills in Congress, Holocaust Education Act, other things.

There is a concern that you have lots of disparate, very well-intentioned Jewish organizations around the world that would be more efficient if they worked more closely together.

William Daroff: I would say that there is tremendous coordination among organizations — Jewish organizations, pro-Israel organizations in the United States and throughout the world — where we are in communication by email on a daily basis. There is lots of discussion, lots of engagement about tactics and strategy and about the situation that exists for us in the United States and that exists for Jews around the world. So there is communication.

Hoenlein: It needs to be addressed in a coordinated way. In the United States, we have brought together 58 organizations to work together. We created a 24/7 hotline where any student especially, but anybody else who has an anti-Semitic incident to report, can report to a Jewish source. It will be followed up by a professional. And that grew out of the meeting we convened of these 58 organizations. We have a lot more to do on it, and that is one of the things that we will be focusing on together in the coming months.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks to reporters outside the home of Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, New York on December 29, 2019, the morning after an assailant wielding a machete entered the home and attacked Jews attending a Hanukkah party, leaving five injured, two seriously. (Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

We are working together with our European counterparts, but others as well, to try and develop a coordinated approach. There are agencies like the Global Coalition for Israel that help bring us together to work more coherently. Each country is unique, each country has to develop its own responses, but sharing information, sharing experiences, sharing ideas is very valuable.

Anti-Semitism is a pandemic and I believe that it crosses oceans and borders. But we should always keep it in the context that the American people reject anti-Semitism. The American government, elected officials — Democrats and Republicans  — all reject anti-Semitism. There are individuals who have engaged in rhetoric that we find very troubling and we’re addressing, and we’re meeting with officials at all levels and we’re meeting with the leaders of ethnic groups. We’re trying to counter those trends and keep Israel from becoming a partisan issue.

The World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem brought more than 40 heads of state and other really influential people. Days later there was a whole other event at Auschwitz, from which one might draw a conclusion that again, there’s a certain competition and different agendas playing out here.

Now since that Forum you have Yad Vashem, which is supposed to be above politics, acknowledging that the videos that it played at the Forum were actually not made by it and were somewhat distorting, not fully reflective of what had played out in the run-up to World War II. You’ve got people with different agendas helping fund Jewish organizations. Is the Jewish organizational leadership coherently aligned? Are there different agendas at play here?

Daroff: I think the headline from the [World Holocaust] Forum should be “50 world leaders come to Israel to talk about the Shoah.” Fifty world leaders came to the state of Israel, which is something that decades ago, pre-Oslo, would have been unheard of. And not just to come to Israel to celebrate hummus and falafel, but to come here to focus on the great tragedy of our people, the Shoah, and to recognize its lasting legacy and its impact going towards the future of remembering it and particularly, given this pandemic of anti-Semitism, focusing on it.

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin delivers a speech during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020 (Abir Sultan/POOL/AFP)

Do you see that same united message from within the Jewish community, on anti-Semitism and beyond? How do you bridge between so many disparate groups and opinions in your large umbrella organization?

Daroff: First off, we [Jews] have a lot in common. We were in Sinai together. Period. It starts there and it ends there. We are cousins, we are brothers and sisters. When a Haredi person has a tomato thrown at them in Brooklyn, it hurts me. When a Reform synagogue has a swastika painted on its front door, it hurts me. It hurts all of us, as a people. I think that the Conference [of Presidents] has a role to play here to ensure that all Jews are protected, that all Jews are represented, and that it’s clear to the Jewish community and to the American polity, that when one of us is harmed, we’re all harmed. There was a terrorism attack, a ramming attack this morning, here in Jerusalem, and it hurts. I know it hurts you guys [Israelis]. It hurts me. It hurts all of Israel, and this is part of our connectivity and our attachment and something that maybe we need to remind people of more.

So how do you remind people? How can take this message to the Jew who goes to Sunday school and then has no connection?

