Mishpacha Magazine: All the Presidents' Jewish Men
By Binyamin Rose for Mishpacha Magazine
Posted on 03/19/12 | Comments (0)
American presidents have made outreach to the Jewish community a priority ever since George Washington’s postinaugural visit to Rhode Island’s historic Touro Synagogue. So why did it take almost 200 years for a president to officially name a Jewish outreach director? We can’t go back two centuries to ask, but we can go back the last three decades, discovering the most memorable interactions between White House Jewish liaisons and their presidential bosses. We started with Jarrod Bernstein, director of Jewish outreach for the Obama administration, who invited us to the White House to share his thoughts and concerns
|From Mishpacha Magazine - All the President's Men|
“The Jewish community is a mile wide,” says Jarrod Bernstein, who on any given day navigates a rocky road to steer clear of what sometimes looks like a collision course between the diverse and disparate viewpoints of Jewish groups ranging from the left-wing J Street to center-right Orthodox organizations.
As the Obama administration’s director of Jewish outreach, Bernstein’s job is not to drive down a one-way street. While faithfully conveying the president’s positions on Israel and domestic issues of Jewish interest, he keeps an open ear to comments from the Jewish community, which he says is well-received at the highest levels.
“Anytime you get feedback from a community, positive or negative, it’s a good thing. The higher-ups here understand and appreciate that,” says Bernstein. “You want to have feedback because it shows people are interested and that’s a vital part of our democracy. Some of the issues we face in this country are very tough and there is merit to more than one side.”
When disagreements arise — and they do — he strives to handle them with a civility worthy of both the Jewish community and the White House. “Unfortunately the atmospherics out there are not always conducive to that, but we have a responsibility to work on that every single day.”
Our meeting took place in one of the ornately decorated offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building just west of the White House. The office lighting was muted, with just enough natural light streaming in through tall windows draped with maroon-flowered curtains, color-coordinated perfectly with the gold-painted walls.
|From Mishpacha Magazine - All the President's Men|
Bernstein’s bearing exudes a coexistence of geniality and a let’s-get-down-to-business approach. These vital personality characteristics hold him in good stead in his dealings with the People of the Book, who are sometimes characterized by that same book as stiff-necked and stubborn.
|From Mishpacha Magazine - All the President's Men|
Getting Out of Town Obama tapped Bernstein for the position following his most recent stint as deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security. Officially, Bernstein sits three steps away from the president. He reports to Jon Carson, director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, who in turn reports directly to Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president. Bernstein does speak to the president and to Jack Lew, Obama’s recently appointed Orthodox chief of staff, on a regular basis.
“We don’t want to have silos in this White House, so I also work directly with the national security staff and talk routinely with the chief of staff and the deputy national security advisor, Denis McDonough, about issues of concern that I’m hearing from the community. That could be from the OU, the Conference of Presidents, the Agudah, or it could be from different ends of the chareidi community as well.”
Before coming to Washington, Bernstein was deputy commissioner in New York City’s offices of federal and community affairs under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Born in Merrick, Long Island, to a Conservative family, Bernstein studied at Johns Hopkins University, Fordham University School of Law, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
There is no such thing as a routine day at the White House. Earlier in the day, Bernstein had attended a meeting where he was asked to weigh in on which segments of the Jewish community should be represented at a conference with the Domestic Policy Council on child and earned income tax credit issues.
“I work specifically for the taxpayers on government policies and initiatives,” said Bernstein. “I don’t look at a list of donors, and I don’t look at opinion polls. That’s not my job.”
After our interview, he left to meet members of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who arrived for an appointment with senior Middle East staff members. His afternoon would consist of catching up on phone calls from Jewish leaders nationwide and planning his next out-of-town trip, such as his recent visit to Baltimore, where Bernstein joined a roundtable with day school, yeshivah, and rabbinical school administrators to discuss issues of concern, including Pell grants and college education.
“A significant challenge that this administration takes very seriously is getting out of Washington and into the rest of the country, seeing and hearing what people are thinking; seeing what policies are working and what aren’t working; and getting some on-the-ground feedback, not just feedback from the people who make the trip to Washington,” said Bernstein.
Jews only number about 2% of the US population, but Bernstein says that’s not the calculus the White House considers when it comes to lending an ear to Jewish concerns.
“Since the nation’s founding, the Jewish community in the United States has been a vocal contributor to the national conversation on a number of issues. We can go back to George Washington’s visit to Touro synagogue after his inauguration, all the way up to the civil rights movement and to Jewish contributions in art, culture, and science, the environment and foreign policy. We have always been active on a number of issues, across the board, so I think that is not lost on anybody in this White House.”
