June 2007

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National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) Executive Director Ira Forman (right) presents shofar to Gov. Howard Dean (left) on the occasion of his election to chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
Networking Central

National Jewish Democratic Council
Preparing for 2008.

-- Ellen G. Witman

At the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, no one was surprised that Governor Michael Dukakis received his party’s nomination for President of the United States. The surprise for many in the Jewish community, including some Jewish delegates at the Convention, was the fight over including in the Democratic Party’s policy platform a resolution endorsing a Palestinian State, a position that was not yet acceptable to Israel, the American Jewish community or the US government. (It was not until the Oslo Accords of 1993 that the "two State solution" gained traction.) Although a similar attempt had been made at the 1984 convention, the reemergence of the issue and the level of support for it concerned Jewish community leaders. Democratic Party officials refused to allow a vote on the proposed resolution in 1988, but there was a vociferous debate. The incident was a further wake-up call to Jewish Democrats and pro-Israel activists.

After the elections, a group of prominent Jewish Democrats decided to create a new organization for Democratic Jews, one that would work alongside the Party, not within it, and would serve as the national voice of Jewish Democrats. The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) would be a counterpart to the already established National Jewish Coalition, now called the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), and would represent Jewish interests to the Democratic Party and work on behalf of Democratic candidates. NJDC opened for business in 1990.

Building membership and organizing a grassroots political operation around the country was the main task for NJDC’s first Executive Director, Steven Gutow, a lawyer and political operative from Texas. Gutow called on friends and colleagues from his days as the Southwest Regional Director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as well as leaders of major Jewish organizations and well-known Jewish Democrats to join NJDC. Particular attention was paid to bringing young people to the table, Jews in their twenties and thirties who wanted to actively participate in local, state and federal campaigns. Concerns about church-state separation, Supreme Court nominees, and support for Israel during the administration of President George H. W. Bush helped bring members to the fledgling NJDC.

Ira Forman became Executive Director in 1996 when Gutow left to study for the Rabbinate. Forman believes NJDC is the organization that "best reflects the values and aspirations of American Jews. The Democratic Party, at its best, lives up to portions of our prophetic tradition to do justice and create a better world." On domestic issues, Forman points out, American Jews are overwhelmingly in agreement with Democratic Party positions. They are in sync on subjects like a woman’s right to choose, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, the environment, immigration and issues of social and economic justice.

The Republican Party, with help from the RJC, had been seeking to gain support in the Jewish community over the past couple of decades based largely on its strong pro-Israel stand. Although there was some pick up of Jewish votes for Ronald Reagan (approximately 39% of the Jewish vote), the support was not sustained. The Jewish vote was for President Bill Clinton and analyses of the 2004 and 2006 elections show that Democratic candidates continued to receive of the Jewish community’s support. This in spite of the fact that the RJC’s significant financial resources have allowed it to put permanent staff in cities with major Jewish populations and to purchase advertisements on TV, radio and in print media during campaign seasons. With a significantly smaller budget, NJDC has only two permanent field offices in New York and Chicago and relies on networking, volunteers and e-mail to spread their message about the candidates it supports.

One important difference between the RJC and the NJDC is the way each approaches the subject of support for Israel. Foreman is quick to point out that NJDC believes American support for the Jewish State is a bipartisan issue. Democratic and Republican Administrations and Congresses have been, and should be, strong allies for Israel. He dismisses the RJC’s contention that Republicans are better for Israel and believes such partisan claims are harmful not helpful to the cause. He points to the agreements signed by then-Prime Minister Rabin and Palestinian Chairman Arafat and by Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan during the Clinton Administration. No Republican president rivals Bill Clinton for the amount of thought, time, and effort spent to bring about peace in the Middle East.

"American Jews, by and large, don’t vote on the issue of Israel because most races have two pro-Israel candidates. Other issues are usually decisive," Forman explained. "Furthermore," he continued, "it is not helpful to Jews or to Israel to make this a partisan issue. The GOP might think it helpful to the Republicans, but it is certainly not helpful to the Jewish community."

In the early years of NJDC it was identifying and organizing members that was the top priority. While those activities continue, today’s agenda is broader and more public. NJDC’s mission statement includes these priorities:

  • Educating Jewish voters about the differences between Democratic and Republican candidates for elected office;
  • Informing candidates for public office about issues of concern to the Jewish community;
  • Advocating positions on Capitol Hill and in the Jewish and general media;
  • Fighting the radical right agenda;
  • Engaging and cultivating a the next generation of Jewish Democratic Leaders; and
  • Expanding Jewish awareness of critical legislative activity.

To achieve these goals, NJDC creates and distributes election guides, meets with key Members of Congress, briefs members of the Jewish and general press, sends e-newsletters to members, conducts roundtables and forums on critical issues, and runs Young Leadership Programs in cities around the country.

This year, NJDC also convened its first Annual Washington Conference which attracted 200 attendees and all seven major Democratic candidates for the Party’s 2008 Presidential nomination: John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, and Barak Obama.

Ira Forman describes NJDC as the "national voice of Jewish Democrats." It was formed, in part, to "represent Jewish interests to the Democratic Party" as well as to inform American Jews about Democratic candidates it endorses. In fulfilling that role, Forman does not hesitate to speak out on the issues of the day whether domestic policy or foreign affairs. The scores of press releases on the NJDC website cover a broad array of concerns in the categories: Israel and Terrorism, Church-State, Domestic Policy, and Other Issues. Whether congratulating a Jewish Democrat for winning an election or chastising Republicans for their position on stem cell research, NJDC’s voice is heard.

Democratic candidates are not automatically assured of NJDC’s support. Only those who express support for Israel and other Jewish causes receive assistance from the Jewish Democratic organization. President Jimmy Carter was repeatedly taken to task by the NJDC for statements critical of Israel’s policies and counter to NJDC’s positions. Last year, Jimmy Carter’s son Jack failed to get NJDC support for his Senate race in Nevada even though the seat was critical to Democratic control of the Senate. NJDC also was among the first to blast Democratic Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) in 2003 for implying that the U.S. would not have gone to war in Iraq if Jewish community leaders had not supported the invasion. Moran apologized for the remark, but not before he lost his House leadership position as a Regional Whip.

The willingness of NJDC to criticize Democrats stands in stark contrast to the RJC which exists to support the Republican Party and its candidates without dissent. Even candidates like Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) received RJC support even though he supported the right of the Halliburton corporation to evade the existing trade embargo and engage in deals with Iran, a country at the top of the State Department’s list of nations supporting terrorism, including Hezbullah.

Looking to the future, Forman believes NJDC must be bigger and reach farther. He wants more Democrats and progressives to understand the Jewish community’s perspective on issues, especially those that involve Israel. He hopes to be able to take public officials on trips to Israel so they can see the land first hand and meet the people and their democratically elected leaders. Board members and staff of Democratic and progressive organizations and institutions will also be encouraged to travel to Israel with Jewish community leaders who can help them appreciate the achievements and fears of Israelis. At home, NJDC will continue to work with other Jewish organizations and other Democratic groups on strategies to gain more Democratic elected officials at the state and federal levels and to enact legislation that embodies the Jewish and Democratic traditions NJDC represents. And, of course, in the upcoming election year, NJDC and its members will be stepping into the fray using many of the newest approaches to contact Jewish, Democratic voters including "new media" such as pod-casts or Web videos and micro-targeting Democrats within Republican districts. Whoever the Democratic nominee is in 2008, NJDC will be on hand to help get him or her elected.

Past Networking Central Groups of the Month

In this section, we highlight a new local group each month in order to encourage networking.

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