Daroff: The solidarity march [against anti-Semitism] that was in New York a few weekends ago speaks to that. Where you had all sorts of non-Haredi Jews from Brooklyn and Manhattan who were marching, in large part, in response to the attacks on the ultra-Orthodox. I think there is that connectivity. I think it’s important that we keep speaking about it. I don’t see this divisiveness when it comes to security, particularly when you have [attacks on] a Reform synagogue in Pittsburgh, [another against] a Chabad in Poway. The other side isn’t distinguishing, looking at us and saying you’re Reform, so I’m not going to attack you; you’re Orthodox so I am going to attack you. I think that this is something we need to focus on, and I think that mostly the American Jewish people are there.

Hoenlein: Pittsburgh was the end of the age of innocence for American Jewry. Poway was a powerful follow-up to it and you saw a reaction that was universal. People began to understand that this was an attack on all Jewish people. There is a division; there is a sense of separateness from let’s say certain Hasidic groups or other groups. But when you humanize it, when they saw the victims, when they saw in Jersey City who these people were there, they’re us.

You can’t just isolate one part and say this is indicative of where we are. I don’t want to see Jews be driven back [to Judaism] by negative reasons. We can’t dismiss the fact that this is an opportunity for us to talk about the commonality of interest. The fact that [Jewish] federations around the country are giving money for Orthodox synagogues and yeshivas for security, the federal government too, and state governments, that they’re meeting more, there is more of a bond, and at the rally, we saw it.

Do you think that American Jews are afraid right now?

Hoenlein: Yes. I think that there’s a higher level of fear than I remember from any time. What wasn’t politically correct is becoming acceptable today, in terms of public manifestations, and the internet, again, plays a big role in that. But the fact that random attacks take place in front of my building, our building on Third Avenue [in New York City], where the [NY] governor is, where Interpol is. A guy, non-Hasid, wearing a yarmulke, was beaten up in front of our building, and by a right-wing, alt-right guy from Florida.

Flowerpots, each with a name of one of the 11 worshipers killed on October 27, 2018, when a gunman opened fire as worship services began at the Tree of Life Synagogue, line the fence surrounding the synagogue on October 26, 2019, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

There’s a sense of tension in the air that there’s something happening, and we hear it from across the board. When we do meetings on security and things like that, you see the reaction today. The number of people who came, I think 500 people came, to a briefing on security a week ago, two weeks ago. You would never have had that in the past.

We couldn’t get security onto the agenda back then. They would come and have to do a budget and they would always throw out the security issue. No more. Every synagogue has [entry] codes and people [doing security]; we don’t want to make [synagogues] unwelcoming, but it’s a recognition of reality.

People are afraid that it’s [against] Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, at a yeshiva… There’s a guy with a weapon outside my granddaughters’ schools. The Temple Emmanuel has to have the bollards put in front of it. It’s across the board.

Daroff: So two notes on that. First, there is the Secure Community Network (SCN), which the Conference of Presidents along with the Jewish Federations formed in the wake of 9/11, which provides security assistance and advice to institutions to protect themselves as well as our first level of communication with federal law enforcement. It is a key ingredient in communal security and ensuring that we are safe…We have wall-to-wall support from public officials, from elected officials at the federal level, state level, local level from law enforcement.

This is distinct from other times in our history when the police were pointing us in the wrong direction and ignoring our calls or were the ones burning down our towns. Now it is those same forces that are there to help protect us, and I think that speaks to our role in America as a part of the mosaic of American society, and it speaks to the fact that there is a great recognition by the powers that be, that we need to be protected and should be protected.

A Community Security Trust guard keeps watch over a Hanukkah celebration in 2014 (Blake Ezra Photography/JTA)

Hoenlein: What William said, that just goes to your point, we modeled SCN on the CST [Community Security Trust] in Great Britain. We couldn’t replicate it. I mean they have 70 people; we have seven now. But we have more synagogues in Borough Park [Brooklyn] than the whole of Great Britain probably. So it’s a difference of scale and we are not comparable, but that was the model for us and they were very helpful in helping us set it up, and now we do have cross-fertilization among many of the security agencies in different countries. Sharing information and intelligence, which sometimes, and I can tell you, was very helpful to law enforcement in the US because they got information very fast… The ability to communicate around the country by the federations, the organizations, gives us an advantage in terms of getting a fuller picture of this.

