The Biden I Know| August 26, 2020
Biden’s bestie, AJC president Jack Rosen, builds the case
AJC president Jack Rosen has been hobnobbing with the high-and-mighty for over a quarter century, pressing his case for Jewish concerns and leveraging ties to benefit Israel’s security. Yet even as he admits that Trump has been a faithful friend of Israel, he still thinks his close friend, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, is the Jewish state’s best bet for the next four years. What does he know that we don’t?
Jack Rosen, for 25 years the president of the American Jewish Congress, divides the world into two groups: those in a position to affect Israel and the Jews — and everyone else. He’s made it his business to gain audiences with those in the first group.
The organization he heads, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), has come a long way from the days when it was led by the likes of Stephen Wise and Supreme Court Justices Felix Frankfurter and Louis Brandeis. Its offices once bustled with hundreds of staffers who could turn out 20,000 people to Madison Square Garden to protest the rise of Adolf Hitler. Today it is largely a one-man show, carried by Jack Rosen and a handful of secretaries, and it focuses on one-on-one meetings and a strong social media presence.
“We don’t do grassroots work,” admits Rosen, 71. “It’s a different world today.”
Rosen is a close personal friend of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. And despite President Trump’s overwhelming support among Orthodox Jews, Rosen feels Joe Biden is a solid choice. Curiously, instead of basing his case on issues important to Orthodox voters — such as government support for private schools, reining in an out-of-control education bureaucracy, or bolstering law enforcement in the face of urban unrest — Rosen chooses to pin his argument on what might be called the Democrats’ Achilles heel: support for Israel.
Rosen is forced to concede at the outset that the incumbent holds a strong hand. Rosen credits President Trump for the “breakthrough” United Arab Emirates peace deal, among other things.
“There can’t be too many presidents,” he says, “who are more pro-Israel than Trump — maybe Truman who helped create the State of Israel, you might say.”
But he points to the withdrawal of US troops from Syria last year, ordered by Trump, as something that endangered Israel.
“At the end of the day, moving the capital to Jerusalem may be symbolic, it may have some religious components to it, but there’s nothing in it that moves the problems in any better direction,” Rosen declares determinedly. “It’s good, it’s terrific, it needed to happen.
“On the other hand, you move troops out of Syria, you now have Iran on [Israel’s] border,” Rosen says. “Instead of the US controlling the skies on your border, you have the Russians. So Israel has to contend with Iran on its border and the Russians in the skies. So the end judgment on this will be, as good as Trump is for Israel — and his heart is in the right place — what was the outcome? It’s a balancing act. You get the embassy, you get the Golan Heights, but you also get Iran on the border.”
It’s a precarious argument: The troop withdrawal from Syria ultimately did not prove detrimental for the US, for a variety of reasons. Trump took out Revolutionary Guard head Qassem Soleimani; Tehran is buffeted by tightening sanctions and mass protests; the coronavirus outbreak devastated the Islamic Republic; and a fierce campaign of Israeli airstrikes pushed Iran back from the border and almost out of Syria.
Nevertheless, Jack Rosen is doggedly insistent that Joe Biden’s personal makeup makes him the better choice for Jewish voters.
“I had him at my house last September,” Rosen said. “He got up, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Jack and I disagree on Iran.’ The thing about him is, you could disagree with his policies — I don’t agree with everything he says — but he still has a certain respect for you. Many in the Jewish community, certainly in the Orthodox Jewish community, disagree with his policies, but I think he’ll respect your opinion on it. He has a soul and will respect your pain.
“Sometimes you have to look at the entire person and agree to disagree,” he said. “Of importance to me is, you could disagree with a leader and still have him represent your view, take it into account. And here’s why I have confidence in Joe Biden — he has our interests at heart.”
Of course, even assuming Biden does have some of the larger American Jewish community’s interests at heart, Orthodox voters might rightfully ask how forcefully Biden will defend their interests against a progressive wing of his party that is becoming increasingly powerful — and hostile.
Confronting the Left
Rosen says he himself has been confronting Democratic politicians to denounce far-left progressives such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. And he says Biden is on the same wavelength.
