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An Interview with Ira N. Forman
Ira Forman

Ira Forman, a veteran of more than thirty years of political activity at the state, local and national levels, has served since January 1996 as the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council -- "the national voice of Jewish Democrats."  The NJDC is the Democratic counterpart of the RJC whose Executive Director Matthew Brooks we interviewed in our February 2006 issue.  
He also serves as the Research Director of The Solomon Project, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works to educate American Jews about their rich heritage of civic and political involvement. Prior to joining NJDC, Forman served as Director of Congressional Relations for the Clinton Administration's Office of Personnel Management. 
The following are excerpts from an interview with Ira Forman that took place on March 24, 2006. 

PJV: Some Democrats have expressed concern with Senator Russ Feingold's effort to censure President Bush. They say that while it may benefit his long term presidential goals, it could have a negative effect on Democratic candidates in 2006. What's the NJDC's position?

The issue hasn't been formally debated by our board, but I can give you my personal opinion and that is that Sen. Feingold is addressing real anger among the Democratic base about how the president has conducted himself with respect to civil liberties. On the other hand, I think talk of censure or even impeachment isn't realistic at the moment because it takes the focus off the failures of this administration on a whole range of issues. But I would also add that everyone who runs for president, or who is presumed to be running, is going to be subject to the criticism that whatever they do is politically motivated. I can't get into Sen. Feingold's head and say that what he's doing is helping his own cause at the expense of other Democrats. That's not fair to him or to the other candidates. 

PJV: If Feingold was to win the nomination, do you think America is ready to elect a Jew president?

Yes I do. Every piece of polling data that we've looked at over the years have shown dramatic changes since the end of WWII with respect to what minorities or religious groups people would be willing to vote for. Today, Jews rank closely with Catholics and Baptists with respect to their ability to get elected. And while there a still pockets of anti-Semitism, I think we're definitely ready for a Jewish president. Whether the Jewish community is ready for a Jewish president is a different story.

PJV: AIPAC recently held it's annual conference in Washington. Members of the Bush administration, most notably Vice President Cheney, were warmly welcomed by the crowd. How do you explain that in light of Hamas's election victory, the growing belligerency of Iran and current state of the war in Iraq, all of which are making Israelis quite nervous. 

There is a level of courtesy that's given all administrations who demonstrate a commitment to Israel's security. I remember there were times during the Carter and first Bush administrations when the reception at AIPAC wasn't so warm. In 2004, President Bush received a warm welcome, but the story floating around the room at the time was that at least three quarters of the crowd were going to vote for Kerry. It's a phenomenon of AIPAC policy conferences. And while Cheney did get a warm reception, Democrats who addressed the crowd were greeted with equal enthusiasm. And I would say that within the leadership of AIPAC there is significant disillusionment with this administration.

PJV: During Cheney's speech, he quoted Lebanese political leader Walid Jumblatt, a racist anti-Semite who has celebrated the deaths of U.S. soldiers and referred to Condoleezza Rice as "oil-colored." What do you make of that? 

This doesn't surprise me with Cheney. He misspeaks all the time. One day [former Iraqi prime minister] Alawi is his best friend then next day Alawi is wrong about civil war breaking out in Iraq. This is classic Bush administration situational ethics. These guys are grasping at straws - at anything these days - and because of that they make stupid mistakes like embracing someone like Jumblatt, who may be an ally against Syria right now, but who has a very dismal record. But these guys don't care, which is a classic example of the ethics of this administration.

PJV: The Forward reported that enthusiastic support for Netanyahu and Bush administration hawks at the convention "underscores what appears to be a widening gap between pro-Israel activists in Washington on the one hand and the Israeli and American publics on the other." Is there a gap and, if so, what do you make of it?

I think there is always an inherent gap between leadership and the grassroots. It's inevitable. There was clearly a gap between certain Jewish community leaders in 2004 who supported Bush and the overwhelming number of Jews who vigorously opposed him. I'm not sure we want to make too much of it. Also, I would bet that if the attendees were voting in the Israeli elections, very few would be supporting Netanyahu. What's more, a lot of Jewish communal leaders have gotten the message that they're out of step with the politics of the American Jewish community. The fact that more Jewish leaders have expressed increased concern about the power of the religious right is evidence of pressure from the grassroots level. 

PJV: Two AIPAC lobbyists, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, have been indicted for passing classified military information about Iran and Iraq to an Israeli diplomat. There's been speculation that they simply fell victim to the administration's determination to stop leaks and that in a less security-obsessed environment they wouldn't be facing these charges. 

