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News and Opinion

NJDC's First Annual Conference
A Parade of Democratic Stars.

-- Ellen G. Witman

For progressive, Jewish political junkies the National Jewish Democratic Council's (NJDC) first national policy conference was the place to be from April 23 -25. Although relatively small in size just 200 registered attendees the NJDC conference was big on Democratic star power. One after another, over the course of the three-day event in Washington, DC, all seven of the major Democratic presidential hopefuls came seeking the support of Jewish activists and donors.

Also making appearances were:

National Jewish Democratic Council Executive Director Ira N. Forman

In his opening remarks, NJDC Executive Director Ira Forman said, "We live in an age of great cynicism, and there is nothing Americans are more cynical about than politics and politicians." And yet, he contended, the attendees had come from across the country to participate in the NJDC conference because the Democratic Party is the best venue for pursuing the ideals common to both American and Judaic traditions: repairing the world, pursuing justice, and supporting Israel and other democracies around the world. (Streaming video)

The presidential candidates largely echoed that theme, although most spent significantly more time on foreign affairs - Iraq, Iran and the Middle East - than on domestic concerns. And they all made sure to recount visits to Israel and to express their strong commitment to her security.

It was left to conference participants to focus the candidates on an array of other issues of concern to Jewish Democrats. During the question and answer sessions that followed each formal presentation participants asked about the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the ban on late term abortions, the role of religion in public life, US-Pakistan relations, global warming, safeguarding Social Security, civil liberties, affordable housing and other concerns.

There were many similarities among the candidates' positions, especially in condemning the prosecution of the war in Iraq and denouncing the Bush administration for ignoring global warming, restricting the use of diplomacy, and squandering America's moral authority in the world. But the speakers also tried to differentiate themselves by emphasizing their own expertise and experience is specific areas.

Former Sen. John Edward (D-NC)

Senator John Edwards

Former Senator and Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards (D-NC) appeared on the opening night of the conference. The former Director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Edwards spoke passionately about the theme of his new book Ending Poverty in America pointing out that the wealthiest 300,000 individuals made more than the bottom 150 million. He drew loud applause when he said it is "just plain wrong" that 37 million children live in poverty in America. His calls for "making work pay" and for a universal health care plan elicited another ovation as did his plea for swift and aggressive measures to end the violence in Darfur.

Having visited Israel during the Sbarra pizzeria bombing, he said "Israel faces extraordinary threats to her security everyday." He visited Israel's Northern border just minutes before fighting broke out. "The Peace Process is faced with great promise and great peril. This President and this Administration have failed to engage in a credible way in negotiation.... Hamas continues to refuse to recognize Israel's right exist and to renounce violence." Edwards declared that the United States has "an important role to play: not to impose peace but to be engaged." (Full remarks, streaming video)

The second day of the conference brought Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT), Joseph Biden (D-DE), and Barak Obama (D-IL) and Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).

Sen. Chistopher Dodd (D-CT)

Senator Chris Dodd

The next speaker Senator Chris Dodd is also coming out with a book "Letters from Nuremberg: My Father's Narrative of a Quest for Justice." His father Senator Thomas Dodd began his career of public service as prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. Chris Dodd recently discovered his mother's collection of letters his father wrote during the trials. Through his father, Chris Dodd learned not only the scope of Nazi Holocaust, but also the importance of the rule of law. Our allies would have preferred summary executions of the Nazi leadership, but Chris Dodd said he father gave "to these defendants that which they did not give to their victims, and the world is a better place for their example."

Dodd said that we are now at a similar crossroads, "instead of uniting the world in the war against terrorism, this Administration launched a unilateral war against Iraq." He called President Bush's belief that "diplomacy is a sign of weakness" frightening, and said it was a "dark day" when the Military Commissions Act of 2006 became law. The Act suspended habeas corpus and backed away from the Geneva Convention. Dodd added for the Bush Administration "no international treaty was too insignificant to belittle."  

Dodd focused on the timetable for getting out of Iraq and on developing a comprehensive energy policy that will greatly reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. He would "impose a corporate carbon tax to eliminate the last incentive to pollute: Because it is cheap."

Chris Dodd saluted Israel on its 59th year of independence as "an island of hopefullness in a sea of dispair... whose might serves only for its self-defense." (Full remarks, Streaming video)

Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE)

Senator Joe Biden

Senator Biden, Chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, is known for being provocative and for deviating from his prepared text. He did not disappoint. Biden said he "could not fathom how this President [George W.] Bush has not found the time to visit Israel once during his six years in office." Biden said that there will be no progress toward peace without American leadership lamenting our having "subcontracted our foreign policy to Saudi Arabia" whose "Mecca agreement" asked nothing of Hamas in exchange for the support of the Arab community.

He called for our country to invest in better education saying "if you want the brightest children in the world, you want the bright people in the world teaching them."