“He’s always reassuring when I talk to him,” Rosen says. “During the primary campaign, he didn’t engage with the radical left, he spoke out against them. He made some negative comments about AOC, that she was not relevant in the party. And in the last few weeks he was able to challenge the progressives who were trying to get in a much more critical platform on Israel. What you got out was a pretty standard platform.”
Rosen credited the candidate’s choosing of Kamala Harris as his running mate in clipping the wings of the progressives “for at least the next 16 years” — assuming Biden wins, serves two terms, and Harris follows suit.
“We should be relieved that the person in place to be the next president after Biden is pro-Israel,” Rosen said. “It takes some steam out of the progressives. It’s not only about this election —we have to have a strategy for the future in a changing America. Part of that strategy is making sure that the leadership that comes next is pro-Israel. Having Harris in that position is a relief.
“I have been one of the most outspoken individuals against Bernie Sanders, AOC, and that entire crowd. And they were gaining some traction. The one thing that Joe Biden did in winning this nomination is not letting these progressives capture the Israel-American partnership. He shut out their ideas. That is as important as anything else you could talk about. We came very close to a Bernie Sanders presidency.”
But who will Biden appoint as advisors if he’s elected? Will he have favors to pay off? And would Rosen be willing to confront a Democratic president and personal friend who surrounds himself with anti-Israel Obama administration alumnae such as Susan Rice and Samantha Power?
“I’ve heard that,” Rosen acknowledges. “But then you also have a lot of people in leadership who have been supportive of Israel. During the campaign you bring on a lot of people because you want to add to the number of voters. That’s the game.”
So this posturing for the anti-Israel folks is just politics?
“Let me just say, I’ve known Joe Biden for over 20 years. I’ve known him as a politician, certainly, but I’ve gotten to know him as a friend and as a man. He’s a man with a soul. When you look at the decisions he has made on Israel during his presidential campaign, the facts tell a different story.”
Of course, any defense of Biden’s Israel record has to take into account the facts of his eight years of service as vice president to President Obama, whom many believe led the most anti-Israel administration in decades. Biden was an enthusiastic cheerleader of the Iran nuclear deal, which at its signing in 2015 became a litmus test for whether a politician was pro- or anti-Israel.
Biden must also erase the sour impression he made during his 2010 visit to Israel. The Israeli housing ministry had just granted a preliminary permit for construction of new apartments in Ramat Shlomo, which straddles the Green Line. The Obama team went into attack mode, with Biden issuing a condemnation and postponing a dinner in his honor with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton haranguing Netanyahu in a 45-minute call.
Rosen claims that Biden was merely a cog in the Obama system and had to follow policies formulated by the boss. When he becomes the big boss, Rosen assured, things will be different. Biden has an “ironclad commitment” to military aid to Israel, Rosen said, dismissing the Ramat Shlomo drama as “he came late to dinner one day.”
“You know, there was a president at the time, and he was the vice president,” Rosen says. “I don’t think he always agreed with the president. The way he explained it to me was that the coming late [to the dinner] wasn’t meant to be a ‘statement.’
“I think on a whole, he’s going to agree on a two-state solution, he’s going to agree that the Palestinians deserve a state of their own — those policies will continue on,” he says. “But some of the public sound bites that have been made, some of the things that we didn’t like about what Obama did or Kerry did for Israel, I don’t see him being as aggressive on that. That’s just not him. He understands what pains us.”
For Rosen, as the president of the AJC, what pains American Jews goes beyond his own primary issue, which is Israel. He says the interethnic strife currently plaguing America presents an enormous problem for Jews.
“We’re a small minority in America,” he says. “The only way we can secure our rights is by joining other minorities.”
Rosen points out that one of the original reasons Biden gave for his candidacy was how disturbed he was at the events that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia.
He was referring to the neo-Nazi rally in 2017 that drew a few dozen radicals, countered by left-wing protestors, that resulted in violence and the death of a left-wing demonstrator. But “Charlottesville” for Democrats has come to symbolize the principle of faith that afterward President Trump said there were “fine people on both sides.”
