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An Interview with Matthew Brooks
Matthew Brooks 

Matthew Brooks is Executive Director of both the Republican Jewish Coalition, and the Jewish Policy Center, a think-tank that examines public policy from a Jewish perspective. Matt began his political career as State Chairman of the Massachusetts College Republicans while still an undergraduate at Brandeis University. He managed the Jack Kemp for President campaign in Massachusetts and served as the National Field Director for Victory ?88 Jewish Campaign Committee. The following are excerpts from an interview with Matt Brooks that took place on January 26, 2006.

PJV:  A key component of the president's foreign policy is the promotion of democracy in the Middle East. But what is the value of that policy if it results in the election of radical or violent Islamist parties? The Muslim Brotherhood made surprising gains in Egypt's recent elections and today, Hamas, is expected to do very well in the Palestinian elections.

There's an interesting statistic that Bibi Netanyahu talks about which is probably the most compelling answer to this question, and that is that there has never been a war between two democracies. I remember when we took (then) Gov. Bush to Israel, Bibi, who was prime minister at the time, making that point. Democracy and freedom are essential values. People want to be free. The Palestinians in the territories don't want to live in a world governed by terrorists. They don't want their children enticed to strap bombs to their bodies and blow themselves up in bus stations and markets in Israel. 

PJV: Hold on a minute. If that's true, then why are so many of them expected to vote for Hamas, the organization that elevated suicide bombing to an art form? 

Is this a debate or an interview? Can I answer the question before you make a follow-up?
PJV: Yes. Go ahead. 

There is no family that wants to see their child killed, that wants to live in an area overrun by terrorists. By nature people want to live in a place where they can earn a living and raise their families. Now, will there be segments of a population that will be more militant than the population at large? Of course. Does it look like Hamas will make gains in this election? Yes. Will they control the government? No. Over time, democracy will bring the kind of government the masses want. And by a large, the values we live by are universal values. They want their families to live in peace and prosperity.
PJV: Are you saying that the values that we hold dear here in America are mirrored among the Islamist parties of Iraq? 

I'm saying that people, by and large, want to be free. People want to have safety and security for themselves and their families. People do not want to have their children become suicide bombers. Are there lunatics out there? Absolutely. But is their existence an indictment against the process of democratization? Absolutely not. 

PJV: The Book of Leviticus Ch 23, verse 22, says: "When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien." In other words, Israelite landowners were required by law to support a welfare state. This is in addition to the many other required tithes and offerings. Doesn't this idea conflict with basic Republican values? 

Now we're going to have a debate between Leviticus and Maimonides. Maimonides said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that the greatest charity one can give is to help someone so that they will no longer need charity. Your question is fundamentally flawed. No one in the Republican party is suggesting we get rid of the safety net for the neediest people, which is what Leviticus speaks to. Of course we need that safety net. But the greatest welfare program, without a doubt, is getting a job, getting an education, having a family that can stay together. All of those things combined will lead to a better society with less poverty and less government assistance. That's why there was overwhelming bipartisan report for welfare reform. The Great Society never accomplished what it set out to do. You can see the results driving through parts of north Philly. You can see it in the housing projects, where generations and generations of families live in poverty without a light at the end of the tunnel. Now, of course we have an obligation to help those who are truly needy, but we have a greater obligation to fix the root problems of poverty and despair and create a society where people have jobs and can get an education. 

PJV: A few weeks ago, the RJC came under intense criticism for inviting controversial author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, who once wrote that Israel should not have been created, to participate in a RJC-sponsored panel discussion. The RJC announced that the event has been postponed due to a scheduling conflict. Was there really a scheduling conflict or did the RJC postpone the event because it realized that it made a mistake in inviting Hitchens in the first place? 

