The American Jewish community cannot allow Israel to be “written off” by the Democratic Party, but at the same time should not distance itself from the present US administration because some people don’t like it, Malcolm Hoenlein said on Monday.
Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, talked about this delicate balancing act at a meeting with editors of The Jerusalem Post prior to the annual meeting of his organization in Jerusalem in about two weeks.
“We can’t afford in the United States right now to lose the Democratic left,” he said. “We are working hard all the time, reaching out and trying to build connections.”
His comments come just a couple of weeks after a Pew poll showed a growing gap between how Republicans and Democrats view Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, with the Republicans expressing considerably more sympathy toward Israel’s positions than the Democrats.
Hoenlein said there are some whose positions on Israel won’t be changed, and that neither the American Jewish community nor Israel should waste their time trying. But the bulk of the “democratic left” is not in that category, he said, and it is important to reach out to that sector.
He said that one way to do this is to invite people to Israel who “can talk” to members of the younger demographics, people like movie and sports stars.
“When they say or tweet to their millions of followers that Israel is the exact opposite of an apartheid state, or write about their time in a Tel Aviv bar and tweet about what a great place it was, that has more of an effect, frankly, than me or Israeli leaders speaking,” he said.
At the same time, Hoenlein made clear: “We welcome the support of [US] President [Donald] Trump. We are not going to sacrifice that, and say that because they don’t like it, we should dismiss him, or not express appreciation for the good that he is doing. It is a big change from where we were.”
Hoenlein said: “We should not sacrifice our friends because it alienates people,” but at the same time, “we should be smart about how we embrace them, how we manifest it. We should be open to everybody, but you don’t make policy based on that, but rather on interests and needs.”
THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION, said Hoenlein, has brought about changes in the UN, on how to relate to Iran, and on how to deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Regarding the UN, Hoenlein said that the strong position of this administration against an anti-Israel bias here hasn’t ended that bias, but “it has had an impact.”
Regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, Hoenlein said the Europeans are taking Trump’s threats to walk away from the deal seriously, and, in an effort to keep him in the deal, are trying to see where they can introduce sanctions on non-nuclear issues – such as on Iran’s ballistic missile development or its intervention in the affairs of other countries in the region.
“They take him seriously on this,” he said. “He has had an impact.”
As for Abbas, Hoenlein said that “the truth is that nobody ever held Abbas to account, nobody demanded of him to be accountable for what he did and said, and [for] the incitement. Everyone paid lip service to this, but he was not being held to account as he is now.”
Trump, he said, is taking a different approach. “He says [to the Palestinians], I give you hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and this is how you respond,” Hoenlein said.
This is Trump’s mindset as a businessman, Hoenlein added. “If he is negotiating a business deal and gives something, he expects something in return. And he is saying this to them.”
By the same token, Hoenlein said Trump will also make demands of Israel.
“I don’t think that is necessarily bad,” he said. “I think that in any negotiations, demands will be made of Israel, and Israel is going to have to give concessions. Israel never contended that it will go to talks and not make concessions, but the nature of those concessions will be made in the talks.”
Turning to the recent controversy concerning the Polish legislation criminalizing anyone who implicates Poland with complicity in the Holocaust, or uses the term “Polish death camps” instead of “Nazi death camps,” Hoenlein said that his organization will have to think very carefully about “the degree to which we declare Poland off limits.”
“Do we urge people not to go to Poland?” he asked. “That means that they don’t go to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Do you tell them they shouldn’t visit all the places sacred to Jews – the cemeteries and remnants of the communities there? You have to be thoughtful in your response, but I do believe there has to be consequences.”
Poland, Hoenlein said, “cares about America.” His organization has written to the Polish prime minister, and has a meeting planned with Poland’s ambassador to the US. “We have communicated in a very strong way our collective feeling about this,” he said.
The issue is being obscured, Hoenlein said. “The truth is that the Germans built the camps, but the fact that you can’t tell the truth about something of such historical magnitude is not acceptable, and that is really the crux of the issue.”