Ira N. Forman: Faithful Democrat
It is safe to say that Ira Forman, the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, did not grow up in a hotbed of Jewish activism. Rocky River, Ohio, population 25,000, had a total of eight Jewish families. Still, the hamlet did make Jewish history, he says, having a small synagogue that produced the nation's first female rabbi.
Forman's father was a nuclear physicist for the government during the witch hunts of the 1950s. He was also an avid reader of history and the family used to discuss current events at the dinner table. Still, Forman doesn't consider his background "political." He does remember the 1960 Democratic convention. "My parents liked Stevenson and hated Joe Kennedy, so they were upset with JFK. After the convention, though, they supported Kennedy because they hated Nixon."
Actually, Forman traces his Democratic roots back to his grandfather. When Forman was a child, he learned his grandfather was born in Russia in 1874. "He was in the Czar's cavalry for six months and swore allegiance to two Czars. He came to the United States in 1912 as a carpenter, but lost his job before the crash in '29. He was about 55-56 years old and lost his pride. Then he got a one week per month job from the WPA and it gave him his pride back." The Forman family, like many other Jews at that time, became loyal Democrats.
Forman first became politically involved in high school. He was 16 in 1968 and his hero was Bobby Kennedy. His neighborhood not only had few Jews, it also had few Democrats. This didn't bother him at all. In fact, showing his chutzpah early on, Forman returned home after his freshman year at Harvard and ran as the Democratic candidate for mayor. The Republican Party threw him off the ballot on the grounds he wasn't a resident long enough to qualify to enter the race. He challenged the decision in court but lost his appeal. He didn't get far politically, but he did get a lot of free publicity. He was only 19.
Throughout college Forman worked on political campaigns and became more knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of activism. When he graduated, he moved to Washington, D.C., and went to work for the House Public Transportation committee. By 1976, he was running field operations for Jimmy Carter. Rather than join the Carter Administration after the election, he went back to the congressional committee before deciding to become an advocate and joining the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
In the late 70s, AIPAC was still a relatively small operation, nothing compared to the behemoth it is today. Forman started out as the fundraising director, then became the political director and ultimately served as a lobbyist. In 1981, he was involved in the fight to stop the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia. "I had a great time and learned a lot," he recalls.
Forman decided to take a short hiatus from politics and the East Coast, traveling across the country to attend business school at Stanford. He returned to his political roots quickly, however, moving to New York to run NATPAC, the national pro-Israel political action committee founded by ICM super agent Marvin Josephson.
In 1985, he opened a consulting/lobbying firm and ran a gubernatorial campaign in Ohio. He then spent two years working for the Center for National Policy, looking at U.S. economic policy. Many of his colleagues, such as Madeleine Albright, would later become major figures in the Clinton Administration. When Clinton was elected, he worked briefly in the Office of Personnel Management.
In January 1996, Forman was chosen to lead the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), an advocacy group founded in the 1990 after what Jews saw as the dangerous influence Jesse Jackson wielded in the Democratic Convention and, in part, to counter the Republican National Jewish Coalition. The organization also sought to expand Jewish political involvement beyond U.S.-Israel relations to a broader range of domestic concerns.
It is not too difficult to understand Forman's political interests, but his background doesn't offer many clues to his commitment to the Jewish element of his political job. He admits that many of his classmates at the reform temple where he grew up assimilated, but he has not done so. "I feel a deep connection to bubbe, zayde, my parents," he says. "They never gave up their identity and I feel that I'd betray them if I assimilated."
Forman's wife, Caryn Pass, grew up in a very different environment in Pikesville, Maryland. "There were no Christmas lights on her block."
Forman believes Jews must be involved in politics. "It's an oxymoron for a Jew not to be a part of the democratic process. So much in political life is central to our lives; there's a premium on participation." Like his counterpart at the National Jewish Coalition, Forman believes Jews belong in his party. "You don't need to be a Democrat or a Republican to be a good Jew, but tikkun olam [the perfection of the world] is related to government action." He does admit that there are relatively few issues where it is clear how every Jew should vote. "Usually two Jews will come down on different sides of the same issue. Lots of calls are 51-49." Forman also acknowledges that Jews have moved to the right over the last 30 years—though they are still second only to blacks in measures of liberalism—but, he adds, "pendulums usually swing back."
