Washington — A concerted effort by Jewish groups to weigh in with Republican and Democratic officials involved in formulating their respective party’s platforms appears to signal a sizable shift in communal priorities since the last presidential election, four years ago.
In official submissions to each party’s platform committee, and in unofficial proposals made in closed-door meetings, Jewish communal officials sounded a similar alarm on Iran, arguing that dealing with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions ought to top America’s foreign policy agenda. In the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections, the major concern of many Jewish activists was confronting terrorism. Fighting poverty also rose to the top of Jewish groups’ domestic concerns, which four years ago were dominated by civil rights issues, including church and state separation and the combating of hate crimes.
Party platforms have long been dismissed as largely ceremonial declarations with little impact on policymaking. But national Jewish organizations have made a substantial effort in recent weeks to convey their views and concerns to leaders of both Democrats and Republicans.
On July 21, the Anti-Defamation League sent both parties a document that listed the group’s suggestions for issues that should be addressed in the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee platforms. The ADL argues that the United States and the wider international community must convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program by use of incentives and sanctions, but adds that “no options should be foreclosed to prevent Iran from achieving the ability to produce a nuclear weapon.”
A Jewish communal official involved in the contacts with both the Democratic and Republican Party leadership said that every Jewish group that had talked to members of the platform committee had raised the issue of Iran. According to the official, all groups put forward a request to see the next administration and Congress, whether Democratic or Republican, take on the Iranian threat as a leading foreign policy priority.
The focus on Iran is a marked shift from four years ago. For example, Iran was mentioned only in passing by the ADL in its 2004 submission to the parties’ platform committees, and then only in the context of Tehran’s sponsorship of terrorism. Fighting terrorism was then the main foreign policy issue for Jewish groups.
The lone major exception was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which raised the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions before the 2004 elections and called on presidential and congressional candidates running that year to take action in order to stop Iran from becoming nuclear.
Iran was raised as a top priority for the Jewish community at an August 1 meeting of the Democratic platform committee in Cleveland. Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told committee members that “the Democratic Party should update [its platform] and include language that supports our use of tough, principled diplomacy. The United States must use both carrots and sticks.”
Another emerging priority conveyed by communal officials to Democratic and Republican leaders is to fight the poverty afflicting an increasing number of lower-income Americans. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs led an interfaith initiative calling on Democrats and Republicans to address the issue of poverty in their conventions. The group also sent out interfaith letters to both parties, stressing the need to deal with problems of the poor and not just those of the middle class.
The Democrats have already agreed to include in the conference a prime-time address by former vice president candidate John Edwards that deals with the issue of poverty. The Republicans have yet to respond to the request.
“Dealing with poverty is not something new,” said Hadar Susskind, JCPA’s Washington director and a participant in a communal meeting last month with members of the Democratic platform committee. “But now we are highlighting it to the top of the Jewish agenda.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman