After telling Newsmax that President Obama’s strongest supporters among Jewish leaders are deeply troubled by his recent Middle East initiatives, and some are questioning what the president really believes, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has backtracked, claiming to Jewish news outlets that his comments were taken out of context and the interview “conflated questions with answers.”
Presented here, the complete transcript of the recorded interview confirms the quotes attributed to Hoenlein by Newsmax.
Though Hoenlein said in the Newsmax interview that he is only offering his personal views, the conference he represents is a political powerhouse that includes 50 major Jewish groups. Among them are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), B’nai B’rith International, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, and the Anti-Defamation League.
Kessler: So what is your reaction to [Obama’s] speech and the direction he seems to be going in?
Hoenlein: First, about the speech, I have no problem with addressing the Muslim world. I’m, in fact, in favor of outreach, and we here at the conference have done it for about 12 or 15 years, visiting Moslem countries, Central Asia and the Middle East. So, in principle, I have no problem with the idea of him addressing them and reaching out to them. But the question is, what is the message they get? It’s not so much what he says, but how do they perceive what he says. There are things in it that, I think, were very positive. And there are things that are of great concern.
His reference to Israel and the special relationship being unbreakable I think is important, and references to incitement and Holocaust denial were important, and some of his references to some human rights issues also. But on the other hand, there were a variety of issues, and it starts with the claim of 7 million Muslims in America, which is a figure that Arab propagandists have put out. In fact they only say 6 million, when in fact there’s no study that shows even half of that.
Then in regard to Israel, clearly the fact that he talked about Israel’s roots are in a tragic history, then at Buchenwald again about it, the ashes of the Holocaust. But there’s no reference to the 3,000 years of Jewish connection to this land. And that is again one of the propaganda lines that the Arabs have used, that the Jews are interlopers, that the two temples never existed; there was never any Jewish history in this way. Even Arafat and others use that argument because they’re trying to deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state. I don’t believe that was the president’s intent, but not making those references I think is troubling.
Second, the idea that the sort of indirect equating of the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews with what Palestinians endured. The Palestinian refugee problem, or dislocation as he said, didn’t come about because of the creation of the Jewish state, it came about because the Arab states declared war on Israel, and warned the Arabs that they would suffer the same fate as the Jews if they didn’t get out. And then kept them as political pawns.
Kessler: And then to compare killing 6 million Jews with just displacing people...
Hoenlein: I’m saying there’s no comparison between the Holocaust, even if it was an indirect one, and he didn’t intend it to be an explicit one. I mean there is no comparison between that and what happened to Palestinians. Most of all there was no reference to the fact that the reason the Palestinians don’t have the state or an entity of self-government is because their leaders rejected every offer for peace. Whether it was 1937 or 1947 or 1967, or later on, until Olmert’s offer and Barak’s offer, they rejected everything, even when they were getting virtually everything they had asked for. Really the problem is not what Israel does, it’s that Israel is. And they’re not ready to accept the existence of the Jewish state. As many Palestinian leaders have said again and now, [Mohammed] Dachlan and others, that they never really accepted Israel as a Jewish state.
And the failure to refer to, when you’re talking about one refugee issue -- I think Congress has a bill before it, may even have passed it -- that when you talk of one refugee problem you should be discussing the other one. And that means that almost a million Jews who were driven out of Arab countries penniless, and some of them had lived there for a thousand years, and yet there was no reference to them. This is not a question of tit for tat. It’s a question of the realities that are communicated to a vast audience in the Arab Muslim world.
Lastly, I think what concerned many people was the message to Iran that we didn’t hear. I don’t think that Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the Arab countries, Morocco and many others, who wanted to hear an absolute assurance about the U.S. commitment not to allow Iran to be nuclear, not to allow it to continue to support terrorism, not to allow it to continue being the major state sponsor of terror around the world, that it seemed not to be clearly and explicitly stated.
Those were some of the concerns, I mean there were many others. Settlements didn’t exist when the PLO started the terror against Israel. They started in 1964. Israel didn’t even come into the territories until 1967. And if you talk about 60 years of dislocation, the first 20 years it was Egypt and Jordan that held onto the West Bank and Gaza.
Kessler: Are you finding that Jewish leaders are starting to have buyer’s remorse about Obama?
Hoenlein: I can’t speculate about that. I do think, and I’ve heard and read comments that people have made, the concerns that they are expressing, that people were concerned about what was said. I’ve heard it from some of his strongest supporters, expected from his detractors, but I think many of them were concerned, even people close to him have said to us that there were parts of the speech that bothered them.
Kessler: Could I ask did you vote for Obama and now do you regret it?
Hoenlein: I never discuss how I vote.
Kessler: But have you heard that from some Jewish leaders, just privately?
Hoenlein: That they’re saying that?
Hoenlein: Let’s say there’s a lot of questioning going on about what he really believes, what does he really stand for. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty right now.
I think there were concerns raised by Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton’s initial remarks about the settlements, and she came out in some absolutist terms, and people were more taken aback by that. Then her comments to [ABC’s George] Stephanopoulos, where she was asked about [Mahmoud] Abbas’ comments, saying that in his Washington Post interview that he doesn’t have to do anything, he’s going to sit back and wait till they topple the government, and she said well that’s posturing that you would expect, or public position-taking that you would expect in a process like this. No it isn’t.
Kessler: What did you think of [Obama’s] connection to Reverend Wright, sitting there for 20 years, listening to him?
Hoenlein: That’s history. Now we’re talking about a contemporary...
Kessler: But I just wonder, we’re all trying to figure this guy out, and you like to look at a person’s track record.
Hoenlein: That issue has been discussed and debated and I don’t know that it’s a relevant concern for right now. I can’t judge that at this moment. I do feel strongly about what the policy will be, what will emerge, and we have yet to see the policy assertion on their part of a Middle East plan, which I believe will be forthcoming.
Kessler: Have you spoken out about this previously?
Hoenlein: Many times.
Kessler: Do you know roughly how many Jews are members of all the organizations represented by...?
Hoenlein: I’m not speaking for the organization, I’m speaking only for myself. The conference has not taken any formal position on it, I want to be clear about that.
Kessler: OK. But just so I can identify what the conference is?
Hoenlein: The conference is 50 major Jewish organizations. But I’m not speaking for them. You asked for my reaction to the speech, my personal reaction, not that of the conference.
Kessler: As you say, it’s just an era of uncertainty. I’m sure everyone hopes that’s he’s going to come up with something.
Hoenlein: Then [Obama] called Netanyahu yesterday, and they supposedly had a good conversation. So it’s not all one-sided. We’ll know in a short time where this is headed and we’ll deal with it accordingly.
Kessler: I’m just thinking of the fact he got such overwhelming support from Jews, and now what are they thinking.
Hoenlein: They are thinking, that’s what’s important. You should always be thinking. You shouldn’t vote without thinking, and after they vote, they should think about what’s going on. And people are genuinely very concerned not just about President Obama. I mean it’s a time of heightened concern, and I think this is part of it.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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