US Jewish leaders warn of growing antisemitism, say they helped fight Amnesty report
The heads of the Conference of Presidents, William Daroff and Malcolm Hoenlein, speak with ToI about Whoopi Goldberg, Ben & Jerry’s, and the centrality of Israel in US Jewish life
The leaders of the American Jewish community’s umbrella organization have warned of rising antisemitism in the United States, growing beyond online rhetoric and increasingly taking the form of physical attacks on Jews — from low-level assaults on the streets of New York to high-profile incidents like the hostage-taking at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, last month.
At the same time, there is growing awareness about the threat posed by antisemitism among US officials and a greater willingness to take steps to protect Jewish institutions, they said.
“Literally hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed from the federal government and state governments and local governments to help secure non-profit institutions, not just synagogues, but JCCs and federation buildings and Jewish nursing homes,” the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, William Daroff, told The Times of Israel in a meeting on Monday.
He was accompanied by the Conference’s Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein. (The Conference is holding its annual gathering in Jerusalem next week, after a two-year COVID-enforced hiatus.)
“In the United States, the forces in power, the forces of government, are on our side. When there are large-scale attacks, immediately they are with us. The first calls we receive are from government officials, who 100 years ago would have known about it because they were the ones behind it,” Daroff said.
With that government funding, US Jewish institutions have significantly boosted their security systems in recent years — installing cameras, hiring security guards, training staff — and Daroff anticipated that this would continue going forward.
“They are trying to balance having a welcoming environment that brings Jews in, but also ensure that they are protected,” he said.
The Conference of Presidents umbrella organization comprises 53 American Jewish groups, across a wide political range, albeit with a few notable exceptions, such as the left-leaning J Street, which has repeatedly attempted to join but has been denied due to its criticism of Israel. The Conference of Presidents represents the American Jewish community not only in talks with the American government but to the State of Israel and other countries.
Hoenlein noted that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was held hostage with three congregants in his synagogue by an antisemitic gunman last month — one was allowed to leave, and the rabbi and two others escaped when he threw a chair at their attacker — had been trained by a Conference of Presidents-backed program, known as the Secure Community Network.
“That rabbi in Colleyville was trained by SCN, and he credits that with what he was able to do,” he said.
Hoenlein warned of increasing antisemitism in the US, saying it was “growing rapidly,” spurred on by vitriol on the internet, some of it sponsored by state actors like Iran.
“People liken it to 1933, 1938. It’s not 1938 because of the State of Israel. I think that is the big difference,” Hoenlein said. Still, he added, “It took Hitler months to spread a big lie; now on the internet it happens in nanoseconds.”
Despite his serious concerns about the threats posed by antisemitism, Hoenlein described a certain silver lining, namely that in response to it young Jews may develop deeper ties to the Jewish community when they otherwise may not have. The challenge then is keeping them involved for positive reasons, not only out of fear.
“I think antisemitism is going to awaken a lot of young people to a sense of community because they feel vulnerable, they feel alone. We have to be open to that, both in terms of making them feel secure, but also giving them on-ramps so that they have positive associations with the community,” Hoenlein said.
The Times of Israel spoke with the two leaders of the Conference of Presidents on a variety of topics, from their efforts in combatting Amnesty International’s recent report accusing Israel of enforcing apartheid against the Palestinians, to American antisemitism and Whoopi Goldberg, the recent public denunciation of Israeli Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich by its British counterpart, the Board of Deputies, and the future of American Jewish communal life more generally.
Earlier this month, Amnesty International joined a growing list of Israeli and international human rights groups who have accused the State of Israel of the crime of practicing apartheid in its ongoing control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and their Palestinian populations without granting them equal rights. Unlike other reports, Amnesty International further accused Israel of apartheid within the borders of the state against the country’s Arab population, and also outside all those territories, in an apparent reference to Palestinian refugees.
Even before the report was released, Israeli government officials denounced it as “false, biased, and antisemitic.” They were quickly joined by American lawmakers and officials, who described its findings as “absurd”, as “slander” and “misinformation.” The United Kingdom and Germany similarly rejected the Amnesty report, with the former saying it disagreed with the “terminology” of apartheid and the latter accusing the human rights group of “one-sided focusing of criticism on Israel.” Leading Israeli Arab politicians, including the coalition’s Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas and Meretz’s Minister for Regional Coordination Esawi Frej also rejected the designation.
According to Daroff, the Conference of Presidents played a key role in getting US and other overseas individuals and foreign governments to criticize the Amnesty report, which he described as “yet another effort by the anti-Israel crowd to demonize and delegitimize Israel.”
