Chicago lawyer Alan Solow is the putative spokesman for American Jewry, but does he have what it takes to manage the community’s increasingly complex relationship with the Obama Administration?
On March 9, a few hours after Israel’s Shas-controlled Interior Ministry announced that it intended to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, about 30 members of Chicago’s Jewish community relations council gathered for a lunchtime meeting on the sixth floor of the city’s Jewish Federation building, in the Loop. Over vegetable soup and grilled salmon, some of them discussed the smiling press appearance Vice-President Joe Biden, visiting Jerusalem, had given earlier in the day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at which the pair declared the bond between the United States and Israel to be “unbreakable.” After lunch, a lawyer named Alan Solow, a former leader of the council who was one of Obama’s most energetic campaign fundraisers, was invited to the podium to discuss his recent mission to Israel—a trip he made in his current capacity as the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the 56-year-old umbrella group that represents the interests of the organized American Jewish community to the Administration.
“The political situation inside Israel is stable,” declared Solow, who spoke comfortably in his pronounced Chicago accent for about 15 minutes, from scribbled notes. “There is a better relationship between Obama and Netanyahu—it’s improved from the early days of both the Obama and the Netanyahu Administrations. What we’re seeing is the benefit of the passage of time.” As for Biden, with whom he had met the week before in Washington, Solow added, “I’m not surprised his visit to Israel has been a positive one.”
By the time Solow got back to his office, on the 19th floor of a tower up the street from City Hall, his blue-jacketed BlackBerry was buzzing with news to the contrary, provoking a cluck of exasperation. The vice president had just released a harshly worded statement: “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,” Biden said. “The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.”
“The screw-up,” as it came to be known—in polite company, at least—threatened to undo a year’s worth of political work by Solow to bring the Obama team closer to the Israelis. Biden was the highest-ranking of the American officials who have traveled to Jerusalem this year in hopes of jump-starting the peace process; the incident virtually guaranteed that Obama would not soon follow. In the short term, it gave the Administration—not to mention the Palestinians—grounds to argue that the Israelis were being either childish, or politically unreliable, or both, in advance of the newly agreed upon “proximity talks,” a modern variant of shuttle diplomacy.
It might have remained one in a series of passing diplomatic contretemps between the Americans and the Israelis—except that, on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu to deliver a further 45-minute scolding. On Sunday, White House senior adviser David Axelrod went on ABC’s This Week and said he thought the announcement had been calculated to undermine progress toward peace talks. People who had lived through the 1991 fight with the elder President Bush over loan guarantees to Israel started making the analogy. Although both Obama and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren have since deflected talk of a “crisis,” the situation was widely seen as the thorniest interaction between the two allies in decades.
It was, as it happens, just the kind of incident the Conference specializes in addressing. The organization was established in 1954, at the request of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, whose office had been inundated with calls from various Jewish groups purporting to speak in the best interests of the fledgling Israeli state. The idea was that the Conference would act as a forum where the consensus view of American Jewish groups on issues relating to Israel could be worked out internally and then presented to the Administration; over time, it also came to act as an extra-diplomatic conduit between the American and the Israeli governments. It presently represents the spectrum of the American Jewish establishment “from A to Z”—a pun insiders like to wheel out in which “A” is the left-leaning Americans for Peace Now and “Z” is the firmly right-wing Zionist Organization of America. But its alphabet doesn’t include the new progressive lobbying group J Street—which drew ire from some Conference members by rushing to side with the Administration in issuing a stern condemnation.
The 52 members of the Conference—some of whom had been aggressively, though privately, telegraphing their displeasure to Jerusalem all week for failing to prevent the situation in the first place—quickly sprang into action, now firmly on the side of defending Israel from diplomatic overreaction by the Obama team. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee—which opens its annual conference this weekend, and whose incoming president, Lee Rosenberg, is a personal friend of Solow’s who was also deeply involved in the Obama campaign—issued a statement criticizing the Administration for airing the dispute in public and reminding the White House that Biden had, after all, just reaffirmed that there was “no space” between the two countries on security. The American Jewish Committee, which engages in foreign affairs around the world, noted acidly that “it is not beneficial to pummel Israel with language that has rarely been used in U.S. foreign policy.”