Daroff: I’d say probably the top 25 [Jewish] communities in the country have a full-time security director who’s engaged in ensuring there’s communal security, and they network with and are connected to the SCN. So there is a network and infrastructure that’s there as we deal with the current circumstances.

You mentioned the CST — is the situation in the UK mirrored in Europe, and are there other lessons that the US communities are learning from their European cousins?

Hoenlein: Britain is a laboratory for us because often the things that happened in England, as opposed to France or Germany, come here. When it comes to BDS, the reason we were ahead of it is because I saw what was happening in Britain, where it started among the elite and sifted down, as opposed to France where it’s always bottom up. So we were able to try and address it, and at least try to anticipate it, based on experience that they had there.

Illustrative: An Egyptian buys a pin with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) logo in Cairo, Egypt, in 2015 (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Daroff: Moving to the earlier point about coordination, when Sabra Hummus was boycotted and taken off the shelves at a university in Scotland, 10 days later, BDS activists at Princeton [New Jersey] did the exact same thing. The other side is talking to each other. They’re looking at tactics and skills, and we as a community are also talking to each other, communicating and engaging for our communal security as well as for our communal agenda.

Does Israel do enough in facilitating that interconnectivity? Do you look to Israel to do more?

Daroff: There’s lots of discussions that occur with the Israeli government being a coordinator and the Israeli government being an attendee and a member in meetings. There are groups that bring us together, and different ministries that bring us together: Public Diplomacy, Diaspora, Strategic Affairs, Foreign Affairs. So there’s lots of engagement and there’s lots of discussion among us, and I think the right people from the government are at many of those tables.

A lot of these issues are not governmental and sometimes it doesn’t make sense for the government to be there; in fact it might be, from a Hasbara point of view, not helpful to have the government in the room.

What’s your take on the fate of European Jewry at the moment?

Hoenlein: It hasn’t changed for many years. I mean, just the demographics alone I think will dictate the future. I don’t think that there’s going to be an earthquake and an immediate collapse, but the demographic realities will dictate whether Jewish communities can flourish… It’s hard to project, but if the governments don’t address the security issues…

I have relatives in France and other countries, and they’re all looking towards the outside, and it showed that if [UK Labour Party leader Jeremy] Corbyn had won, 50% of British Jews said they would, or at least they have considered whether they actually would have left or not. Young people are leaving many of the communities and coming here, coming to America, coming to other places because I think they have a lot of questions about future prospects… People shouldn’t flee, but they should prepare.

How bleak are you? 50 years from now, there won’t be Jews in Europe — or that’s not what you’re saying?

Hoenlein: I think 50 years from now, the Jewish communities would be greatly diminished.

Illustrative: Soldiers stand guard outside a synagogue in Neuilly sur Seine, outside Paris, France, January 13, 2015. (AP /Christophe Ena)

You don’t have similar concerns about American Jews?

Hoenlein: Of course, I do. I have concerns about the demographic numbers, birth rate numbers. I’m concerned about a lot of the factors that affect it. But I think America is different than Europe; structurally, constitutionally it is different. We have a different history. America is a melting pot, but demographics are going to shift in America too, very dramatically in major cities, and Jews are urban people. So they could be, but I don’t believe that it’s an exact mirror image with Europe.

But where do you think American Jewry will be, then, 20 or 50 years from now?

Hoenlein: Well, the studies show that it will be much more Orthodox or traditional. Maybe smaller… A lot depends because if you look at some of the demographics, there’s a study that shows that I think 68% of non-Orthodox people between 19 and 39 have zero children. So that doesn’t bode well for demographic projections. The Orthodox, however, have more children.