“We were engaged in an effort to communicate with key members of Congress, with key members of the Biden administration, with key members of other governments and other NGOs. I wouldn’t take full credit for the results. I think the Amnesty report itself was so flawed that it made it very easy for these organizations and individuals to be very critical of it. But I take great [pride] in the fact that our government and virtually every western democracy came out, pushing back against the report: the Canadians, the French, the British, the Australians, as well as a significant number of congresspeople as well,” Daroff said.
“We were able to bring together the whole Conference, including folks on the left, to condemn the use of the ‘A-word,'” he added, referring to apartheid.
Hoenlein said the “mobilization of all the organizations right away” was critical as it allowed the Conference of Presidents’ member groups to rapidly influence the debate, to contact members of Congress and write “statements that they were encouraged to make” against the report.
Daroff and Hoenlein would not specify which politicians released statements against the report specifically because of their efforts.
Hoenlein described the Conference of Presidents’ mobilization against the Amnesty report as a sort-of test-run against a potential effort against Israel by the United Nation’s ongoing commission of inquiry, which is investigating Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
“If the commission of inquiry gets slammed, and we can get the United States to say, ‘We’re not going to fund this and we’re going to pull our money out of that,’ that makes a difference at the UN,” Hoenlein said.
Both Daroff and Hoenlein also compared the conference’s efforts against the Amnesty report to its earlier efforts against Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever, after the ice cream company announced last summer that it will halt the sales of its products in the West Bank in protest of Israel’s ongoing control of the territory.
“With Ben & Jerry’s, it’s not just about Unilever, it’s about every other multinational company that may come under pressure from fringe elements. And we want them to see the tsuris (Yiddish for suffering) — that’s the technical term — that has been caused for Unilever in state capitals, where 33 states have effected some sort of action to push back against boycott, divestment and sanctions,” Daroff said.
Indeed, Unilever’s share price has dropped in recent months, with some claiming this was the result of the pushback against the ice cream company’s announcement.
“It really helps that they were hurt in the way that they were, because it says, ‘BDS does not pay off in the end.’ And we have to communicate that message,” Hoenlein added.
A learning moment
Comedian Whoopi Goldberg sparked a minor firestorm earlier this month when she declared on her television show, The View, that the Holocaust was “not about race,” as it was “white people doing it to white people,” despite the fact that the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust explicitly regarded Jews as belonging to a different, inferior race. Following significant blowback and criticism of Goldberg’s remarks as remarkably inaccurate, if nothing else, the talk show host was suspended from her position for two weeks, returning to the panel this week.
Both Daroff and Hoenlein maintained that Goldberg’s comments stemmed from ignorance, not antisemitism.
“While what she said was wrong and distasteful, it provided a moment where for a couple of beats of a media cycle, the entire country was talking about the Holocaust. The lesson that came out of it was very helpful,” Daroff said.
Hoenlein hailed the appearance of Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt on The View the following day to explain the inaccuracies of Goldberg’s remarks. He also stressed that the decision to temporarily remove her from the program was not the result of efforts by the official Jewish community.
“The Jewish community didn’t demand her removal. That was an internal ABC decision. We did not campaign against Whoopi Goldberg,” he said.
Daroff also discussed a growing view in some progressive circles that Jews are not minorities warranting the same protections as other groups, which he said could be seen in the treatment of Jews on college campuses and in the recent controversy over the state of California’s ethnic studies curriculum, which originally did not include the experiences of American Jews.
“Definitionally, we’re not in the mix in the way that we should be because of the way that diversity officers [in various universities] are trained and where their mindset is,” he said.
“The Jewish people have a history going back millennia of being discriminated against, and that narrative cannot be lost because many of us moved up in society. To cast us as being oppressors… where we have been, for time immemorial, on the side of progressive forces to liberate and engage and bring about more freedom and democracy, is really a bastardization of history, and so we are ensuring that we are not victimized by those who are seeking to push forward these agendas,” Daroff said.
When firebrand Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich traveled to London last week, he was greeted with a highly irregular statement from British Jewry’s umbrella organization, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, denouncing him — in Hebrew — as having “abominable views” and believing in a “hate-provoking ideology.”
“We call on all members of the British Jewish community to show him the door. Get back on the plane, Bezalel, and be remembered as a disgrace forever,” the Board of Deputies wrote in a tweet.
Smotrich, who leads the far-right Religious Zionism party, has regularly spoken out against Arabs, the LGBT community and progressive streams of Judaism.
Daroff and Hoenlein were noticeably uncomfortable discussing the Board of Deputies’ statement and the potential that they — as the umbrella organization of American Jewry — would ever issue a similar one against Israeli parliamentarians.