As the nominal head of American Jewry, Solow found himself in the position of being responsible, on behalf of his members, for figuring out how and when to openly criticize the decisions of a president he sincerely believes has the best interests of Israel, and of Jews, at heart—and the apparently calculated strategy of Administration members to whom he is personally very close. During the campaign, Solow went on tandem road-shows with Dennis Ross, the National Security Council adviser who handles Iran policy; he is also close to Daniel Shapiro, the NSC’s Middle East expert. George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy for peace talks, helped recruit Solow last year from the Chicago law firm where he worked for 25 years into the international powerhouse DLA Piper, where Mitchell was chairman of the board before joining the Administration.
On Tuesday, after three days of almost constant internal negotiations over what to say, Solow released a statement on behalf of the conference encouraging everyone to, essentially, get over it: “The interests of all concerned would best be served by a prompt commencement of the proximity talks that had been previously agreed to by all parties, and all parties should act in a manner that does not undercut such talks.” But the statement also criticized the Palestinian Authority for exploiting the spat and called attention to the Administration’s silence on the Fatah leadership’s decision to go ahead with the dedication of a square near Ramallah to a woman who led a 1978 bus hijacking that resulted in the deaths of 37 Israelis and an American photographer—a carefully calibrated effort to hit a sweet-spot of consensus by pointing out the responsibilities of many parties. “He banked on the fact that he could square Jeremiah Wright and AIPAC,” quipped David Twersky, the former editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. “That’s the nature of the dilemma.”
At 55, Solow is a generation younger than most of the other organization presidents he represents as Conference chair—a position that throughout its history has sometimes, and not entirely facetiously, been referred to as “King of the Jews.” Most of Solow’s putative subjects, of course, have no idea who he is, or what the Conference does. Indeed, Solow freely admits that, despite his elevation in status, he remains “this Jew no one’s ever heard of from Chicago.”
But they should, since, in many ways, it is often he who speaks for the Jews of America—though it takes a specific form. Like his former comrades who are now in the Administration, Solow has a constituency to which he is accountable: his colleagues on the Conference, who as a whole tend to be more conservative on Israel than most of the 78 percent of American Jews who supported Obama. That group includes the group’s longtime executive vice chair, Malcolm Hoenlein, with whom Solow says he’s developed a good working relationship, despite his being less conservative than Hoenlein. “The fair question is whether we are an effective team working on behalf of the major American Jewish organizations that we represent. I like to think that we are,” Solow said. Hoenlein returned the compliment: “He’s great—very unique and very articulate,” Hoenlein said. “His whole heart and his neshama [soul] are there.” The Conference rarely, if ever, takes votes or even straw polls on contentious issues; to do so would be to illuminate the fissures everyone knows are there. But the Conference can’t always look the other way; it exists in part to delineate the fault lines when ruptures do take place.
Some of his predecessors have been powerhouses in their own right: Mort Zuckerman, the billionaire publisher of U.S. News & World Report who recently floated running for New York’s Senate seat as a Republican, held the post a decade ago, as did cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. Solow is neither old enough to retire, nor rich enough to stop working, but he is ambitious and canny enough to admit that his connections with the incoming Administration gave him an edge when he was approached about the Conference position in late 2008, during the transition period after Obama’s election. “My capacity to lead was not based on my relationship with the Administration, though that relationship was no secret,” Solow said when we met in Washington late one evening earlier this month.
