Though many Jews bemoan our small numbers, to Ira Forman, size doesn’t really matter. It’s what you do with the numbers that counts.
Forman announced this week that after nearly 15 years, he is stepping down as the president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a large Washington-based lobbying group that touts itself as “the national voice of Jewish Democrats.” David A. Harris, who previously served with Forman in a co-executive leadership team, will succeed him.
For much of Forman’s time at NJDC, he’s worked with big numbers — before the 2004 presidential election, the group targeted 250,000 Jewish homes through direct mailings — but he maintains that Jews’ small numbers work in our favor.
“If your focus is narrow, you can have a disproportionate influence on an issue,” Forman told The Chronicle. “If you’re focused on an issue that every group is concerned with, like campaign finance, your influence can be limited. But focusing on an issue with not many players involved, your influence will be outsized.”
That’s why, Forman said, Jews’ voices are especially heard on the Hill about issues like Israel: small in number, but strong in specificity.
“American Jews are less than two percent of the population, but if you look at the elite agencies in American government — treasuries, state departments, defense, justice — the top civil servants tend to be disproportionately Jewish,” said Forman. “It’s hard to find a pollster who’s not Jewish. Consciously or not, Jews have a large impact on American politics.”
The role of the NJDC, then, is to mobilize and structure that impact. Before working with the group, Forman already had years of experience in doing just that.
Forman, who grew up in Cleveland, became involved politically when he was 16, helping on assorted campaigns. By 1976, he was running a congressional race, through which he became involved with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. He then returned to Ohio to work for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign before working fulltime for AIPAC. By the time he took on NJDC in 1996, Forman was a seasoned political figure.
Being a Jew and working with the Democratic Party is a good fit, said Forman, even if each election cycle, it seems, people decry that more and more Jews are switching to vote Republican. Not so, said Forman.
“There are people on the other side of the aisle who constantly talk about that, but the percentage [of Jews voting Republican] has gone down dramatically,” said Forman. “I attribute it to this: Jews being Democratic is a dog bite man story. Jews becoming Republicans is a man bite dog story. Man biting dog stories always get more press. But the fact is, it’s just not happening.”
Forman noted that, “the continued migration of the Republican party to the right alienates Jewish voters on a whole range of issues.”
After 15 years with the NJDC, Forman is proud of what he’s helped accomplish.
“Because of the strong attachment of the Jewish community, we have the possibility of real progressive change in this country. [We’ve helped] in health care. We’ll play a role in climate change legislation, as well as the confirmation of progressive judges, like [Elena] Kagan,” said Forman.
Though no longer in a leadership role, Forman will continue work with the NJDC, as well as its sister organization The Solomon Project, which created the book “Jews in American Politics.”
“[The book] is a great reference source, but it needs to be updated,” said Forman. “A lot has happened in the last decade.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)