The only place where really you have a burgeoning birth rate is here in Israel among Jews, and it’s even unusual in the OECD countries that you’re having an average of three children, four children, and it’s moving up among the general populace, which is the counter trend to what you see in America and much of Europe and elsewhere.

You’re painting a picture of Jewish numbers declining everywhere except Israel over the coming decades — is that what you think?

Hoenlein: Well, that’s the trends that we are looking at now. We don’t know. People predicted 10 years ago that the Jews would disappear. ‘Look Magazine’ did a projection in the 1950s on ‘the disappearing American Jew’; now, American Jews and Jews worldwide are growing and Look Magazine disappeared. So the projections have not been borne out.

After the Holocaust, people also said that in 50 years there would be no Jews. We have more Jews studying and learning than ever before. Not just the Orthodox, because there’s more Jewish opportunities for learning and the use of the internet, use of cable, use of other things have helped enable us to reach out. We have to be more creative in our approaches… We have to build things inside, and to break down the animosities and perceived animosities that exist or differences that exist. We recognize our differences, but you have to also notice that what brings us together is far greater than the differences, and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Orthodox Jews sing and dance at a celebration at the MetLife Stadium on January 1, 2020, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images/AFP)

I think that those who try to disunite the Jewish people — not saying that there shouldn’t be differences, but those who seek to divide — should be held to account by the community because it wastes vital resources, endangers all of us. When we’re busy fighting over what often turned out to be very insignificant or minor issues, and where the great issues and challenges that we face require that the Jewish people act together, together with Israel, together among themselves… There are too many who dismiss that or play lightly with the significance of these things, and that includes the domestic politics here [in Israel].

Tell us about the complexity of your task and the worries of anti-Semitism given some of the nuances of what’s playing out in the US today and the American-Israel relationship with this administration. For example, if you were out to criticize Israel and try to demonize Israel, and to make the argument about disproportionate Jewish power and control, you might look at the Trump peace plan and see a president who, in taking office, was not a huge fan of the settlement enterprise, unleashing or unveiling a peace plan drawn up by four Jewish people, key players, a president whose most financially generous backer is a Jewish person…

Daroff: You know you could say the same about Barack Obama’s team too. Dennis Ross, Daniel Kurtzer, Martin Indyk, Aaron Miller…

Okay, but the Obama administration didn’t put out the Trump peace plan.

Hoenlein: Well they didn’t put out a plan, but they took certain actions that you could say, one side or the other, that were disturbing. I think that the point here is it’s easy to make charges and the fact that a donor is Jewish and has certain views… I don’t know that anybody has proven the relevance; the contributions by [US-Hungarian billionaire George] Soros are probably equal or greater than, and certainly leaning the other way. Or why don’t people point out all of the others who contribute, Jews and non-Jews, and say that that influences policy.

In this case, people worked for three years on a program. Many said it didn’t exist, even here [in Israel], but certainly elsewhere outside people said, this is all a sham. There is no plan. There’s nothing there.

They [Trump administration] actually came up with a thoughtful approach. You may not like it. There are aspects you may not like, but one has to recognize that it’s a legitimate proposal that for the first time says the onus isn’t just on Israel.

Now, there are Jews coming out and saying it’s too generous to Israel. What do you mean too generous to Israel? Israel’s the one on the front line. Israel’s the one paying the price and all along the Palestinians have rejected every offer, 95%, 98%. This time they said it’s not going to be land for peace, it’s going to be peace for land, that people first have to step forward.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a joint statement in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2020. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP)

We have organizations that are very upset about the call for a Palestinian state. We have others who are very upset about the call for annexation or permission for sovereignty. That’s what negotiations then are about. But the negotiations have to be between the parties.

This is the first time it says to the Palestinians, time is not on your side anymore. No more excuses. You can’t keep saying I’m going to appeal to the Europeans, I’m going to appeal to others and avoid the responsibility and deliver us Israel on a silver platter. The program that’s put forward isn’t a final deal, it’s a proposal. It’s a framework in which then you have negotiations about what Israel wants, what they want, how they can live together and come to some modus vivendi.