Solow is universally praised as a quick study and a talented leader; as a bankruptcy attorney, he is practiced at finding common ground among people who sometimes bitterly disagree. He says he didn’t angle for the Conference appointment; in fact, it was only a fluke that he was even eligible. In 2005, he made a play for the chair of board of Chicago’s Jewish federation, one of the largest and most Israel-focused in the country. He didn’t get the job, but at the same time he was offered the presidency of the JCC Association, a group that represents Jewish community centers around the country but that is not one of the powerhouse political organizations that typically supplies chairmen to the Conference. “If I’d gotten the Federation job, everything would have turned out differently,” Solow told me. “I couldn’t have worked for the Obama campaign”—it would have been considered too partisan—“and I wouldn’t have been eligible for the Conference. So, who knew, right?”
We were sitting in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental—a plush five-star hotel on the relatively out-of-the-way south side of the Mall that Solow began patronizing after paying Netanyahu a visit there in November, following the prime minister’s last terse summit with Obama at the White House. Solow, a meaty guy who wears angular gunmetal-rimmed glasses and keeps his graying curls brushed back, settled deep into a red-upholstered wing chair, wearing a pin-stripe suit with a French-cuffed shirt fastened with large silver links. He ordered a Coke and periodically leaned forward to stab at a tiny plate of olives with a knotted green bamboo toothpick as he talked over the din of a Chinese New Year celebration from the main bar area.
He was in the capital to attend a briefing with Biden in preparation for the upcoming trip to Israel, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House. He was unsure about how long the vice president would spend with the group, which was to include representatives not just from the Conference but former Florida congressman Robert Wexler, heavyweight Democratic donors like entertainment mogul Haim Saban, and personal friends like Michael Adler, a former chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “They may want to test their message on us, because they know this trip will get heavy coverage,” Solow said. In his 15 months on the job, he said, he’s perfected his grueling travel routine: fly out from Chicago after work the night before, get up, stop into the DLA Piper office to get some work done, and then head to whatever meetings are scheduled in Washington, where he goes about once a month, or New York, where he visits every other week or so. “I get back home to Chicago before I’d usually go to bed, so it’s just like a long commute,” he said, laying it out like George Clooney in Up in the Air.
Solow is only the second chair from Chicago and one of only a handful not to come from New York, where most of the national Jewish organizations are headquartered. The other Chicagoan was Philip Klutznick, a developer who, as the president of B’nai B’rith, was the founding chairman of the Conference; his son, Jim Klutznick, said his father knew Truman from his days working for the Federal Housing Administration in Washington during the Depression and was also close to Abba Eban, the Israeli ambassador, who was deeply involved in bringing the group to life. As it happens, Solow grew up in Park Forest, a development in Chicago’s southern suburbs built by Klutznick. “I learned to play basketball on their driveway,” Solow told me. “They had a very large house with a very large driveway and a garage that was not attached, unlike most of the garages in the neighborhood, so you could go play basketball and no one would know.”
But Klutznick never enjoyed the close relationship with the president that Eddie Jacobson did. Jacobson was the Jewish businessman who, after befriending Truman in basic training at Fort Sill during World War I, later enjoyed open access to the Oval Office and helped convince Truman to welcome Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, to the White House and to recognize Israel in 1948. (Indeed, it may have been the absence of a Jacobson figure in the Eisenhower Administration that necessitated the founding of the Conference in the first place.)
Solow is also no Eddie Jacobson. He first heard of Obama in the early 1990s, when the future president took over the Law Review at Harvard Law School, Solow’s alma mater. “He was the first person of color to edit the Law Review, and that was a big story for everyone who went there,” Solow explained. “So, I knew when he moved back to Chicago.” But Solow’s wife, Andrea, was the first of the two to meet the Obama family. She worked in the admissions office of the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s older brother, sent his children. By the time the Obamas turned up with Malia and Sasha, “they were really just Craig’s sister and brother-in-law, not the state senator,” Solow explained. (Andrea Solow declined to be interviewed for this article.)