I'm a little offended by the question; we are absolutely committed to having the event. It is not a panel discussion about Israel but about the United Nations. And yes, Christopher Hitchens is controversial figure -- on the right and the left. But he is in the process of undergoing an ideological transformation. He is an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq and what our president is doing in the war against global terror and he's been an outspoken critic of what the UN has been doing. The fact is that Christopher Hitchens was willing to come and participate in this discussion and bash the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic UN and be particularly critical of George Galloway and the oil for food program, which has been a absolute outrage. (Editor's note: George Galloway is a British MP perhaps best known for his vigorous campaign against UK policy on the invasion of Iraq, and his preceding attempts to overturn economic sanctions.) We had a number of people scheduled for this panel, expressing different points of view to give the attendees a varied perspective. And I would add that inviting people to participate in our panel discussions does not mean the RJC supports or endorses anything they say. 

PJV: Last November, the Union For Reform Judaism passed a resolution critical of the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war. In response, the RJC ran a full-page that said the Union was "misleading and wrong" when it said that American Jews oppose the Bush administration on the war. But a recent poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that 70% of U.S. Jews oppose the Iraq war, which indicates that the Union was neither misleading nor wrong. What's your response?

I stand by our ad. If you read the statement by Rabbi Yoffie, he said that American Jews and all Americans are profoundly critical of this war. That is not true. By his comments he disenfranchises a significant segment of the Jewish community that supports this war and understands that bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq is integral to fighting the global war on terror. For Rabbi Yoffie and members of his board to then call this an unjust war, we believe is wrong and misleading. We do not think the Union speaks for all Jews in American or all Reform Jews in America. We think that this is a profoundly important debate within the Jewish community on two levels. We need to have an honest debate about what's happening in Iraq and around the world and how it impacts us, but we also need to have a debate about the responsibilities of organization leaders when they claim to speak on behalf of the Jewish community. 

PJV: On April 20, 2004, President Bush said that "...any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so." At the time he made that statement, the National Security Agency (NSA), under orders from the president, was conducting wiretaps without warrants, even though the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) specifically requires it to do so. Was the president lying when he made that statement and, if not, why not? 

The reality is that we are in a state of war and the president, as commander-in-chief, is obligated to do everything within his power to protect America. That doesn't mean he has to disclose our playbook to our enemies on the front page of the New York Times. When Andy Reid prepares for a big game, he may give interviews on TV, but he's not going to tell Bill Parcells his entire playbook for the game. In a time of war, shouldn't we hold the president to at least the same standard as we do Andy Reid? There are certain things which you can not and should not disclose in the interest of protecting American national security and it's absolutely outrageous to expect otherwise. 

PJV: But we're not talking about a public declaration of our game plan. The FISA was specifically set up to deal with this kind of situation, with a special court to examine evidence in secret and a provision that allows the president to implement a wiretap and then seek a warrant, retroactively, up to 72 hours later. This had nothing to do with public disclosure. We're talking about following FISA and the various options that it gives the president, even in desperate situations. 

The fact is the president is following the guidance and advice government lawyers and the Justice Department [are giving], so if you're asking me whether the president has been acting illegally or inappropriately, I would say that he has not. This nation is safer because of what the president has been doing. I call your attention to statements made yesterday by the former head of the NSA on this. He said that if this program had been started earlier, say under the Clinton administration, 9/11 may very well have been thwarted. I think that our commander-in-chief has an obligation to protect the American people and that's what he's been doing and that's why we've not had a terrorist attack on American soil since September 11.

PJV: Noted conservatives Bruce Fein, a constitutional law expert and former deputy attorney general in the Reagan Administration, and Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that if the president remains defiant in defending his wire-tapping, he is committing an impeachable offense. What is the RJC's reaction to that?

I just call your attention to my last statement. I think I was pretty clear on that.
PJV: Yes. But (former NSA chief) General Hayden was speaking with respect to the efficacy of wiretaps. The question of whether the president needs to obtain a warrant first was not addressed by Gen. Hayden. Would you agree? 