That's correct. And while I'm not privy to any AIPAC conversations, it's clear that this administration is totally obsessed with security. You see it in their direct flouting of the FISA laws, in the ridiculous, laughable reclassifying of material that has been out in the public for a long time. You see it in the obsessiveness of the president who doesn't want his papers to be seen for something like 20 generations. It is a reflection of their lack of real thoughtfulness and it has all kinds of horrible effects, one of which is this prosecution.

PJV: In an interview with this journal last fall, DNC Chairman Howard Dean said the party was about to unveil a new branding strategy, a message platform that Democrats could rally around. Passover is around the corner and we haven't heard anything. What's the problem?

Materials have started to circulate, and I've been told some of it's on the DNC's website. The outlines are clear. Democrats are going to be running on restoring honest leadership to government, real security that will focus on homeland security as well as security abroad, creating jobs in America that will stay in America, strengthening our education system and providing better healthcare to more Americans. I know there are Democrats that are concerned, but I've seen this pattern with both parties over the many years I've been involved in politics. The party that's out of power always has difficulty cutting through the chatter to get its point across to the public with a coherent message. In fact, for a party that's out of power, the Democrats are doing a good job of getting their message across. Remember that in '94, the Republicans didn't unveil their Contract With America until after Labor Day, and even then there were Republicans who didn't by into it. The pundits love to talk about this stuff, but they talk about it every year.

PJV: Three Democrats are running in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate: Bob Casey, Alan Sandals and Chuck Pennachio. Who do you think has the best chance of beating Santorum in November? Who do you think best reflects traditional Democratic policies and principles?

I think I'd have to go with the pundits on this one, including Governor Rendell, and say that Casey looks like the candidate with the best chance. And while the NJDC doesn't endorse candidates in the primary, I think it's clear that in the matter of choice, for example, Bob Casey does not represent the views of most Democrats, certainly most Jewish democrats. But on a whole range of other issues, I think he does represent Democratic values and stands in clear contrast to Rick Santorum. Next to Santorum, Casey looks like David Ben-Gurion.

PJV: It's been said that one of the reason Harvard's faculty opposed Lawrence Summers, was his raising the issue of the growth of anti-Semitism on college campuses. Now we have this study by two professors at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that asserts that American foreign policy is controlled by a Jewish-dominated cabal. What do you make of this?

I don't know what level, if any, anti-Semitism played in the resignation of Summers. I certainly admired his speaking out against anti- Semitism on campuses. But as far as this study is concerned, it's only slightly less offensive than Der Stürmer. It's cartoonish, filled with both extreme Left and Right wing types of anti-Semitic garbage. And it's shocking that two academics would put this garbage out there. This is really shocking stuff. For the moment, I think the Jewish community's strategy is to wait and see how seriously this paper is received. We wouldn't want to attack it so vociferously that it attracts more attention than it deserves. 

PJV: In the wake of the ethics scandals in Washington, legislation may be passed that could severely restrict the ability of groups like the NJDC to take political leaders on fact-finding tours of Israel. Is the NJDC concerned?

We are concerned. Our leadership is working with other Jewish organizations behind the scenes to education members of our party about the importance of certain types of trips. Clearly there has been abuse of travel and that is a legitimate concern, but we don't want congress to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think there is an understanding that certain kinds of private trips are appropriate, and if we have to have better supervision or oversight of those trips that's fine. But it's important to remember that the kind of trips you're referring to are not pleasure trips. You don't have any free time, you're not playing golf, you're getting up early in the morning and going to past ten at night with meetings and briefings. 

PJV: I recently asked Matt Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, if he would be willing to co-sponsor an ad with the NJDC urging congress to enact meaningful ethics reforms. He asked me if I asked you. So I'm asking.

We're certainly in support of ethics reforms in congress. It's a huge issue that will be debated in the '06 campaigns. And while bipartisan support of ethics reforms is a good idea, I question the influence of an RJC-NJDC ad as we're not the largest dogs on the block. That being said, our leadership does feel that in light of numerous scandals in the Bush administration that are not being investigated by the Republican congress, the issue of governmental ethics needs to be addressed in a bipartisan way.

Interview by Charles Smolover

Previous Interviews

  • July 2005:  Chuck Pennacchio candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
  • August 2005: Lois Murphy who is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
  • September 2005: Pennsylvania State Representative Daylin Leach.
  • October 2005: Bob Casey candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate.
  • November 2005: Gov. Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee
  • December 2005: Rep. Jim Gerlach who is running for reelection in Pennsylvania's 6th district.
  • January 2006: Rep. Chaka Fattah from Pennsylvania's 2nd district
  • February 2006: Matthew Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition
  • March 2006: Alan Sandals, candidate in the Democratic Primary for U.S. Senate