Hoenlein Hits Obama On Speech, Then Retreats

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 17, 2009, issue of June 26, 2009.
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A top Jewish leader whose coalition speaks on behalf of organized Jewry is again under fire after being quoted as saying Jews were “very concerned” about President Obama’s recent speech reaching out to the Muslim world.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, American Jewry’s umbrella group on policy issues involving Israel, said the quotes were taken out of context, but that did little to stop the criticism.

In an interview with the conservative Web site Newsmax, Hoenlein was quoted as saying that Jewish leaders “are expressing concern about what was said” in Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo to the Muslim world. According to another quote, Hoenlein said: “I’ve heard it from some of his strongest supporters. It’s expected from his detractors. Even people close to him have said to us that there were parts of the speech that bothered them.” Hoenlein, according to the article, said he was expressing his personal views.

The interview, presented as an exclusive, was written by Ronald Kessler, the Web site’s chief Washington correspondent, who was among those leading the charges about ties between Obama and the controversial minister the Rev. Jeremiah Wright during the election campaign.

Hoenlein’s quotes, which seemed to indicate a widespread concern within the Jewish community over Obama’s policies, drew immediate criticism from Jewish activists. The National Jewish Democratic Council, a Democratic Party support group, issued a statement saying Hoenlein’s comments represented a mistaken reading of Jewish public opinion.

The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish membership organization represented in the Presidents Conference, sent a letter to Alan Solow, its chairman, criticizing Hoenlein’s remarks, according to sources who saw the letter’s contents. Solow is one of Obama’s top supporters in the Jewish community.

Hoenlein did not return calls requesting his comment.

In an interview with JTA, Hoenlein said his answers in the interview were presented out of context and that all he was trying to say was that the Jewish community “is not monolithic.”

This is not the first time that Hoenlein — whose job duties include publicly representing the communal consensus on critical issues — has been accused of going beyond communal consensus to criticize Obama. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hoenlein was among the organizers of a rally against Iran, at which then vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was invited to speak. She was disinvited, after activists learned there would not be a senior Democratic counterpart speaking at the event. Later, he came under fire for helping to organize a conference call with Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

In June, in an interview with the 5 Towns Jewish Times, Hoenlein was quoted as saying that J Street and Americans for Peace Now, two dovish-leaning Jewish groups, are distorting Obama’s message and trying “to rattle Prime Minister Netanyahu” and “to do what they can to unseat him.” APN is itself a member agency of the Presidents Conference.

APN spokesman Ori Nir said the group sent Hoenlein a letter denying the allegations in the article and demanding an apology. Hoenlein replied in a letter to leaders of APN that he had not mentioned any group’s name in the interview. He added that he had contacted the paper and was assured it would publish a correction.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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