Well, I'd have to check his statement more carefully. But my point is this, we're in a time of war and the president is acting in a way that's designed to save American lives and keep Americans safe from terror. General Hayden says that this program is working. The president is acting on the advice of White House counsel and the attorney general and I whole heartedly feel that what he's been doing has produced proven results. Any talk about impeachment with regard to this is absolutely unjustified and unwarranted. 

PJV: The Warren Court's decisions that public school prayer violated religious liberty, helped many American Jews during the 1960s and 1970s to feel, for the first time, that they themselves were truly first class citizens. But when applying for the position of deputy attorney general in the Reagan Administration Department of Justice, Judge Alito declared that his "deep interest in constitutional law [was] motivated in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in areas [such as] the Establishment Clause?" How do you respond to many in the Jewish community who fear that if Judge Samuel Alito is confirmed by the full Senate, his narrow reading of the Establishment Clause could negatively impact our religious freedom? 

I am not a lawyer nor an expert in Constitutional law, but I do know Arlen Specter. He is one of the great defenders of religious freedom, one of the smartest people I've ever known, and as a Jew, someone who certainly has standing in this issue. Arlen Specter chaired the Judiciary hearings during which there were over 650 questions asked of Judge Alito. Specter has demonstrated in the past that if he is not satisfied with a candidate that he is prepared not to support them. The fact that he does strongly support Judge Alito on these and other issues gives me great comfort. I'm also comforted by the fact that Judge Alito got the highest rating from the American Bar Association. I believe he was also endorsed by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post and other papers who are not known to be on the front lines of conservative thought. I think Judge Alito has demonstrated that he's an extraordinarily thoughtful, open minded and competent jurist. 

PJV: If congress places new travel restrictions on its members as a result of the current ethics scandal, will that impact the ability of the American Jewish community to bring legislators to Israel?

Absolutely. One of the laws of physics is that for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. One of Matt Brooks' laws of politics is that for every ethical scandal there is a disproportionate and overwhelming over-reaction. And that's what we're seeing here. There is absolutely no doubt that there needs to be lobbying reform and that some of the practices that have gone on are indefensible, but what Congress is going to do, and what they typically do in situations like this, is over react. One of the things that's going to be impacted is the ability of the American Jewish community, and organizations like the RJC and AIPAC, to bring elected officials to Israel. No one who has ever been on one of those trips will ever confuse it with a beach resort vacation. You go from sunrise to well past sunset with meetings, briefings and visits to important sites. You run yourself ragged on these trips. But the information you get from meeting with Israeli leaders and understanding the geography is absolutely invaluable. We are working very hard at the RJC with our contacts on the hill to find a way to preserve these trips because I think it would be a huge blow to the pro-Israel community and to our future ability to educate elected leaders if we're not allowed to engage in these types of trips. 

PJV: On January 5, conservative columnist David Brooks characterized the Abramoff scandal as a Republican problem, part of the culture that "merged K Street with the Hill." What is the RJC's take on what Brooks and others see as a culture of corruption among Republicans in Congress? 

I have tremendous respect and admiration for David, but I disagree with him on this. I think it's the culture of Washington. There are Democrats, like Harry Reid, who have been involved with Abramoff. Congressman Traficant, a Democrat form Ohio is sitting in jail. This is the latest wrinkle on the ethical lapses of congress. We had the House post office scandal and the check writing scandal and now it's the lobbying scandal. It's a bipartisan problem and it's unfair to place it at the doorstop of Republicans when it's really a case of business as usual on both sides of the aisle. But while I disagree with David I also feel that there needs to be reforms to address Washington's culture of corruption that affects people in both parties. 

PJV: What do you think of the idea of the RJC and the National Jewish Democratic Council co-sponsoring an ad that would urge both parties in Congress to enact comprehensive ethics reforms? 

I would talk to Ira (Ira Foreman, Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council) about that. Have you asked him? Our position on the need for reforms is clear, but right now our time and energy is being focused on making sure that we can continue to do the kind of trips that we need to do to educate members of congress about Israel and the Middle East.

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