After over three decades representing the leaders of the largest American Jewish institutions, Malcolm Hoenlein is qualified to talk about almost any issue related to the Jewish people, be it past, present or future.
Hoenlein is the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and on Nov. 13, he gave a talk at Beth David Synagogue in Toronto on the state of the Jewish world and where we are headed.
After a few jokes, Hoenlein opened his talk by declaring that, “Today is not a time where we dare to be ignorant, or we dare to be apathetic.”
“Today, nobody can be an unknown soldier … everybody is on the front line,” he continued. “It isn’t because everybody can do everything, but everybody can do something.”
Hoenlein stressed the importance of z’chira, or remembrance, in the Jewish tradition, such as the commandments to remember the Sabbath, remember the Exodus and remember the dead. Yizkor is a prayer of memory, not of mourning, because remembrance keeps our loved ones alive with us, he said.
“Remembrance for us, unique to us, is that it’s not about the past. For us, z’chira, remembrance, history, is about the future. We look back in order to look forward. We look back in order to learn the lessons.”
Hoenlein mentioned some issues that he foresaw, but the American government didn’t take seriously, like predicting Islamic fundamentalism in the 1980s and a nuclear Iran in the early ’90s. They couldn’t see ahead to those issues, said Hoenlein, because they couldn’t look back. They didn’t have z’chira.
“It’s more important today than ever before. It’s not because this is the worst of times – by far it isn’t. We have an independent Jewish state with plenty of problems, but plenty of miracles. This generation is probably the most blessed in 2,000 years,” he said, because of Israel.
From there, Hoenlein touched on a number of political topics and their relation to world Jewry. He decried the polarization of global politics and the disappearance of the centre, noting that extremist views on both sides are hotbeds for anti-Semitism.
He also talked about how the rest of the Arab world outside of Iran is starting to open up to Israel, now that those countries are realizing everything Israel can offer them – including the best defence against the Iranian threat. Aside from Tehran, Iran controls four other Middle Eastern capitals – Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sana’a in Yemen, and has agents in Africa, as well as North and South America, said Hoenlein.
“If you look at all the problems of the Middle East, there’s one fulcrum for all of it. If you remove Iran, Hezbollah is not Hezbollah, Hamas won’t be Hamas,” he said. “Iran’s goal is what they say it is. Leaders of democracies lie; dictators tells the truth. Believe it when (Ayatollah Khomeini) says that he wants to destroy the Jewish state.”
In nearly an hour of speaking, Hoenlein also touched on many other topics, including BDS, UNESCO, the Holocaust and Pittsburgh, before a 30-minute Q-and-A with Beth David Rabbi Phillip Scheim.
Remembrance for us, unique to us, is that it’s not about the past. For us, z’chira, remembrance, history, is about the future.
– Malcolm Hoenlein
Rabbi Scheim’s first question was about how Jewish people can feel safe in Jewish institutions after Pittsburgh, which Hoenlein earlier called “the end of the age of innocence for American Jewry.”
Hoenlein had a long response, but one of his main points was that there are a lot of low-cost initiatives Jewish institutions can undertake to improve safety and security. That includes recruiting community volunteers to stand guard, because they know who belongs there, and staging security drills.
Rabbi Scheim also asked Hoenlein to share some stories about American presidents. Hoenlein responded with a word of advice on how we speak about presidents:
“Even if a president was an anti-Semite, I wouldn’t say it, because it gives legitimacy to anti-Semites all over the world. You have to save that term. It’s too powerful.”