When the American Jewish Congress convened a conference on women's empowerment in Tel Aviv recently, it brought together some unlikely participants. Instead of the usual suspects of prominent females in the Jewish philanthropy or organizational world, the AJC gathered an array of women - not all of them even Jewish - who have made their mark across the Atlantic.
Ann Lewis, the event's "dialogue chair," has spent much of her professional career as the "woman behind the woman."
She now serves as the communications director for Hillary Clinton's re-election campaign. Clinton looks set to sail to second term in the Capitol, and is widely regarded as a contender in the 2008 race for the White House.
She worked to get her elected as New York's senator in 2000 and helped her husband, Bill, with his 1996 presidential win. She was the Clinton administration's director of communications and then adviser between 1997 and 2000.
While her leadership credentials lie in her work in the public sector, her private life - in this case, her Jewish heritage - played a big role in shaping her social consciousness. And for Lewis, the sister of Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, that shaping started early on, in their childhood home.
"I was raised with the name Ann Frank. If you're a little Jewish girl named Ann Frank, it is not hard to figure out that who governs is of immense importance to you - it can be a matter of life and death," relates Lewis, now grey-haired and spectacled. Lewis, who spent most of her life moving along the Boston-to-DC axis, has the air of a Southern lady: polite, well-presented, well-spoken and sharp. They don't call them steel magnolias for nothing.
"While so many people seem to be so casual about the decisions their government makes, I understood, and was fortunate to have parents who reinforced this teaching, that we have this great good fortune to live in a country where we could help decide, where we could choose the people who made the rules," she explains. "I never found anybody who could do that better than I could, so I figured if I had the chance to do it, I was darn right going to do all I could."
How has being a woman informed your choices and affected your career?
That's hard to know. As Pat Schroeder said, "I never tried it any other way."
I had the great good fortune of being active in politics at the time that the women's movement began. I met some of my still best and closest friends, because we were trying to bring the principles of the women's movement to politics: the idea of bringing equality to the political system and figuring out, especially for those of us who had been active in progressive politics, that everything we were talking about should matter for women, too. If we're serious about using politics to achieve political power, we can make a real difference for other women. So it's been very important to me, both as a source of personal energy and as a network of really good friends.
Have you ever felt that, working in positions in the corridors of power, you have to adopt male leadership style?
No, I haven't. If you assume that there's a woman's style that is more of a network - that is a less hierarchical structure - then it can be very powerful, and you can wind up having more allies.
Looking at shaping messages and influencing the public, do you see the women's perspective taking on a special role?
The nice thing about politicians is that sooner or later they do understand the bottom line. And the bottom line is that our electorate is 54 percent female, 46% male. That means several million more women than men will vote in the next election. Sixty percent of undecided votes, 55%, 58% of swing voters will be women. So I have a few numbers that I can use when the time comes to help me make my case.
Does being a female candidate make for a different kind of campaign?
Yes, in [that] you tend to have a network of women supporters to build on. We try to use different means to communicate. For example, I'm big on women's magazines. Any campaign I'm working on, I love to get into women's magazines, because a whole lot of the voters you most want to reach read them. It is easier [to get into them] if you've got a woman as the leading figure and you can tell her story. On the other hand, there are some drawbacks, because you're not going to be part of any existing old boys' network. You've got to create your own.
Can a woman get elected president of the United States?
When Germany, Liberia and Chile elected women in the last year, I do not really believe that voters in the United States or in Israel could be so much more prejudiced or gender-stereotyped in their thinking, that they could lag behind those other countries.
How do you think the issue of being a strong female personality has affected public perceptions and treatment of Hillary Clinton?
Like most things, there are two sides to a coin. It is clear that some of the negative feelings toward Hillary - and some of them are irrational - have to do with her being a woman. I say it's like with Eleanor Roosevelt. People who were unhappy with FDR got furious at Eleanor. It's almost safer to get mad at the wife of the president than the president. She and president Clinton represented such change agents in the White House. Here she was, the first First Lady who not only had opinions, but actually expressed them. Everyone knew that Nancy Reagen had opinions; we learned about them later. In Hillary's case, she was going to talk about what she thought and what she believed in as she went along. And that discomforted some people and really contributed to a negative outburst. It is, however, more than overbalanced by the positive response she gets from women, especially young ones.
Jews usually vote overwhelming for Democrats, as in 2000 when they backed Al Gore over George W. Bush 79% to 19%. But that same year they chose Clinton by only 55% to 45% over Rick Lazio. How do you explain the less than overwhelming turnout she got in her first Senate race?
I think there were some concerns about her. People didn't know her in 2000 and they know her now. And once they know her, the support is strong.
Hillary got into trouble with Jewish groups following a controversial visit here as First Lady in 1999, when she stood by silently as Suha Arafat declared that Israel was poisoning Palestinian water sources - a silence later partly attributed to the lack of a proper translation. She continues to receive scattered criticism from the Jewish community over this incident. How do you see it playing out now?