But you can’t do it as long as the Palestinians keep saying we’re not going to talk… The Palestinian people have to take control of their fate. They say they don’t like the deal. Fine. Go to the table and negotiate it out.

Look at the Arab states. We sat next to the ambassadors [at the Trump peace plan launch at the White House] who were there, others that came out afterwards. Everywhere we’d go in the Arab world you’d hear that they’re tired of the issue. They want to have relations with Israel. They think this is a big drain on them. And yet they know that it’s an emotional issue on the streets. So they can’t just ignore it. They want a resolution. And they want the Palestinian issue to be resolved favorably but they see this as an opportunity. If you have five, six major Arab states that have come out courageously in saying we would support negotiations…

We don’t want to see Israel politicized in America. We want it to be bipartisan. That’s a concern we have and we’re devoting a great deal of time to it. We’ve been meeting with Democratic leaders. They’re very cooperative with us. The leaders of ethnic groups [are] very interested in helping. People in America don’t want to see these divisions. They don’t want to see anti-Semitism and they don’t want to see anti-Israel expressions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Donald Trump during an event with in the East Room of the White House in Washington on January 28, 2020. (AP/Susan Walsh)

And so in our talks with ethnic leaders, with others, with the Democrat Party, with the conventions coming up, we’re concerned. We don’t want to see them become divisive and that Israel will become a political football in those events. So it’s a complex and very difficult agenda and we shouldn’t put overlays onto it.

American Jews are not going to negotiate. We’re not going to be the parties to be asked whether the border should be here or there, or should they annex or should they get their sovereignty, whatever. That’s a decision the people of Israel have to make. We have to see to it that Israel is able to enter negotiations in strength and achieve security. That’s our role with that.

Everything you said about the plan makes a lot of sense. And then you come to the unilateral annexation, which goes against everything that says this is not meant to be the final thing, it has to be negotiated between the sides.

Daroff: But as Malcolm said, it’s a framework.

Yes but then they’ve said — well, the US ambassador to Israel said — you can go ahead and annex right away.

Hoenlein: But they backed off of some of those things.

They spent three years working on this, they hadn’t decided what they…

Hoenlein: Because it was rejected right away.

By the Palestinians?

Hoenlein: By the Palestinians.

Palestinians throw stones at an Israeli checkpoint during clashes with Israeli forces in the center of the flashpoint city of Hebron in the West Bank on February 4, 2020. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

They knew it was going to happen. Had they not decided whether to give Israel the 30% right away or to make that conditional in negotiations? They spent three years working on this.

Hoenlein: Right, so three years, opportunities for the Palestinians to come to the table and they didn’t.

That was the three years? That was the opportunity?

Hoenlein:  No, but now they’re giving them four years in which they will freeze Israel’s activities there in the territories basically and give the Palestinians a chance. That’s it. The details are between the parties.

Not if the “broker” is already giving one side its allocation, right?

Hoenlein: They’re giving both sides, it’s offering both sides, but it’s not final. It’s up to the parties to come together. But one party can’t dictate for both sides. And the problem is that Israel is ready, as it was with [Ehud] Olmert, with [Ehud] Barak, with all of the other plans that were put forward. Now you have a plan that says to the Palestinians, time’s not on your side. Come to the table, negotiate, or else they’ll be new realities created. And that’s where I think this plan is different than some of the others.

It’s not perfect. Nobody’s asserting that it’s perfect. We understand why there will be reservations on both sides about it, and on left and right here, and certainly for the Palestinians. It’s not if they get nothing: $50 billion in aid, defined borders, the president declaring that will lead to a Palestinian state. These are all significant steps, but they have to have the parties negotiate it to do the details. You’re not going to sit there and draw where around Gush Etzion the road that’s going to link to this or that, and we’re not going to be involved in any way.

How does that sit with “but you can take your 30% now, or maybe not now, but right after the elections.” How can you can square that circle?

Hoenlein: I think people have moderated some of those early reactions and declarations, but reality always dictates what can happen here and always sets limits. And while they can be ideal proposals and aspirations on the ground, it always requires compromise.