As a young lawyer, Solow decided to get involved in Chicago’s Jewish affairs—in part, he said, to satisfy his wife, an ardent Zionist who had planned on making aliyah until she met him. “But I was always a joiner,” he admits. One of his earliest mentors, he said, was Lee Rosenberg’s father, Lester, a pillar of the city’s Federation community. Solow, who served on the Jewish Council on Youth Services and in the city’s JCC, eventually worked his way back into politics via the Government Affairs committee at Federation—but the real link was through his older son, David, a political junkie who interned, as a college student, for the first campaign of Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. In 2001, David Solow went to work for Lisa Madigan, the scion of a promient Illinois political family who was running for state attorney general; her seatmate in the Illinois state senate was Barack Obama. “My son came to me and said, ‘Dad, Barack Obama is thinking of running for the U.S. Senate, and I know he’s not registering in the polls, but you should go sit down with him,’ ” Solow recalled.
In early 2003, they met for an hourlong discussion about domestic and foreign policy, particularly about Israel, which was in the midst of the Second Intifada, or, as Solow refers to it, using the term popular in the Israeli press, the matzav, Hebrew for situation; Solow said he asked Obama to consider what it would be like to wonder whether his own girls would make it back home from school safely each day. “I said, ‘Parents in Israel don’t have that kind of luxury, and if this is what it takes to make parents in Israel feel safe, so be it,’ and he got that,” Solow recalled. Solow said he didn’t have a messianic moment with Obama, the way others describe meeting him and knowing he would one day be the nation’s first black president; he just liked the guy and thought he was serious about running a real campaign. “I’m a person who is center-left, and so was he,” Solow said. They were on opposite sides of the Iraq war—Solow supported the American invasion—but he liked the fact that Obama could sit and have a reasonable discussion. “I said, ‘You’ve thought this through, and that’s important,’ ” Solow explained. “ ‘I can support you, because of the fact that we could not see eye-to-eye on some things and still have a dialogue on other subjects.’ ”
During the campaigns, Solow began writing memos to Obama explaining why he felt so strongly about Israel and Zionism. “I believe that without a strong Israel, the Diaspora will fade away,” explained Solow, who grew up in a Reform household (“but a serious one,” he added). His father, he said, stopped at services on his way home from his Dodge dealership every Friday. As an adult, Solow joined a Conservative synagogue but is now a member of an independent, traditional-egalitarian synagogue in Highland Park called Aitz Hayim, which he joined in 2001 after meeting members through a Wexner Foundation heritage seminar—a program devoted to preparing participants for participation in public life. The synagogue, he said, offered the sense of joy and community he experienced in Israel but felt was too often missing in America.
It was through his work on Obama’s campaigns—first the 2005 Senate campaign and then the presidential run—that Solow first intersected with members of Chicago’s powerful Jewish Democratic circles, many of whom, like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, are not actively involved in the relatively insular politics of the city’s Jewish Federation. Penny Pritzker, who chaired Obama’s finance committee, recalled in an e-mail message that she first met Solow in 2006, at the beginning of the presidential campaign. “He attended every meeting and event,” Pritzker, who chairs TransUnion, the credit rating company, wrote.
Solow first traveled with Obama in Israel on a visit the then-senator made in January 2006, after a congressional trip to Iraq, but he really lights up talking about his time campaigning domestically, remembering every time the candidate cast his special light on him, whether at the Super Tuesday returns party or on Election Night. “We were in Grant Park, and there were these three tents, one for family, one for donors, and one for campaign staff,” recalled Solow, who stayed, at his son’s encouragement, until well after the victory speech was over. “Well, finally Obama comes back, and he’s dog tired, but there’s a rope line, and I’m a few people back, and I’m thinking, ‘He’s not going to see me.’ I’m five-nine, not the tallest guy. But I raised my hand”—Solow lifted his hands in a thumbs-up—“and he saw me, and shouted, ‘Hey, Alan, how am I doing tonight?’ I thought, ‘This is great—this is the president of the United States talking to me!’ ”
Solow has an enormous amount of respect for offices. When Obama finally got to the White House—where Solow has only visited him privately a handful of times, including before the president’s July meeting with Jewish community leaders—the effect was the same. “I’m sitting in the Oval Office, and there’s the picture Dolly Madison saved from the War of 1812, and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m talking to the president of the United States, but, well, there’s Reggie Love, and I can’t believe he’s the guy who says the president’s ready to see me,’ ” Solow recounted. The same is true when he speaks of Israeli officials; when he traveled to Israel during the Gaza war, shortly before assuming his role as Conference chair, he said he went back to his hotel room every night and sent his wife e-mails saying, “Hey, you’re not going to believe this, but we just went to the Defense Ministry and Ehud Barak gave us an hour, during a war!” “It’s just an out-of-body experience,” Solow said. “I’m thinking, how am I going to convey this to my wife and kids? Did this just happen to me?”