As a senator from New York, She represents a large Jewish community. She's been supportive of the community and they've been supportive of her ... She has worked hard on a number of issues that are of direct concern to Israel. I know how much she is in demand as a speaker at a variety of events in the [Jewish] community. I know the kind of warm response she gets when she goes out there and speaks.
How do you see her stance on security-related issues affecting her appeal in general, and to Jews specifically?
Ever since 9/11, American voters had a searing experience of being vulnerable and being attacked. It's a kind of experience that Israelis have had to live with for years. It has certainly raised the salience of the issues of security. And I think anybody running for office has got to be able to answer that question to voters and say convincingly and credibly, "I understand that our first responsibility is to keep your family safe."
That's what government's supposed to do. That is a change for Americans. It's not going away.
What went wrong for the Democrats in 2004?
In 2004, the issue of security was strong. I think George Bush and his campaign did a much better job of saying to the American people, "We will keep you strong. We will keep you safe."
And they successfully portrayed Democrats as being less able to do that. As the wise political philosopher said: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
I don't think Democrats will be fooled again in 2008.
So will security remain the determinative issue in 2008?
There is a threshold now on security that any party or candidate wanting to win a national election is going to have to pass. People are right to say, "I want to make sure you keep my kids safe."
That's a reasonable, bottom-line request. That ought to be government's first responsibility, and we have to show that we understand and are prepared to meet it.
What about the voters on the Left who have been alienated by Hillary's support for the Iraq War and general shift to the Right?
As we get into the campaign, people will have a chance to talk to Hillary about her fundamental values and the work she's done. She's the same person she's always been, whether it's supporting a bill to raise the minimum wage every time congress gives itself a pay raise - which is one of my personal favorites - or insisting that when our troops are sent to battle, they ought to have the body armor they deserve and the training and intelligence they're entitled to, and that we ought not to be sending people into battle without planning both what they're to do when they get there and what they're going to do when it's time to get them out. She'll be talking about all these issues. People will find that she hasn't changed. She is who she is. She takes those values and those principles very seriously, and it's something I think the majority of New Yorkers agree with.
So you're not concerned that there's been some alienation along the Left and that could cost her votes, especially looking ahead beyond the Senate race?
My brother, Barney, once said that he thought the only time he had voted for a perfect candidate was for himself, the first time he ran. Because by the time he ran for re-election, there were already some votes that people could argue with. But then, he looked around carefully and concluded that he was still the best candidate in the race. Once people start holding office, they make difficult decisions. Difficult decisions are not going to be greeted with unanimity. You do what you what you think is best, what you think is right, and be prepared to explain to people why you did what you did.
What are her thoughts on how best to deal with Iran?
In a speech she gave at Princeton, she spoke strongly about the danger of Iran ever becoming a nuclear power, and said that we must declare it unacceptable. She is also very critical of the administration's - let say inconsistent - approach towards Iran. She feels we have to stop outsourcing our policy. To keep hoping that other countries will do it - don't be disappointed if you don't get what you'd like ... If we're that serious - and we are - then we should get directly involved in it.
What do you make of the whisperings of a Jewish, neoconservative cabal determining US foreign policy?
I find anti-Semitism disgusting and conspiracy theories infantile. And the idea that people who do not get their way on policy start blaming it on organized subgroups who hold power, unfortunately, has been constant throughout our history, when different groups have been blamed. If people disagree with policy decisions that are made, they ought to get in there and make the case. In a democratic society we have the right, every one of us, all the time, to make the case, elect other people, and change the policy. You want to change the policy? Change the policymaker. But calling names and singling out groups is normally not a constructive use of your power in a democratic process. It is an insidious attack, I think, on the nature of our society.
Critics on the far Left and far Right share the view that the US is endangered by its support of Israel. What do you make of that?
You just proved your point, there; if people go too far on either end they meet somewhere. America is strongest when we stand up for principles, when we stand by our allies, and we set an example for the world that we can be counted on and relied on. If you walk away from your allies, why would anyone else ever want to be your ally? If you show that you can't be depended on, don't be surprised that the next time you try to form an alliance, nobody wants to be your friend. America's strength is in [the world] thinking we're a good friend to have, not in thinking we're a fair-weather friend who dances away if things get tough. We can talk about a lot of the valuable information, intelligence and technology that Israel has provided to America and how we have benefitted from this exchange. But I happen to think it's a far more important point to demonstrate the value, the solidity, the consistency of your policy.
How has being Jewish affected how people in politics or in the public perceive you?
They'll have to worry about that. [She laughs.] Often when I'm asked to talk about my principles and my values, I go back to two philosophies. One is the commitment to tikkun olam [making the world a better place]. A second is that wonderful line from Ethics of the Fathers, in which you are not required to complete the task, but neither can you abstain from it. That just seemed to be absolutely right: You may not be able to get everything done. You may not be able to get everything done perfectly. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. I personally have been eager to find Ethics of the Mothers, but I just haven't seen it yet. As I soon as I do, I will quote them.