With the current presidential race producing nasty rhetoric and igniting divisive passions — and revealing political splits among Jews — it is vital that the Jewish community unite to ensure that support for Israel remains bipartisan.
Longtime Washington insider and former White House staffer Jay Footlik made that point April 5 to more than 100 people gathered in Edison for a combined event of the Maimonides, Cardozo, and Business and Professional societies of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
Footlik, the founding president and CEO of Global Policy Initiatives, a political and policy development consultancy, served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton and for a time as White House liaison to the Jewish community.
He said that “despite the adversarial atmosphere in Washington,” he is “proud both parties understand the importance” of Israel as a strategic, political, and economic partner and that support for Israel remains strong on both sides of the aisle.
Footlik said his interest in politics began as he was preparing for his bar mitzva in the late ’70s. It was at that time — in his hometown of Skokie, Ill., then home to a large number of Holocaust survivors — that a group of neo-Nazis fought to stage a march in a case that drew national attention. Observing the reaction to the controversy, said Footlik, “I saw how the Jewish and Christian communities came together” to unite in protest.
Footlik later left law school to go to Little Rock, Ark., to work on Clinton’s presidential campaign, eventually joining him in Washington.
His first trip to Israel was with Clinton, he said, noting that after a rocky start, the president and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin developed a close, almost “father-son” relationship. “It was fascinating to me as an American Jew to hear their conversations,” said Footlik. Clinton “really valued his relationship with Yitzhak Rabin.”
Those years stood in stark contrast to the period of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s when Footlik was living in Israel and watched firsthand as “cafes and buses were being blown up” by Palestinian terrorists.
Footlik analyzed one factor effecting the polarizing changes in the political landscape. While Democrats and Republicans always have had their political disagreements, until recent years, he said, most lived in Washington, where they and their families socialized and developed personal relationships. Now, he said, sporting a Washington address labels a politician as “an insider.”
“They used to see each other as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers,” said Footlik. “Now you don’t dare live in Washington, DC, if you want to get reelected,” a situation that has resulted in politicians “only seeing each other across the political divide. It just doesn’t happen anymore that they get together and compromise.”
It is this pervasive adversarial environment, he said, where both sides view the other solely as opponents, that imperils the continuation of bipartisan support of any issue. Such an atmosphere makes it all the more important that congressional missions continue to go to Israel, Footlik said. Such trips serve a dual purpose: They reinforce the close ties between the two countries and allow participants to interact with each other as people outside the political arena.
The Jewish community has a responsibility to do what it can to ensure that the U.S.-Israeli relationship remain on “solid ground,” he said, by continuing to highlight the country’s myriad achievements and cultural advancements.
This, Footlik said, includes the entertainment industry. He pointed out Israel is third, only after the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, in developing programming for American television. He himself served as an adviser and helped negotiate the deal with NBC Universal for the USA network show Dig, which was filmed in Jerusalem. A card-carrying member of Actors’ Equity, Footlik also appeared in a two-part episode, playing — in a bit of typecasting — the White House Middle East envoy.
In welcoming attendees to the Bentley of Central New Jersey dealership — where they were given the opportunity to test-drive luxury cars — event chair Sylvan Goldwert of Ocean Township noted the somewhat unusual setting. While synagogues or JCCs may be regarded as the typical place for Jewish community events, he said, federation offers a variety of meaningful outlets and venues to bring community members together.
“It is amazing when different professionals get a chance to socialize, talk politics, and exchange business at a really unique venue,” said event host committee member and Middlesex County attorney Eric B. Morrell. “At a previous Cardozo Society event, I had a chance to meet a young professional attorney who was able to help me out on a very complicated case. It is because of the Jewish federation that business opportunities are able to thrive. Federation helped me out when I was first getting started, and I feel it is now my turn to do the same.”