In Washington and in Jerusalem, Solow is widely seen as one of Obama’s confidantes. Jan Schakowsky, the Illinois congresswoman, described the relationship in glowing terms, telling me, “It’s not just a professional relationship, it’s a personal relationship”—though she acknowledged that Solow is not part of the tight group of friends who visit the Obamas on weekends. Solow, who is personally close with members of Obama’s inner circle, particularly Dennis Ross and Daniel Shapiro, is careful not to overplay his closeness to the president. “Obama has a wide circle of acquaintances, and not a wide circle of friends,” Solow said. “So, there’s the inner circle—the Nesbitts, the Whitakers, Valerie Jarrett—and then there’s the outer circle. How close is my relationship? When I wanted to speak to him during the campaign, I could. But I didn’t want to abuse it. I didn’t want to waste his time.”
Nonetheless, when he was approached about the Conference job in November 2008, the first thing Solow did was e-mail the president-elect. “I don’t have his e-mail now, but I had it then,” Solow noted. He had been encouraged by several people to apply for Administration posts but hadn’t been urged to hope for anything specific. The Conference post—which typically lasts for two consecutive one-year terms—was the perfect way to marry his political work with his Jewish involvement. Plus, he added, “I’m a competitive person, and it’s a little like the Academy Awards. You want to say it’s an honor just to be nominated, but you know, they ask you for a résumé and the supporting material, and by the time they interviewed me, I really wanted it.”
He wrote Obama that he was being considered for the job, which would require him to be a spokesman for the American Jewish community to the Administration—a reversal of his role in the campaign as a spokesman for candidate Obama to the Jewish electorate. “So, I said, ‘If you’re uncomfortable with that, I won’t take the job,’ ” Solow explained. “The Conference needs access to the White House, and I didn’t want the Conference to lose access because of a circumstance when I’d been critical of the White House, because they expected some kind of loyalty.” And, he added, the reverse was also true. “The other part of it is that I wanted the president, and the other members of the Administration, to understand that my loyalty would be to the Conference,” Solow said. “I didn’t want them to think they’d get a pass from the Conference.”
Ten days went by, and then Solow’s son David called to say he’d seen Obama at a thank-you event for campaign workers, and the president-elect had told him to relay a simple message to his father: Go for it. A week or two later, Obama himself called to give his blessing. “I’m sitting in my office, and my BlackBerry starts buzzing, and it took me a minute to realize it was a phone call and not e-mail, and I missed this call,” Solow said. “So, I had this voicemail—‘Hi, Alan! It’s Barack!’ And of course I played it for everyone in the office.”
At the Mandarin, Solow stayed up until after 1 a.m. talking; he doesn’t sleep much, he said. The next morning, I got an e-mail from him at 6:45 elaborating on some of the points he’d made the night before. “So much for sleep!” he added. That afternoon, after stopping into his law office, he went over to the Eisenhower building, where Biden spent an hour listening to the 20 invitees present their top priorities for his trip.
