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Before it battles BDS, American Jewry must combat ignorance

Veteran US-Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein on building bridges between Israel and US Jews, fighting ignorance, and a fateful US election.

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Ari Soffer,

Marchers at the annual Israel Day Parade in Manhattan
Marchers at the annual Israel Day Parade in Manhattan
Reuters

At the twilight of one of the most significant United States presidencies for the State of Israel, as the race for the next presidency heats up, and amid increasing turmoil and uncertainty in the Middle East, this year's Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations leadership mission to Israel could hardly feel more timely.

Arutz Sheva sat down with the Conference's Vice Chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, to hear his views on some of the most pressing issues on the American-Jewish agenda - including its relationship with Israel, anti-Semitism, the Iran Deal and, of course, the party primaries.

Battling ignorance and indifference

According to Hoenlein, a longtime active supporter of Israel and Israeli causes, the greatest threat to American Jewry's relationship with the Jewish state is "ignorance, including many of our own Jewish children who go to the best day schools."

The Jewish education system in the US has to do more to explain the importance of the State of Israel to American Jews, and work harder to foster a sense of affinity with their Israeli brethren from a young age, Hoenlein said.

"It's not enough to bring young people here at age 17, 18 on a two-week tour and ignore them for the first 17 years of their lives. And there has to be appropriate follow up" well into university, he insisted.

As for the growing anti-Israel agitation on university campuses - where many Jewish students are feeling increasingly alienated and vulnerable as a result - Hoenlein acknowledged it is a problem, but pointed out that "on most campuses BDS is defeated."

That said, he and other American Jewish leaders are working hard to ensure Jewish students' rights are upheld on campus, including by providing legal backing should they need it, and by persuading educational institutions to adopt the universal definition of anti-Semitism which has already been adopted by the US State Department.

Hoenlein also stressed the sense of responsibility American Jews still feel for Israel's security, noting how he and other leaders have been placing considerable pressure on social media companies to crack down on the torrent of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel hatred and incitement to violence.

"You can't dismiss this as youthful excess or marginal talk," he said. "We see it here (in Israel) what the product of incitement is, and we see it in the US."

As for Israel's recent overture towards Diaspora Jews, in the form of a controversial but revolutionary arrangement allowing for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel - a significant move given that around 90% of American Jews identify as non-Orthodox - Hoenlein praised the initiative as a "positive" one in building bridges between Israel and the Diaspora.

But he emphasized again that a far greater issue than inclusiveness at the Kotel was the fact that many American Jews were too ignorant or indifferent to even care about the issue.

"I think for many...they haven't visted the Kotel. They don't know where it is," He lamented. "But they know that this is a positive initiative from the government."

'A strong US-Israel relationship will secure the entire region'

And what of the (seemingly never-ending) race for the presidency? 

American Jews have tended to be more politically-engaged than the average American, and this election campaign is no different, Hoenlein observed. Also unlike most of their compatriots (at least in this election season), foreign policy - particularly vis-a-vis the Middle East - figured large on their list of priorities.

And while all the candidates - from Ted Cruz and Donald Trump through to Bernie Sanders - have repeatedly declared their support for Israel, the veteran American-Jewish leader cautioned his fellow American Jews to scrutinize the candidates beyond their campaign soundbites.

"They always love us more in June than they do in January when they get into office," he quipped.

"You have to look at what people's records are, what they stand for, who the people are around them who are likely to be their advisers."

But the "special relationship" between the United States and the State of Israel resonates far beyond their own bilateral relationship or even the position of American Jews, he warned. 

An America seen to be abandoning its closest Middle East ally sends a bad message to other US allies in the region Hoenlein said, citing his own extensive meetings with Arab leaders. That is one very important reason why American Jews - and others who care about the stability of the Middle East - should demand clarity from the candidates on their concrete policies towards Israel.

"The most important relationship that others in the region look to is how strong the US-Israel relationship is," he said.

"Many of the Arab states say 'if Israel can't rely on (the US) what chance do we have?'"

The full interview can be watched above.








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