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Army of One

Yisroel Besser

He consults with presidents and senators, meets secretly with kings and generals. Malcolm Hoenlein is arguably the most powerful Jewish official in the United States, but he travels without a bodyguard and although he's easily accessible, he conceals more than he reveals.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

MalcolmHoenleinlooks like he might be your neighborhood doctor or accountant: elegant, but not flamboyant, refined rather than in-your-face. His day job is executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, a cumbersome title.But in the halls of power and backrooms of political negotiation, he isn’t known by his title, but by his first name. “Malcolm,” they say. “AskMalcolm,” “Call Malcolm,” say those in the know with a wink, passing around the name like some sort of master key to the Jewish community.After welcoming me to the functional-but-generic conference room,Mr.Hoenleinspeaks, using the diplomat’s gift of saying exactly what he means and no more. He takes a phone call on his old-style flip phone from someone inJohnKerry’s office and, once he ends the call, responds to my inquisitive look with words that virtually roll off his tongue. “Can’t talk about that yet, sorry.”Like the old money changers in Israel, who hung out shingles for furniture stores or falafel shops when their real currency had little to do with the objects on display,Mr.Hoenleincarries a title that tells you little about what he really does.The group that he represents was established in 1954 at the request of John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state.Dullesasked that Jewish leaders formulate their positions together and then present a united voice when they come to the White House, a means of streamlining the lobbying process and saving busy politicians inWashingtonfrom talking to dozens of individual groups.The executive vice chairman of this body carries the combined power of tens of diverse groups — all that influence consolidated into one person. Much of his daily activity involves handling classified information and many of his alliances and relationships remain a secret. A great deal of his time is spent advocating for the interests of Israel, which he does by lobbying, defending, and educating legislators.The week before our interview he was in Morocco, honored by the king,MohammedVI, with the Order of Ouissam Alaouite, a military decoration bestowed upon those who have contributed meritorious service to the Moroccan state. The pictures of the robed, red-capped king placing the medal around the neck of the yarmulked Hoenlein almost appear photoshopped, a Jew from Flatbush standing in a sea of djelabas.Malcolmshrugs when I ask him what he did to deserve the honor. “This and that. I try to help when I can.”

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