You have relations with many of these Arab leaders. Some of them were in the room, as you say. All of them have now backed away from it.

Hoenlein: No, they haven’t all backed away.

The unanimous Arab League declaration? That isn’t backing away?

Hoenlein: No. I think many of them are still pushing the Palestinians to come to the table. They don’t have to endorse the whole plan or the package as it is. I don’t know that the Knesset today would give a wholehearted endorsement for the proposal, because you’re going to have a lot of parties who have [reservations]. Same with the Arab League. But what they said also and what they continue to say is let’s work on it. Let’s take it and move forward.

An Arab League emergency meeting to discuss US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal, at the league headquarters in the Egyptian capital Cairo on February 1, 2020. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

Daroff: And I think that’s the bottom line. We’re not the lawyers for the plan. This should be between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And Malcolm talked about Barak and Olmert. Go back to Peel Commission, to 1938, for the times the Palestinians have missed opportunities.

That may be true, but where does this plan, and accusations about us becoming an apartheid state if we now annex the territory, leave us? Is your struggle not going to get so much harder now?

Daroff: From my vantage point, a great benefit of this plan is that we were talking about a peace process. You have Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu talking about a two-state solution, which is something that a week ago no one on the right could talk about it. It just was outside of the conversation. And for sure their vision of a two-state solution is different than Abu Mazen’s [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] vision of it. But nonetheless it’s a conversation that’s happening. A door is open.

We see the pressure from these Gulf Arab states and others that’s being exerted and despite the Arab League vote, the statements that they put out are front and center and there are many conversations that are happening that are not on Al Jazeera or CNN. So I think the ball is moving in the right direction. Maybe a meter, maybe 10 meters, maybe half a meter. But we’ll see. But I think that it is good to be talking about finding a solution to these issues and to be talking about it in a way that no one was talking about a week ago.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas holds a placard showing maps of (L to R) ‘historical Palestine,’ the 1947 United Nations partition plan on Palestine, the 1948-1967 borders between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Israel, and a current map of the Palestinian-controlled territories without Israeli-controlled areas and settlements, during an Arab League emergency meeting discussing US President Donald Trump’s peace proposal, at the league headquarters in the Egyptian capital Cairo on February 1, 2020. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

Hoenlein: I think that this is a unique moment with an administration that is committed. And the religion of the people involved I think is really irrelevant in the long run because the facts on the ground will dictate and that has always been the case. The problem is that we always set it up in a way to give a veto to Abbas and to the extremists who surround Abbas and pressure him. This time it says, no, we’re not going to give you the veto. You either make a decision and you care about the future of your people and come to the table to discuss it…

Again, you’ve had all these years of meetings with people whom it’s not their core issue in the Arab world, but you’ve seen them move over the decades to a less hostile attitude to Israel in some cases, to shared concerns in some cases. Do you have any reason to think that anything, any process like that, is playing out among the Palestinians? Because we don’t see it, that’s for sure.

Hoenlein: I have not seen it. I do know that there are various initiatives including Palestinians and other Arab intellectuals, religious leaders, others, journalists who are coming out publicly and expressing some of these things. One of the Arab leaders said to me once not long ago: if you ask my people the top 50 issues, Palestinians wouldn’t make it today because they’ve taken our money; they have no real interest in moving ahead and they allow a guy [Abbas] who is in the 13th year of his four-year term…; the billions that were given, were just taken and seep away, and you don’t see real progress on the ground.

[These Arab leaders] want to have relations with Israel.

It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a lovefest. It’s going to take time to change public opinion in the Arab world. But the leadership has come a long way and we see it manifested in different ways, including in the fact that three came to the announcement. You could see on their faces that they didn’t like everything that was being said, but they were there and others came out. And you’re right: So they get together and there’s peer pressure and everybody says, “Oh, you can’t sell them out or they’re afraid.” They’re afraid of the reaction; terrorism could come and other things. But on the other hand, all of the public and private initiatives indicate that there is a shift, there is a change, and it’s an opportunity for then that the Palestinians stand to lose now.