Pressure Cooker The job of Jewish liaison is often a stepping stone to other opportunities that open up within the White House. Bernstein is Obama’s third Jewish liaison. Susan Sher was the first, and she later became Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. Danielle Borrin, currently associate director of the Office of Public Engagement, preceded Bernstein.
George W. Bush had seven Jewish liaisons in his eight years in office, including Noam Neusner, who multitasked as Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter. It’s a high-stress position, says Neusner, but one that he would recommend applying for.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity. But you have to love the Jewish community, care deeply about its issues, and look forward to hearing about fresh issues all the time,” said Neusner, who now runs 30-Point Strategies, a strategic communications firm. “As a community the Jews are intense and intensely involved in public policy. It probably served the community quite well to have a fresh face every so often. The most important thing is to keep the door open to all Jewish groups, regardless of ideology and relative political power.”
Neusner served in 2004, when Bush was running for reelection and the president was quietly working under the radar screen to help Jews and other ethnic minorities to leave Iran safely. “That was never in the headlines,” said Neusner. When asked how many Jews left, he replied: “It’s not important how many Jews left. What’s important is that they were able to leave.”
Tevi Troy, currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and a special advisor to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, held the position before Neusner.
“It is a large and significant responsibility and you have to measure everything you say,” says Troy, an Orthodox Jew. “Jews always have to be careful about what we say, but speaking for yourself is much different than speaking for the White House. But I love this country and I’m a proud Jew, and I wanted to give back what I could to the Jewish People.”
A Jewish outreach director doesn’t get much respite from phone calls, e-mails, and requests for meetings. “Everyone thinks they’re your friend and everyone wants something,” says Troy, who only learned the full extent of it at a White House holiday party. “Some women I didn’t recognize came up to me after seeing my name badge and said, ‘So you’re Tevi Troy? We’re the White House operators, and you get so many phone calls!’”
|From Mishpacha Magazine - All the President's Men|
No News Is Good News Sometimes those calls are complaints about a president’s policy, and presidential advisors have to field their share of them. So when one of them hears a word of gratitude from their boss after a day of dealing with the public, it is greatly appreciated.
Noam Neusner recalls a conversation he had with Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff. “Andy was sitting next to me and we were talking about speechwriting,” says Neusner. “He asked me what I thought about my work. I told him one of the reasons I enjoy it is because I get immediate feedback, and Andy said, ‘Oh, yes, just today the president said he really likes the work that Noam Neusner is doing for the staff.’
“President Bush wasn’t someone who sat around and handed out compliments gratuitously,” added Neusner, “but if you weren’t doing your job you heard about it.
“When it came to outreach, he was actually terrific. Put him in a room with any 20 people in the community and he would do a great job of winning them over. He was authentic; he cared about Jews and the history of the Jews, and was profoundly affected by his visit to Auschwitz.”
Neusner says that Bush understood that he and the Jewish community were both focused and aligned on a broad range of issues, such as Israel, Homeland Security, and the war on terror.
“I wrote an article in December 2008, at a time when his standing with the country was relatively low. I wrote it with a very clear intent of who this man was. When I was his liaison four years earlier I got to see that up close. He was exactly as strong a friend of the Jewish community as he is perceived today.”
Neusner adds that there were some light moments in the Bush White House.
“We developed a tradition that when a new Jewish liaison came aboard, we would take out a bottle of Slivovitz and toast both the incoming guy and the outgoing guy.”
Wasn’t president Bush known for being a teetotaler?
“They served beer and wine at the White House parties, including the Chanukah parties. The president didn’t impose his personal habits on anyone else.”
A Storied Position While the primary role of a White House director of Jewish outreach is dealing with domestic Jewish organizations, ever since the Kennedy administration first created such a post, various presidents have defined and redefined the role of Jewish liaison according to how they perceived their needs.
President Kennedy deployed Myer “Mike” Feldman — widely considered to be the first White House Jewish liaison — to meet quietly with Israeli leaders David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and others about arms sales, Palestinian refugees, and to determine if Israel was building a nuclear weapon. After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Feldman stayed on as an advisor to President Lyndon Johnson in an unrelated capacity.
Republican presidents Nixon and Ford did not have a formal Jewish liaison. Jimmy Carter’s Jewish liaison, Mark Siegel, resigned in midterm, dismayed with Carter’s Middle East policies and his position toward Israel.
Siegel wasn’t the only Jew unhappy with Carter. An unprecedented 40 percent of Jewish voters helped hand Ronald Reagan victory in the 1980 election, sending Carter back to his peanut plantation in Plains, Georgia.
