For one Philadelphia native — motivated by the legacy of the Holocaust to get involved in political life and help ensure that Jews have access to those who pull the strings — the first decade of the new millennium is looking more and more like the 1930s, with a major state seemingly bent on the destruction of Jews.
"If Hitler came to the United Nations, what would you have done? Today's Hitler is coming to the United Nations on Wednesday, and his name is Ahmadinejad," said Malcolm I. Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, during a Sept. 17 speech to students, alumni and supporters at the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel building, known as Steinhart Hall.
The New York City-based umbrella group — which represents 50 American Jewish organizations — planned to hold a Sept. 20 demonstration in New York outside the United Nations to protest the Iranian president from addressing the General Assembly. During the past year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has verbally threatened Israel, as well as questioned the legitimacy of the Holocaust.
"This is not a matter of years; it's a matter of months," stated Hoenlein, referring to the Iranian quest to obtain nuclear weapons, and the nation's defiance of the international community to halt the program.
Hoenlein — a 1965 graduate of Temple University who later earned a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania — was in Philadelphia to receive the first-ever Samuel Netzky/William and Adonna Kaplan Award for "exceptional contributions to the North American Jewish community" from Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
The student presidents of Temple and Penn Hillels — Sarah Feinberg and Ezra Billinkoff — respectively, presented Hoenlein with the award, which came in the form of a glass chanukiah.
Born in the Logan section of the city, Hoenlein went to high school at the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. A one-time Middle East specialist with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, he also served as the founding executive director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry.
During a dinner held in his honor, and then later before a larger audience at the awards ceremony, Hoenlein — who has held his current post since 1986 — encouraged students to go into Jewish communal work, and to not back down when Israel is challenged on campus.
He also said that, all told, Israel's army fared better against Hezbollah than it's being given credit for. "A critical asset of Iran was removed," he explained. "Israel took out many of Hezbollah's long-range missiles."
Among those who attended the ceremony were Israel Consul General Uriel Palti, Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein, and Ann Weaver Hart, Temple University's first woman president.
"This award — and this event — is an example of the role that the Hillel community plays in Philadelphia," said Hart, who started her new job on July 1, after spending four years as president of the University of New Hampshire.
During the program, she also announced that some time this semester, ground is expected to be broken for a new Hillel facility at 15th and North streets.
She described the current Hillel facility on Broad Street as "seriously outdated."