Unedited video of Trump’s remarks makes clear he was excluding the racists from that description. But Biden brought it up last year when he announced his candidacy, claiming that “the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it.”
The Trump campaign has been trying to paint Biden as not being in full possession of his cognitive faculties. The president’s reelection campaign has been flooding the airwaves with unflattering videos of Biden making oddball comments, forgetting basic phrases, or suggesting that blacks, unlike the Latino community, vote and hold political positions as a monolithic bloc.
Rosen dismisses the contention Biden is mentally weak.
“Joe Biden has always been Joe Biden,” he said. “He talks a lot. When I say we spoke for an hour, I mean he spoke for 55 minutes and I get in five minutes. You know, litigators will always tell you not to get on the stand, and if you get on the stand, don’t talk too much, because if you talk too much, you’re going to get into trouble. His meandering and changing subjects quickly have always been part of his pattern of having a discussion. He’s an eloquent speaker, a good speaker, but he’ll change direction in midstream or in midsentence. That’s the Joe Biden I’ve always known. I don’t find that he’s lost any capacity or ability to be president.”
An NPR video of the 2009 Obama-Biden inauguration shows the incoming vice president spotting Jack Rosen on the side and running over to greet him and his family. This friendship will come in handy, as Biden last week finally reached the goal he had set in 1988 — clinching the Democratic presidential nomination.
“How does Yankel Rosen make a relationship like that?” he marvels. “He’s a former US senator, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, running for president. And here am I, the son of an Auschwitz survivor who was born in the Gunzburg DP camp.”
Today the CEO of the real estate firm Rosen Partners, Jack grew up in the Bronx and lives in Manhattan with his wife in a male-dominated clan — he has two boys and five grandsons.
“I think it says more about the type of leaders that rise in America,” he says of the exalted company he keeps. “The ones that rise to the very top have a love for the country and its people that make these relationships possible.”
Jack Rosen’s relationship with the American Jewish Congress began, as so many did for him, when he bought a piece of property from them. He was already close to President Bill Clinton, and the AJC was looking for a president, so the match made sense. He knew Clinton from the time he had been governor of Arkansas — “I used to fly him around on my airplane when he couldn’t afford the taxi,” he joked — and wanted to leverage his bulging contacts list for gains on behalf of the tribe.
“You start to understand,” he says, “that besides saying you have friends who are interesting, what else can you contribute with that friendship?”
The major advocacy issues came quickly. Clinton had just launched the Oslo Accords, defining the parameters of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians as land for peace, and Rosen was familiar with all the protagonists. It was a heady time for the newly minted advocate, who supported the deal’s principles.
“The leaders at the time provided hope,” he says. “You had [Israeli prime minister Yitzchak] Rabin, you had Clinton, they gave an aura of hope and an element of trust that these leaders would handle the Palestinians.”
That ended pretty rapidly, though he wonders about the ultimate “what if” — what if Rabin hadn’t been assassinated? Would he have been able to prevent all the terrorism, intifadas, and bloodshed?
“Given what happened since then,” he ponders, “I doubt it.”
Today he describes his strategy as forming relationships with anyone who counts, and then leveraging those ties to advance Israel’s interests and protect Jews around the world.
“I define our mission as trying to get to know the most influential people in the world who matter to the interest of the Jewish community and Israel,” Rosen says. “I usually say it’s 500 people — it might be 200, it might be 1,000, but it’s not much more. In America, there are probably 20 or 30 people who make the decisions on the security of Israel — the president, the chairs of foreign relations committees.
“I want,” he declares, “to meet as many of those 500 people as I can, and get to engage them.”
And if that engagement fails, he’s not afraid to cut off the discussion.
“I’ve had leaders walk out on me after I confronted them,” he says.
That same fearless candor governs his relationships with his allies, as well. Rosen laughingly recalls the advice he gave Joe Biden years ago. Then the US senator from Delaware, Biden was seeking pointers from Rosen ahead of a debate.
“You’re Joe Biden, you’re talking too long,” he told the then-senator. “Pretend you’re talking to me instead of on national television.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 825)
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