As the recipient of the American Jewish Congress Stephen S. Wise Award at a festive dinner last week at Cipriani, Hillary Clinton clearly was the star attraction. The former first lady and secretary of state received a standing ovation March 19 from the 400 guests before and after her talk, which defended and explained President Obama’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian and Iran talks. She played a critical role on both issues as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
But the real triumph of the evening was for Jack Rosen, president of the reconstituted AJCongress, who proved that he could attract an honoree who is one of the world’s most respected leaders, and a crowd of prominent business and political leaders to an event sponsored by an organization that has virtually no staff, a vague agenda and consists solely of the 19 people who make up its board. It is headed by Rosen and includes business associates, friends and his sons, Daniel and Jordan.
Few, if any, in the audience knew or cared that the AJCongress, founded in 1918 and led by the likes of Rabbi Stephen Wise, Felix Frankfurter and Louis Brandeis, is no longer a membership organization and is essentially a shell of its former self.
After losing virtually all of its money as a result of the Madoff scandal in 2008, the AJCongress all but disappeared from the scene, suspending its activities and laying off staff in 2010. Rosen revived it last year, changing the constitution so as to guarantee its control by him and his handpicked board.
While references were made from the podium Wednesday night about the proud history of the Congress in combatting anti-Semitism and promoting civil rights, there was no talk of specific programs on its current agenda.
Critics, including former staff and board members, say that as president, Rosen — a major donor to both political parties and businessman specializing in real estate — operates the Congress primarily as his calling card, giving him cachet with international political and business leaders.
He denies the charge, and noted in his remarks at the gala dinner, after being introduced by the emcee as “the great and powerful Jack Rosen,” that “we’ve had detractors, and one or two are here today.” He smiled as he quoted Winston Churchill’s remark that “nothing is as exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
The message, if appreciated only by this critic, was clear. Several stories over the last several years in The Jewish Week about Rosen’s bold takeover of a legendary national Jewish organization mattered not a whit to the dinner attendees, few of whom were regulars on the Jewish organizational circuit. There were numbers of guests from the Asian, Persian and Russian communities, reflecting Rosen’s wide range of business and political associates and friends.
The dinner chair was Nazee Moinian, prominent in the Persian Jewish community in New York, and honorary dinner chair was Leonard Blavatnik, the Ukrainian-born international businessman.
The most important friend in the room Wednesday night, clearly, was Clinton, and in her remarks, she answered the unasked question as to why she would lend her prestige to the current AJCongress.
She spoke warmly of Rosen as a longtime friend of hers and her husband “going back to Arkansas” and whose “leadership is known all over the world.” She praised Rosen’s “leadership, passion and advocacy,” adding that “it’s fair to say that you cannot say ‘no’ to him.”
In her talk, she reiterated the “rock solid” relationship between the U.S. and Israel, based on “personal ties” and shared values. She said this was a “crucial” and “pivotal” time, given the upcoming deadlines for separate talks on the Mideast peace process and Iran’s nuclear program. “The status quo is unsustainable” on both fronts, she said, adding that while she is “personally skeptical” about progress with Iran, “I want to keep testing, keep pushing” on the diplomatic front before concluding that effort.
She praised her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, as a “forceful advocate” and asserted, “America will always have Israel’s back.”
Several speakers alluded to the possibility of Clinton running for president in the next election. Actress Julianna Margulies (“E.R.” and “The Good Wife” on television), in introducing Clinton, noted that the AJCongress award was for “lifetime achievement, but we all know there’s a lot more to come.”