Suddenly, Jews had become major White House power brokers, and President Reagan formally created a Jewish liaison position midway through his first term.
“The times demanded it,” says Marshall Breger, who accepted the liaison job from Reagan in 1983. “In the beginning, the president brought in some major Jewish Republican fundraisers to be his liaison, but they couldn’t do it full-time, and not all of them knew conservative politics well enough. I knew the Jewish community and had a relationship with conservative politicians from my days at the Heritage Foundation.”
Asked what he considered his most significant accomplishment, Breger, who today is a law professor at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, pointed to President Reagan’s signature on the Genocide Convention at the end of his final term. This act effectively amended the US criminal code to make genocide a federal offense. The Genocide Convention had been approved by the United Nations in 1948, but was never adopted in the US, partly due to concerns by senators from Southern states who feared it might be applied to citizens involved in the racial lynches of the 1950s, or that it would undermine American sovereignty. Breger was also actively involved in the negotiation of a free trade agreement between the US and Israel in 1985 — Israel’s first with a foreign country.
For the longer term, Reagan’s ascension to the White House and Breger’s appointment was groundbreaking. “Until Reagan, Jewish Republicans were few and far between and we were disconnected. We still may not be so sizable,” says Breger, “but now we are organized and have self-confidence, and that came from the Reagan era.”
Rising Orthodox Tide If the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 represented a watershed event by virtue of the fact that Reagan scored 40 percent of the Jewish vote, 2004 may have marked the first time that Orthodox voters overwhelmingly went for a Republican candidate, George W. Bush.
“Based on exit polls, Bush’s share of the Orthodox vote rose from 40 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2004,” says Tevi Troy, one of seven people to serve Bush as Jewish liaison. “The Orthodox community was receptive to our message and what President Bush was willing to do for Israel, on terror, and against anti-Semitism.”
While the liaison role is somewhat limited, as one doesn’t get to shape broad policy or talk to the president on a daily basis, Troy says, “If I had to raise an issue, I certainly had the authority to raise it at the right levels.”
These included strong connections with Elliot Abrams, who during Troy’s tenure served as a senior director on the National Security Council, and with Jay Lefkowitz, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy.
What were some of the biggest issues you worked on?
“I think anti-Semitism was a big issue, and one that still concerns us today. We met once in the Oval Office with the representatives of the US delegation that went to the Berlin Conference on Anti-Semitism in 2004. The president was certainly aware of anti-Semitism, but we made some real progress after he heard the perspective of this group that had gone to Berlin, who in turn had heard what people around the world were saying.
What do you consider your main accomplishments in the post?
“Interestingly enough, nobody’s asked that question before. I was proud to be able to bring my close ties to the DC Jewish community to the role, and particularly my ties to the Orthodox world. President Bush knew the Conservative and Reform Jews were not receptive to his message and that only 14 to 15 percent of them voted for him, but he understood that the Orthodox would be receptive.”
|From Mishpacha Magazine - All the President's Men|
Work-Life Balance While not everyone can knock on the White House door and get a foot inside, Jarrod Bernstein says the best way for American Jews to air concerns is by funneling their requests through the proper channels.
“What’s great about the Jewish community is that it is fairly organized. You are usually not more than two steps from someone who can get to the White House. The Jewish community is also very tapped into both local and state government. It wasn’t always that way.”
Bernstein and other office-of-public-engagement staffers also read every e-mail that comes to their attention through the White House website. “It’s a vehicle for people to express concern more than anything else, and not necessarily on specific constituent issues. We got a lot of e-mails around the time of the potential Palestinian Authority statehood bid. We got a lot of positive feedback after the president’s speech at the UN.”
Bernstein keeps tabs on sentiment in the Jewish community by reading translations of Yiddish publications such as Der Yid and Der Blatt; the Forward, the JTA news service and the Washington Jewish Week. “Vos Iz Neias is also one of my favorites,” says Bernstein. “As a New York guy, I try to take in and synthesize as much information as possible.”
Part of that New York state of mind came from working for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which taught Bernstein some important lessons, both practical and political. “Mike Bloomberg is an extremely smart and talented man. I think he’s the best mayor in New York City history. I learned a lot from him about loyalty; about respect for communities of all different faiths, colors, and national origins, and that we have a responsibility not just to our own community but to our neighbors.”
If there are any similarities between Bloomberg and Obama, Bernstein says it is in the ability to make decisions based on the facts available, even if it’s sometimes not always politically expedient.