His strongest, most impassioned statements, however, were about Darfur where he said genocide continues. Biden advocated imposing sanctions immediately and using military force if the Sudanese government does not begin to implement the three-stage UN plan. His voice rising and his finger stabbing the air, Biden offered his opinion that "any nation that engages in genocide forfeits sovereignty." The crowd responded with sustained applause. ( Full remarks, streaming video)

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)

Senator Barack Obama

Perhaps the most highly anticipated appearance was that of Senator Barak Obama whose charismatic style and high poll numbers have given some supporters of other candidates second thoughts. His remarks to the NJDC delegates lacked some of the energy he is known for, but still evoked a positive response.

Obama touted his opposition to the Iraq war from the beginning, and said "he vowed to bring a responsible end of this war in Iraq" adding that "the President's insistence on keeping our troops in the crosshairs of a civil war will not prevent any bloodshed there." Furthermore, until the war ends, he said, "it will be increasingly difficult to resolve the other problems in the region." Obama stated that "Israel's security is fundamental," but that the status quo is not the answer. "We can aspire to something better," he said, adding that a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires diplomacy and finding partners in the Palestinian leadership who are committed to recognizing Israel and renouncing violence.

Speaking about Darfur, Obama received a long ovation when he stated, "When I am President I mean to show the world that when we say 'never again,' we mean it." (Full remarks, video, Jews for Obama)

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH 10)

Congressman Dennis Kucinich

The final speaker on the second day of the conference was Representative Dennis Kucinich. He began by explaining that his worldview is that "we are all one, interdependent and interconnected. Our responsibility is to repair the world and close the divisions." Kucinich, who was given the Gandhi Peace Award in 2003, wants to establish a cabinet-level Department of Peace and Nonviolence and believes that multinational diplomacy is the only way to achieve lasting solutions to conflicts and violence.

Kucinich touted his opposition to the war in Iraq from the very beginning. "We are not victims of the world we see, but victims of the way we see the world," Kucinich told the crowd. Kucinich also opposed the war in Serbia and the Lebanon conflict. Instead through his office, the Seeds of Peace initiative works "bringing together diverse people... and discovering how much they have in common." (Streaming video)

The final morning of the conference brought the last two candidates to the NJDC conference:

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY)

Senator Hillary Clinton

Unlike the other speakers, Senator Clinton began her remarks with domestic policy setting as the goals for her administration universal health care, expanded scientific research, education reform, a new energy policy, and the nomination of judges who will "follow the rule of law and uphold precedent." She stated that "democracy is based on moral values" such as protecting those with the least, giving access to education, and offering economic opportunities no matter what your station at birth.

Moving to foreign policy Senator Clinton warned that the lesson to be learned from our mistakes in Iraq is not that America should withdraw from the world. Rather, it is that we must learn how to work with the world as it is, not as we wish it could be. She went on to admonish the Bush administration for its policy of not talking to leaders of countries with which we disagree and promised more vigorous diplomacy and stronger alliances should she be elected president. (Full remarks, video, Jews for Clinton)

Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM)

Governor Bill Richardson

Governor Bill Richardson is the only governor and the only Hispanic candidate for the Democratic nomination. He told the audience that his commitment to Israel can be judged not just by his speeches, but by his actions throughout his career: as U.N. Ambassador he cast two votes to keep a resolution opposing settlements from passing; as Secretary of Energy he sought to make the U.S. less dependent on Middle East oil; and as governor he established a New Mexico trade office with Israel and purchased $15 million of Israel bonds.

Unfortunately, Richardson said, Israel is less secure today than it was six years ago because President Bush has ignored the peace process and allowed Hamas and Hezbollah to gain legitimate power.

Turning to domestic issues, Gov. Richardson endorsed a universal health care plan, called for universal pre-school, a national scholarship program for college students, and a new international agreement on climate change that would be stronger than the Kyoto accord and led by the United States. (Full remarks, video, Jews for Richardson)

After hearing all seven presidential hopefuls, several NJDC members voiced confidence that whoever won the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the White House, would be a strong friend of Israel and would move quickly to advance an agenda at home and abroad that the vast majority of the Jewish community would support. They praised Democratic leaders for setting a strong, moral agenda and are hopeful that once the Bush administration ends the Democrats will be in position to change the path America has been on. They also gave NJDC high marks for getting every major candidate to attend and for starting and ending sessions on time!

As the candidates concluded their sessions, the moderator asked the same question of each of them: "You have come to NJDC's first annual conference. Next year, if you are the Democratic nominee, will you come back to the second'" To no one's surprise they all answered, "Yes!"

In the interim, especially in the months leading up to the Iowa caucus and early primaries in New Hampshire and Super Tuesday states, there is no doubt that the Jewish community will be courted for support and more than one campaign will be ringing donors' phones.

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