Where’s Jordan in this mix? Any insight on that somewhat problematic relationship?

Hoenlein: Well, they’re in a very sensitive position and again, we always give the king a bye on a lot of these things. Look, it’s in his interest more than almost anyone to have a peaceful resolution. I think it’s in his interest to have Israel securing the border. He’s got more to lose than almost anyone, and Israel as well. Jordan is a key ally and Israel does a lot to protect Jordan.

But with a 70% Palestinian population [in Jordan], everybody knows the limitations and the restrictions under which he operates. So I don’t think people expected him to come out and give a hechsher [kosher stamp] to the deal or anything else at this time. But he, more than almost anybody, would want a deal and in private conversations, he does express that.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers guard near the security fence between Israel and Jordan in the Arava Valley in southern Israel, February 9, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Daroff: And on a practical level, the security coordination between Israel and Jordan continues to be strong and the intelligence coordination. On that level, the communication is continuing.

The peace plan, everything we’re talking about, about an opportunity to move forward — is only relevant while Trump is in office. What happens after? What happens if, in November, Trump’s voted out?

Daroff: So, I disagree with the premise. There’s time between now and the end of the Trump administration, whenever that is. There’s time for Palestinians to come to the table. There’s time for Arab states to engage. There’s time for there to be discussion and movement and it’s a part the process of discussions that’s in there. It’s in the ether. Whether it is the plan, as we’ve been talking about from the beginning, that ends up coming out at the end of this process, or if it’s just a starting point, or if it ends up not moving anywhere. The timing is what the timing is and I don’t think it’d be helpful or smart for the Palestinians to try to wait out Donald Trump for the next deal.

Hoenlein: And they don’t know how long they would be waiting, nor do any of us. And democracies remain committed when their governments take on commitments. Oslo passed through different administrations, Republican, Democrat, and they may have different nuances. But the fundamental commitment, and it’s been consistent throughout, is that America wants to see a deal. Each president has his own attitudes and priorities. Sometimes more positive, sometimes less, but the fundamental commitment remains the same, and I think if there is meaningful negotiation, they would always support it.

What’s your take on the Democratic Party and the balance of traditional, fundamental support, as opposed to how marginal is the much more critical attitude? Where do you think things are heading?

Hoenlein: It’s not marginal. We don’t dismiss any of these trends. We have been devoting a lot of effort to it. On both sides we have conventions coming up. We don’t want either of them to become a hostile place, and a place where comments could come from extreme right or extreme left, or others.

There are [Democratic] candidates, obviously, who are saying things that we find disturbing, in terms of conditioning aid to Israel. But we are working with the party itself, which remains committed to strengthening the US-Israel bond and to show the Democratic Party is consistently overall supportive. The problem is that the vast majority who remain adamant supporters of Israel don’t get the press, but three or four loudmouths who can make extreme and sometimes even anti-Jewish statements get all of the oxygen and get all of the attention.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets rally attendees after speaking at a campaign rally at the U.S. Bank Arena on February 1, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Tom Brenner/Getty Images/AFP)

But the fact is, when the BDS law comes up, 400 people vote for it, Democrats included. When aid to Israel comes up, the Democrats vote for it. When the Holocaust Education Act and many others that were Democratic initiatives.. You know, we find that, by and large, there’s much more support across the party lines. But it’s not news. It’s not what gets the attention.

Are there trends that worry us? Absolutely. And we are looking to rebuild some of the coalitions of the past, Black, Hispanic, Asian American, religious groups, and others, both on the anti-Semitism issue, but obviously also related to Israel, and sometimes it’s hard to separate it.

But I think that Israel today still remains a bipartisan issue.

In the British elections, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis decided to intervene in the election and essentially wrote an op-ed that said, “Don’t vote Labour.” As the Democrats choose their candidate, are there people who are running for the Democratic nomination of whom you would say, “If this is our wonderful America, don’t vote for this person or that person.” Or is there nobody who crosses that line that Corbyn crossed?