Perhaps a more alarming trend is the decline in the Jewish proportion of the American population. Not so long ago, Jews comprised 3-4 percent of the total, now they are only about 2.5 percent. Assimilation and intermarriage are religious issues that have political ramifications, but the NJDC's focus is on more partisan matters. Echoing the Democratic Party line, the NJDC attacks Republicans for being extremists. "A mainstream Republican in 1970 would not often be considered horrendously liberal. We call the center of the GOP extremists. They're controlled by the radical right—the Christian Coalition and the NRA."
Since both parties are pro-Israel (with a handful of exceptions on both sides), much of the NJDC's advocacy focus on other, largely domestic issues such as abortion, school vouchers and school prayer. "I said the Lord's prayer in school as a kid and I don't want that for my kids. The right says that Jews should understand they're second class citizens in a Christian country. I believe I can be a proud Jew and first-class democratic citizens. Muslims and Hindus should have the same right," he adds.
One example Forman cites of the extremism he fears involved a Jewish child in a county near Montgomery, Alabama, who was told he couldn't wear a Magen David and had his head slapped for lifting it during prayer. The family was told their kids would be forcibly converted if the parents didn't convert. "We live in a multicultural society today. Jews are not second-class citizens and don't want to go back to that."
Practically, Jews aren't going to have a major voice in the GOP because so few Jews affiliate with the party. Jews in the Democratic Party have the opposite problem, the possibility that they may be taken for granted. Candidates like Jimmy Carter learned the hard way that alienating Jewish voters can still hurt Democrats. Despite our small numbers, Jews make up a disproportionate percentage of the major movers and shakers in the Party. Look at the leadership of the Democratic National Committee today, which has the former President of AIPAC, Steve Grossman, as its co-chairman, a former AIPAC staffer, Fran Katz, and AIPAC board member, Len Barrack, are in charge of DNC finances. Within the Administration, many key positions are held by Jews, including National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and State Department officials Stu Eizenstat, Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk.
Despite all the influence within the Party and White House, President Clinton has adopted several positions that are unpopular with the Jewish community after being acclaimed "the most pro-Israel President" ever. One position that caused some dissension in the NJDC ranks was Clinton's refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. Embassy there, something he had promised as a candidate. One member of the NJDC board, Philip Friedman, resigned over the issue and accused the NJDC of being "nothing more than a partisan group of Democrats who also happen to be Jews."
The Jerusalem issue erupted before Forman took over, but he says now that when differences of opinion between the Jewish community and the Administration occur, the NJDC tries to exert influence privately. On the whole, though, he says "it's easy to support the current Administration."
Despite the prevalence of Jews in the Democratic Party, Forman has approached the building of the NJDC cautiously. "In 1992 and 1994, we learned the lesson that organizing takes a lot of energy. We've decided to keep a narrow focus. Right now, we have five or six states with a strong leadership and membership base."
In the upcoming elections, Forman is focusing on the House races, estimating that Democrats have about a 20 percent chance of reclaiming the majority. Democrats also have opportunities to pick up several key governorships in states like California, Ohio, Florida, Illinois and perhaps New York. He doesn't see much chance of retaking the Senate, but says "there's a big difference if we have 40 or 45 senators, because we could lose cloture." The Democrats best chance for picking up a seat in the Senate, he thinks, is in New York where popular Congressman Charles Schumer and former Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro are taking on incumbent Al D'Amato.
Forman has his hands full defending President Clinton, not only on character issues, but also on his more recent moves to pressure Israel on peace process issues. Still, that job pales in comparison to the work required to take care of his three-year-old son Ruben and one-year-old twins, Hannah and Jacob.
Though Forman can quietly, but firmly make the case for the dangers of the radical right, he does keep the threat in perspective. "Things are not like the 60's during the war and social unrest. It's not like Hitler's time when the forces of evil were threatening history. This isn't the spring of 1940. But I also believe in eternal vigilance. This is the way I do it."