Solow did not speak to Biden while the vice president was in Israel, or after he returned. In Chicago, before the “screw-up” had metastasized into a genuine incident, he told me he had not been in touch with either Ross or Shapiro; he acknowledged that he reaches out to them more than they reach out to him. He would not specify who in the Administration he’d spoken with in the days since but said he has not talked to either the president, who has publicly kept aloof from the diplomatic dust-up, or to George Mitchell, who on Tuesday decided to postpone his next trip to the Middle East. “Look, my impression, having known Barack Obama for a long time, is that is that he solicits opinions from a lot of people. He likes to hear ideas, and I think he’s pretty good at sorting them out,” Solow told me after that March 9 luncheon in his Chicago office, where he sat facing me in an armchair beneath a Leroy Neiman portrait of Lincoln. “And I personally don’t lose sleep over the fact that his Administration solicits opinion from lots of different sources, and I do not worry about whether the door is open to the Conference. I know that when I have something important to communicate on behalf of the Conference that I will be able to communicate it to the appropriate person and that it will be taken seriously. I have absolute 100 percent confidence in that.”
Behind his desk, Solow keeps a 6-inch-tall action figure of Obama standing next to a wooden tzedaka box. “An action figure we can believe in,” Solow explains, quoting the marketing line on the doll’s packaging. He says the current crisis has actually not been the most uncomfortable of his tenure. That distinction goes to his decision, in December, to publicly castigate Hannah Rosenthal, Obama’s special envoy on anti-Semitism and a personal friend of both Solow and his wife, who supported the Chicago Foundation for Women, the organization Rosenthal headed before joining the Administration. On a trip to Israel, Rosenthal—a former executive director of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, which is in the Conference—made comments to the Israeli press critical of Michael Oren for his own comments about J Street. “As an official of the United States government, it is inappropriate for the anti-Semitism envoy to be expressing her personal views on the positions Ambassador Oren has taken as well as on the subject of who needs to be heard from in the Jewish community,” Solow said in a statement.
In his Chicago office, Solow told me that these kinds of difficult moments came with the job. “I wasn’t going to shy away from it because she was my friend,” Solow said. “So, that gave me a little heartburn—that was unpleasant.” But, he argued, his criticism was motivated by a desire to help the Administration. “I did not think her taking a position on that issue was helpful to her being successful,” he said. “I thought it was bad for her, and for the Jewish community, and for the Administration.”
That was a case where Solow was clearly speaking on his own behalf, and the situation did not require, as the aftermath of the housing announcement did, navigating the tangle of egos and agendas required to reach consensus within the Conference. When I asked, Solow refused to articulate what he, personally, thinks of how both the American and the Israeli governments have handled themselves. “I won’t tell you,” he said on the phone from Chicago earlier this week, just after the Conference statement was released. “It’s not useful for me to be evaluative of the Administration because the result is either that I would get defensive or that it would influence the positions I take at the Conference,” he went on. “And either of those is not useful.” When it came to the president, Solow said, his primary value to the Conference was less as a go-between than as a translator. “The way that I hear the president is the product of my experience with him—I am more of a student of how this president communicates than lots of other people,” Solow said. “What you don’t want is to have an argument that’s driven by a misunderstanding.”
In other words, this King of the Jews is simply doing what he knows best: being a negotiator. “Look, I’m a lawyer,” he said. “My job in life is to represent the positions of people other than myself and to be as persuasive and effective as I can at doing that.”
Last Friday—not long before the start of Shabbat, when Conference business typically winds down—news broke of Clinton’s angry phone call with Netanyahu. Solow found himself under pressure from the more conservative members of the Conference to look for a consensus in favor of getting the Administration to lay off. According to people who were on this week’s calls, some members pushed hard for a statement that would not only chide the Obama Administration for blowing the diplomatic snub out of proportion, but for choosing to come down so hard on the Netanyahu government on the issue of where Jews could and could not build in Jerusalem.
Solow told me he walked into the job knowing there would be flashpoints of disagreement and hasn’t been surprised he can’t predict them. “Look, I just thought they would be inevitable, because there are always some,” he told me. “It’s been no great surprise to me because I didn’t have any set of expectations except that I just knew that there would be moments there would be different points of view.” What isn’t clear is what happens if the differences of opinion on how to respond to these little tremors continues or if the tremors become an earthquake.
“I think our statement has been received,” Solow said, with characteristic lawyerly caution this week. “Whether it’s accepted will only be told over time.”