Three weeks before the election, the chairman of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, sat down for dinner with President Bush at a private residence in Washington. They chatted about Israel and Iran, but the conversation, like the relationship between the two men, soon went beyond politics. Eventually they were talking baseball.
It was an unexpected place to find the leader of the AJCongress, an organization that has historically been on the liberal side of domestic issues and relatively uninvolved with the international issues upon which Bush has built much of his appeal among Jewish supporters. The meeting was even more unexpected, considering Rosen’s prominent friendship with former President Clinton: Before Clinton was even a viable candidate in 1992, Rosen loaned the then-governor of Arkansas his private jet for campaign use.
Times change and administrations change, but with his blend of political pragmatism and personal charm, Rosen has managed to remain friends with the Clintons while becoming perhaps the closest person to Bush in the Jewish organizational world.
It’s a relationship that has paid off in terms of presidential appointments, including to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, and has insiders buzzing that Rosen is the front-runner to become the next chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a coalition of 52 national organizations commonly seen as the community’s consensus voice on Middle East affairs.
Rosen acknowledges that the jump between the two presidents has created some ideological gaps that he has not been able to overcome — particularly on the domestic side. But he says he can put those differences aside to work for the political needs of Jews around the world.
“What I’ve attempted to ensure is that we’re pragmatic,” Rosen said while sitting in the wooden-paneled conference room of the AJCongress’s mansion headquarters on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “If the time is right to be dovish, we’ll do so, but if being hawkish is the pragmatic thing to do for the Jewish people, we will do that.”
But Rosen has not been afraid to jostle politicians. Over the last few years he has aggressively criticized the French government for its handling of antisemitism, which has bothered both the French government and many of the Jewish communal organizations in France, who felt the intrusion of an American organization would hurt their cause. Rosen’s hand in the matter was strengthened when Bush named Rosen to the American delegation attending an international conference on antisemitism in Berlin in April, organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Rosen’s focus on international issues and his alignment with conservative politicians at home, would seem to be an about face for the AJCongress, which won much of its fame fighting for civil rights for Jews and blacks during the 1950s, and avoiding heavy involvement in Israeli issues. But Rosen explains that he and his organization have had to undergo some reorientation for new conditions.
“Over a billion Muslims have leaders who are waging a hateful war against Jews,” Rosen said. “This is a burden that American Jewry has to take seriously.”
In the coming months, he expects that his conversations with the president will focus on global antisemitism and the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran, which he calls the “biggest threat to Israel and this world today.”
The most important thing in dealing with any issue, Rosen said, is not having a president you agree with, but having a president with whom you can talk. “We can have a dialogue where we differ” — as Rosen said he has had on Bush’s sweeping faith-based initiatives — “and it will be more effective than a press release.”
The journey to the place where such discussions with Bush are possible was not straightforward. When Bush was first elected, Rosen was most famous for being national finance co-chairman of Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996. Shortly after Bush was elected, he invited a group of Jewish leaders to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and Rosen was conspicuously left off the list.
Over the next few months, Rosen said, he made a point of drawing the president into conversation at charity and political events. Before the 2002 midterm election, Rosen gave $100,000 to the Republican National Committee as a sign of appreciation for the party’s support of Israel. (Rosen’s work at the AJCongress is only a sidebar to his lucrative day job as a real estate developer, which is how he came to own the private jet that he lent Clinton.)
Since 2002, Rosen has done no fund raising for the president, and he insists the relationship is not about money — it has become a meeting of like minds.
“There’s a genuine response from him all the time,” said Rosen, or Rosey, as the president has dubbed him. “You can just tell what this man means. You don’t feel he’s being political.”
The deepening relationship, however, was more than just a product of personal affinity. Rosen’s politics also came closer to Bush’s as the world outside changed. Rosen makes clear that the second intifada has made Jews much less secure in the world. Looking back on his support of the Oslo peace process during the 1990s, he said, “We have to have regrets about Oslo.”
Rosen has updated the AJCongress to deal with the new realities by founding the Council on World Jewry, a subsidiary of the AJCongress that deals with international issues. When Rosen’s term as president of the AJCongress ended in May, he continued on at the Council and also took over the newly created position of chairman for the AJCongress.
Thus far, the most aggressive work on international issues has occurred in France. Rosen went against the wishes of France’s largest Jewish communal body, CRIF, and vigorously criticized the French government’s approach to antisemitism, at one point batting about the idea of a boycott. This was at odds with the approach that other American organizations took in France, and it drew serious criticism.
The French government has come around to acknowledge publicly the problem within its borders, and Rosen takes the movement of the government as vindication of his methods. He said that in the next few weeks, the AJCongress would be announcing a new initiative in another country with an at-risk Jewish population.
In each new campaign overseas, Rosen is looking to have as many political allies at his side as possible — and the party affiliation means little to him. Before the elections, he had long talks with Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden. In the past, Rosen has received some attention for his relationship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, whom Rosen met after lending his private jet to a diplomatic mission in Cuba.
He is open to all comers who might help the Jewish cause. In the new crop of senators from last Tuesday’s election, he did express some concern about the ideological conservatives coming into office. When asked who they were, though, Rosen was ever the pragmatist.
“I don’t want to name any names,” Rosen said, “because we obviously have to deal with them.”