The responsibility and seriousness of purpose the president exhibits toward his country, and as a husband and a father, has also served as a role model for him.
“The president will often ask me, ‘Hey, Jarrod, how’s your son?’ and relay experiences from his own life as a husband and as a father.”
At a recent international prayer breakfast, Bernstein said he was impressed by the way in which Obama discussed the seven Noahide commandments and shared Judeo-Christian values.
“Everyone here works very hard and is very dedicated. They are here because they believe in it, but they also see that being a good husband, a good father, a good member of the community is important, and I look up to that.
“I try to embody that when I come to work here. Even though my job is in Jewish outreach, I have a responsibility to the wider community.” —
As director of Jewish outreach in the Obama White House, there are areas outside of his domain that Jarrod Bernstein is not authorized to discuss.
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich, who helped facilitate our interview, also sat in on the dialogue and interjected on a couple of occasions: once when I asked whether the White House has a full appreciation about how important the issue of the release of Jonathan Pollard is to the Jewish People, and again, when I asked whether Israel has what to fear from Turkey supplanting Israel in strategic importance as America’s number one Middle Eastern ally.
While neither Bernstein nor Lehrich were authorized to comment on Turkey, regarding Pollard, Bernstein did say: “The vice president held a meeting not very long ago with Rabbi [Pesach] Lerner and community leaders at large where he heard directly what their concerns were, but beyond that, I wouldn’t want to comment.”
Would it be fair to characterize President Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu as cold?
“I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that because I’ve never been in the room with them. We can get someone else to comment on that. But the president’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.”
When you first took this job six months ago, what goals did you set and how do you feel you are matching up to them?
“I think that my goals are to make sure that there is an honest dialogue between all segments of the Jewish community and the administration — that you can be in the Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox movements and you will have somebody here who will listen and work to find areas of common ground and areas of agreement. And where we have disagreements, let’s have honest disagreements.”
From your dealings with the wide range of Jewish groups, from J Street to the Agudah, what common ground have you found?
“The Jewish community at large — again, painting this with a very broad brush — cares about economic opportunity, getting people back to work, and increasing opportunities for small businesses, which is something the president takes very seriously and works on every day. The other universal concern, even though each person has their own particular take, is the long- and short-term security of the State of Israel, as well as the regional stability in the Middle East. The two go hand in hand, as regional stability will ultimately help the long- and short- term security of Israel.”
In that regard there are many different approaches. J Street would support land for peace, while more right-wing organizations would not. How do you play the balancing act when dealing with the different groups, with regard to the administration’s policy on this issue?
“I think our message is pretty consistent no matter who we are talking to. We consistently talk about the need for direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis that recognize the legitimate security concerns of the State of Israel. The president talked a lot about this in his speech at the United Nations, in which he stated emphatically and explicitly that we continue to be concerned and continue to see it as a problem that Israeli children go to school every day under the threat of rocket attack. We support direct negotiations with a Palestinian Authority that recognizes Israel’s legitimate security concerns and their right to exist. I don’t think that message changes depending on who we’re talking to.
“People have different focuses that they would like to see us take, but we have been fairly consistent. We have the largest amount of military contact with Israel, more than any administration in history. This administration gave $2.75 billion last year and proposed $3 billion this year, not including the Iron Dome, which was $250 million on top of that $3 billion. And that was the direct result of the president’s visit to Sderot [when he was running for the presidency in 2008 -.ed]; not just going where politicians normally go to, but seeing that Israeli children are going to school and having to run into a bomb shelter. That is something that left a tremendous imprint on him.”
As an experienced hand in public relations and intergovernmental relations, why do you think the president has an image problem in certain sectors of the Jewish community regarding support of Israel? All the talk about military aid doesn’t impress everyone. There are those who feel something is lacking. What’s your take on it?
“For the first time in a long time, people have made the security of Israel into a political issue, which it has never been in American history before. It was never an issue that people sought to campaign on in the past. It didn’t happen before this election and it’s unfortunate because it takes away from the ability to make smart and sober decisions, which we’re committed to do, politics aside. The president has said openly that he wants to make smart decisions on the policy merits and we will continue to do that regardless of what others may say.
“It’s an unsettled time in the region, without a doubt. I think we’ve articulated our commitment time and time again. In the category of actions speaking louder than words, we intervened when Israeli embassy workers were under threat in Cairo. The president was very actively and personally involved in that. We have been extremely aggressive in pursuing terrorist groups, which is a shared goal with Israel. Our track record has been very good.”
Photo Caption: All the Presidents' Jewish Men (Photos by Jonathan Ernst) -