The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations kicked off its 45th annual National Leadership Mission to Israel Sunday in Jerusalem, with over 100 of its top leaders stressing the need for unity and cooperation in divisive times.

At an opening news conference, the Presidents Conference’s new chairman, Arthur Stark, reported on the pre-mission visit to Kenya and Uganda.

“We selected Africa, as it is emerging with serious challenges and great opportunities for Israel,” Stark said.

The visit came on the heels of the January 17 attack at a hotel in Nairobi that left at least 21 people dead. “We stand with emerging democracies and wanted to show unity as a Jewish community,” he continued. “It was greatly appreciated by the leaders we met, that we came under those circumstances…. There is very high regard there for Israel. We came away with a very strong sense of rebuilding ties between Israel and Africa, and between the US and Africa.”

Presidents Conference Executive Vice Chairman and CEO Malcolm Hoenlein stated: “What they [the Africans] need, Israel has on offer.” He noted the genuine sense of friendship the delegates felt for themselves, the US and Israel during their stay in Africa. “The president of Uganda,” he noted wryly, “gave us a lecture on why the Jews have an historic right to be in Israel, even citing Biblical references.”

Both Stark and Hoenlein stressed the strategic importance of reaching out to the continent, especially as it will surpass 1 billion people in a matter of years.

“Africa is a new frontier,” Hoenlein said, “and these countries are on the front line of these developments.”

Speaking with Arutz Sheva Hoenlein also addressed the challenges confronting the American-Israel relationship, including the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community.

"Overall the relationship between American Jewry and Israel remains strong," Hoenlein told Arutz Sheva.

Yet Hoenlein also warned of a troubling trend towards indifference on Israel among young American Jews.

"There are always challenges. We're living in a period of growing polarization within American politics, there's growing divisiveness, and that impacts the [Jewish] community as well. I think that there is an overall problem of a movement towards indifference among young people, including young Jews. In general, in politics, that means that they just discount themselves. When it comes to Israel, lack of support is harmful."

"We have to reach out to every sector, Jewish and non-Jewish, to the Democratic left, to Republicans to win their support and to make sure that the Congress, which is very supportive now, and the administration which is supportive, and overall the American people by over two-thirds support Israel, but we can't take it for granted."

Arthur Stark (right), and Malcolm Hoenlein
Arthur Stark (right), and Malcolm HoenleinHezki Baruch

During the mission’s five days in Israel, top figures will brief the delegates on current affairs. They include President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, IDF Major-General Herzl Halevi and others from the political, diplomatic, security, business and academic spheres. Also among the speakers will be Lieutenant-General (res.) Benny Gantz, who chairs the newly founded Israel Resilience party, as well as Naftali Bennett and other party heads.

“Every year, we come away from these missions to Israel with new knowledge and a new understanding about the issues confronting Israel and the Jewish people,” Hoenlein said.

The two also discussed recent events in the United States, including increasing anti-Semitism, starting with the October 27 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, in which 11 worshipers were gunned down by a far-right extremist.

“Pittsburgh was the end of innocence for American Jewry,” Hoenlein said. “Nobody now,” he added, “can say they didn’t know.”

He noted that the shooting occurred just before the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which was the end of deniability for the Germans.

Both Presidents Conference leaders pointed out, however, that, unlike Nazi Germany, government and community institutions rallied around the Jewish community and spoke out against anti-Semitism.

“Nazi Germany was institutional terrorism,” Stark said. “Here you had non-Jewish police officers rushing in and being severely injured while coming to the aid of Jews.”

Hoenlein agreed. “A society is judged not by the presence of haters but by how it deals with hatred and bigotry. America passed the test that day.”

They pointed to another show of support, this time in Congress, with Hoenlein noting that the House of Representatives had passed – with overwhelming support of 424 to 0 – a motion aimed at combating anti-Semitism, chiefly by fighting the BDS movement and citing it as a national security interest.

Nevertheless, both he and Stark noted the anti-Israel positions espoused by several new House members, including Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN).

“It raises the sense that this is a whole new strain of anti-Semitism than what we’ve seen before in the halls of power,” Stark said. “We believe that, by and large, US political leaders are very strongly behind Israel, but it is critical that they take this [threat] seriously.”

Hoenlein noted that the Conference of Presidents had been in touch with the leadership of the Democratic Party.

“We note the strong statement by Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leaders as well as strong condemnation of anti-Semitism by President Trump in his State of the Union message,” he said. “There has to be a declared policy of zero tolerance for this type of speech or actions, as there would be for any other form of bigotry or racism. On the other hand, we cannot write off any significant segment of the American people in terms of support for Israel. We need to educate, to articulate, to reach out and make the case, just as we hold to account those who engage in delegitimization and anti-Semitism. With the growing polarization and partisanship, it is all the more important that our community remain united while recognizing our differences.”

Other events taking place on the opening day of the conference included a closed briefing by Major-General Amir Abulafia, head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, who briefed participants on the many defense issues facing Israel; a presentation by the mayor of Yeruham and several tech entrepreneurs focusing on the need for hi-tech-oriented education; and a lively dinnertime panel discussion on the upcoming elections by Israel’s leading political affairs reporters and one of the country’s top pollsters.

The proven and effective voice of organized American Jewry for six decades, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations advances the interests of the American Jewish community, promotes broad-based support for Israel, and addresses critical concerns facing Israel and world Jewry. The Conference is at the forefront of efforts to ensure that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA, counter global anti-Semitism, fight against the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and other attempts to isolate Israel and the Jewish people and, achieve peace and security for Israel and her neighbors.