Hoenlein: There are organizations that do take positions. The Conference of Presidents is an umbrella [group]. And so we will educate; we will offer an opportunity for the candidates to address the conference. Do we criticize particular policies that some of them advocate? Yes. We don’t endorse [candidates].

Rabbi Mirvis’s statement was entirely appropriate because of the circumstances. When you have such a blatant case as Corbyn, it’s a moral statement, it’s not a political statement. If the necessity comes up… I know that the organized community has risen and spoken against David Duke’s candidacy. If there are those who will be anti-Israel, I do not believe the American people will support it.

In this December 9, 2019 file photo, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally outside Bristol City Council while on the election campaign trail, in Bristol, England. (Joe Giddens/PA via AP)

Daroff: I agree and I don’t think the Democratic Party would support it. I think that the Democratic Party of the United States is not Corbyn’s Labour Party. It is a party, as Malcolm has said, that is fundamentally pro-Israel, where you have, as Malcolm said, 400 votes regularly, out of 435 members of the House of Representatives, that are supportive of a strong state of Israel, that are condemning BDS and moving forward.

The fundamentals, I believe, of the [Democratic] party are strong and it is as Malcolm has said, a key focus to ensure that bipartisan support stays strong and firm, and that’s something that we tell everybody. We tell Republicans, we tell Democrats, we tell Likud, we tell Blue and White. We tell everybody that a focus needs to be on ensuring that with all of the disagreements we have in society, on the environment, on tax policy, on impeachment, on whatever, that support for Israel cannot go into one of those partisan buckets like every other issue that’s out there.

You have a very significant candidate who happens to be Jewish, Bernie Sanders, who says, “Of course, I’m a supporter of Israel, of course I’m a friend of Israel,” but then makes comments that are either willfully ignorant or deeply misinformed, about things as fundamental as death tolls and responsibility and cause and effect and so on. It’s somebody who has a reasonable chance of getting the nomination, who takes positions that I think Israel considers unrelated to reality and really troubling.

Hoenlein: We have relationships with all the campaigns. We have extended invitations. Not all of them are receptive to getting information. Some feel they know all the answers; others are very receptive. There are some candidates who’ve been in touch with us; some of them appeared at the Conference and some will appear. Again, we don’t endorse candidates and I don’t see any circumstances under which we would.

But if there’s somebody who represents views that are poor, we’re going to say so and it’s not a question of endorsement. It’s a question of the moral responsibility that we bear to make sure that we don’t get poison into the political stream, which is very hard to extract once it’s there.

We have within the Conference people that represent every point of view along the spectrum. There are people who probably agree with Bernie or people who are supporters of Trump… And I would say in 90%+ of the time, we can find a consensus among the groups. When it comes to Israel, when it comes to security of Israel, when it comes to all these other things, there is a consensus in the community.

People listen as Democratic presidential candidate former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks during a United for Mike event held at the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center and Tauber Academy Social Hall on January 26, 2020 in Aventura, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP)

Once you start getting down into the granular things, that’s where there are differences. But we’re not going to be negotiators. We’re not going to be the ones drawing the lines. We are responsible to see to it that America and the America-Israel relationship are solid, really behind and supportive of Israel. Not a particular party in Israel, but the relationship.

And it transcends individuals. It’s historically proven. It’s not based upon just the chemistry between two people. That can enhance it, but it’s based on common values, common interests. Look all the joint exercises that are going on. We were just in Greece, in Cyprus; look at the Med training initiative, which we frankly initiated 10 years ago. But today, everybody wants to be in it. It’s a different world than often is portrayed.

Daroff: And I think it speaks to the indispensable role of the Conference of Presidents. We are the one table that the American Jewish community sits at — from left to right, north, south, east, west, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. We try to take issues — in this divisive age that we are in, both within the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community — and build consensus. And [we try] to come together with a common focus, focused on a strong Jewish community, on a strong Israel, and on our communal agenda.

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