Saying the Jewish people face an “on the one hand, but on the other hand” dichotomy, one of the most powerful Jewish leaders in the country told a local audience that advocates for Israel can’t forget to talk about positive developments.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that remembering the good news is essential in helping to engage young Jews in the community.
“Sometimes we have to look back and say, ‘We done good,’” said Hoenlein, in an address to about 150 people at the YM-YWHA of Union County on Oct. 23.
Hoenlein described an international scenario that has changed radically, offering both promise and peril.
“Everything that happens now is interrelated and has to be seen in its totality,” he said. Where the effort to free Soviet Jews, which he helped lead, related to just one part of the world, current events — from the Arab Spring to the economic downturn — have “broader implications and long-term significance that will affect our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Starting with the positive, Hoenlein pointed out that the uprisings in the Arab countries have involved very little antagonism toward Israel. The Palestinians’ effort in September to unilaterally declare statehood at the United Nations ran aground in the face of opposition rallied by Israel and its supporters. Even Togo and Nigeria sided with Israel.
The Durban III Conference, potentially a repeat of the rabidly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist pageant of the first Durban Conference 10 years ago, was rendered a mute failure due to international opposition. “We killed it,” Hoenlein said.
In an almost unheard of expression of support, the UN’s Palmer Report declared Israel’s response last year to the Turkish flotilla that attempted to break the blockade of Gaza excessive but legal. And the Goldstone Report that criticized Israel’s actions in the 2009 Gaza War has been repudiated by its author, Judge Arthur Goldstone himself. And then there were recent NATO exercises that Israel was asked to lead.
Even when he turned to the “tsuris,” describing the dire threat posed by Iran, Hoenlein put it in a context that could be seen as beneficial to Israel. He described the upheaval in the Middle East as less about democracy and more about a cataclysmic clash between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for regional control, and with Turkey — in a version of “neo-Ottomanism” — stepping into the fray.
Underlying the chaos, he said, was also “food insecurity” aggravated by an economic downturn that has undermined subsidies and left many people desperate enough “to do anything.” Many of the countries affected aren’t “real countries” at all, but were cobbled together by outside powers. It took dictators to hold them together and avert tribal warfare.
Hoenlein said that when he met Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in December 2010, the Syrian president told him, “‘I can’t step down because my whole community will be wiped out.’” King Abdullah of Jordan also told Hoenlein that it takes time to get democratic processes to take root. And Hoenlein said he blamed former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for going against the advice of Jewish leaders and pushing for elections in Gaza — which brought the terrorist organization Hamas into power.
Hoenlein warned that the radical Muslim Brotherhood in various countries, while playing a low-key role in elections, is maneuvering to gain control.
Israel might benefit from the Muslim countries doing battle with one another, he suggested. But he also warned that while the international community has been distracted by the upheaval, Iran has continued to develop its nuclear weapons program.
“The global campaign to de-legitimize Israel and the Jewish people is at a critical stage,” he acknowledged. “We are facing a battle for our future.”
The event was part of the lineup offered by JOY (Join Ohel Yisrael), a year-round outreach effort — financed with help from the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — that offers educational and social programs for various age groups.