“We defer to local Jewish communities to make statements that are responsive to their local needs. What might be salient in London might not be salient in Paris or in Perth. We absolutely respect the right and the obligation of Jewish leaders to speak on behalf of their communities and the sensitivities that exist there. Period,” Daroff said.
“As far as our own community, I’m not really excited about engaging with a hypothetical. There have been times — with [the extremist rabbi and MK] Meir Kahane, for instance — where he was certainly not welcomed by the American Jewish community. But as far as specifics of political leaders now, I am very hesitant to get into hypotheticals that are not pertinent at the moment, that are not live controversies,” he said.
Without doing so directly, Hoenlein appeared to criticize the Board of Deputies’ tweet, in terms of the medium if not the message.
“Our policy has always been not to play it out in the press. When we have issues, confrontational issues even, we try to resolve it and deal with it, whether it’s with public officials or other organizations or situations,” he said.
Hoenlein noted that the Israeli government is particularly receptive to Jewish communities abroad. “So why do I have to go to The New York Times to communicate? Unless you have a different agenda,” he said.
The Jewish future and Israel
Polls of American Jews regularly indicate diminishing involvement in traditional communal institutions — a perennial source of concern for those same organizations and groups.
Indeed, Daroff and Honlein said this was an area that the Conference of Presidents and its members were constantly grappling with and required them to try to make their communities as open as possible, with many “on-ramps” for people to get involved.
“Having an open environment where we recognize that we are all Jews by choice today, and that it is a very easy choice for people to turn off, is where we need to be as a community. I think we’re making progress on that as a community, but it’s still an issue that we need to continue to focus on,” Daroff said.
Hoenlein recommended a “smorgasbord approach to Judaism,” offering people a number of different ways to get involved initially “and then try to deepen their engagement.”
Both of them said the coronavirus pandemic offered challenges and opportunities for the Jewish community, preventing some interactions but fostering others.
Daroff noted high attendance at Reform and Conservative synagogues — through video conferencing — during the pandemic. Hoenlein said he believed that when the formal restrictions and general concerns that still exist over the spread of the disease pass, and people feel more comfortable meeting in person, they would do so.
“I think they yearn for it. I think they yearn for a sense of community,” he said.
They both stressed that they see Israel and support for it as central aspects of American Jewish life, meaning organizations and people that are overly critical of the state or oppose its existence entirely are firmly outside the formal Jewish community.
Asked about including organizations like the Zionist but critical J Street or even explicitly anti-Zionist organizations into the Conference of Presidents, Hoenlein said that while some of J Street’s views were acceptable and already represented by people and groups in the Conference of Presidents, groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace were simply beyond the pale.
“There has to be a standard. We have a very inclusive tent,” he said. “But people feel there has to be that standard. IfNotNow goes even beyond that standard. You can’t start admitting groups that undermine the very existence of the State of Israel.”
Asked if the formal Jewish community was considering shifting its focus away from Israel — which has been one of the central issues, if not the central issue, in American Jewish communal life since the 1967 Six-Day War — as the topic of Israel becomes increasingly divisive, according to recent polls, particularly among young American Jews, Daroff rejected the assertion.
“I don’t think Israel is increasingly divisive,” he said. (He clarified that he recognized that Israel can be a divisive issue within the US Jewish community, but feels that it has not become increasingly so, citing, for example, vicious fights within the community over the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s.)
“I believe the broad consensus of American Jewry is pretty much in one place. I don’t accept the premise that we should avoid Israel because Israel’s too touchy. I think Israel is a central force of who we are as a Jewish community and we should embrace that,” Daroff said.
“Israel is part and parcel and a key foundation of 21st century American Judaism. It is very much part of who we are and that centrality is something that has actually grown over the coronavirus pandemic, maybe counterintuitively,” he said, referring to strict Israeli entry policies that kept many American Jews out of the country for long stretches.
Hoenlein and Daroff last made a formal visit to Israel in July 2021, shortly after the current government took office. They said that while there were members of the current coalition who do appreciate the efforts that American Jews make on behalf of Israel, there still remains a general lack of understanding and concern about American Jewry.
“We have talked to many people, to the ministers who are in charge of diaspora affairs. None of them really took a serious holistic approach to answering how do we build the bonds. Israel is clearly going to be the center of Jewish life in the future. That’s something that’s hard for American Jews in particular, but also European Jews, to come to terms with,” Hoenlein said.
“We’re not equal partners. We’re interested shareholders. We don’t have a right to dictate to the government how to make a decision. But that decision should be informed by a sensitivity and concern to what are the implications elsewhere,” he said.
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