Jack Rosen still believes that President Barack Obama will be reelected. He says the “American people are smart, and they will make the right choice.” He maintains that Mitt Romney simply “hasn’t caught on.” And he thinks Jews will vote overwhelmingly for Obama once again, because, among other reasons “they are Americans, first and foremost, and they don’t share the same vision of America as the Tea Party ‘meshuganes’ who are aligned with the Republican Party.”
In recent months, Rosen has seen quite a lot of Obama. He’s met him in Washington several times. He spoke to the President at the UN General Assembly last month, when Obama gave his speech. He chatted with him at the Democratic National Convention earlier in September, when CNN cameras filmed him listening to the President’s speech while sitting in the special box reserved for his friend, Vice President Joe Biden. He has participated in a few fund-raisers for the President and has been described in the press as one of Obama’s “bundlers.” Last November, he hosted Obama at a meeting with Jewish figures held at his opulent home between Madison and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Rosen, whose business is real estate, is arguably one of the most influential Jews in America that most of you haven’t heard about. And the private fund-raiser for Obama last year might be described as the start of a beautiful friendship.
“He’s not your typical politician,” Rosen says of Obama. “He’s not that warm, hugs-and-kisses kind of guy. But as an individual, he’s wonderful. When he came to my house, he played and talked with my grandchildren for over 20 minutes. These were beautiful moments for the family. And when I came to the White House a few months later, he remembered to tell Michelle: ‘Jack’s grandson wants to be president of the United States.”
Rosen praises Obama’s general support for Israel, but at the meeting at his home he also criticized some of the president’s policies and expressed concern about his relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He called on Obama to “reset” his relations with Netanyahu, as he once said he would do with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “He admitted that he and Bibi had differences of opinion on things, but then he added: ‘I have differences of opinion with my wife, so, you know, what’s wrong with that?’”
But the importance of that meeting with over 20 Jewish leaders wasn’t in its content, but rather in its timing, and the very fact that it took place at all. It came against the backdrop of growing Jewish resentment against Obama, and a concern in the White House that his Jewish support, both electoral and financial, might drop precipitously. The meeting at Rosen’s house broke that ice, as it were, at a critical juncture, and legitimized Obama’s fund-raising effort among Jews in the months to come.
It was the kind of gesture that politicians, even if they are leaders of the world’s number one superpower, never forget.
Friend of presidents
Obama isn’t the first U.S. president Rosen has been friendly with. He was close to his predecessor, George W. Bush, as well. Rosen appreciated Bush’s friendship toward Israel and contributed a reported $100,000 to his 2004 campaign. An article in the Forward newspaper of that year describes an intimate dinner between the two men at a “private residence” in Georgetown, during which they discussed Iran, Israel and baseball. Bush, it reported, had a special nickname for Rosen: he called him “Rosey.”
But Bush and Obama combined are almost total strangers compared to Rosen’s close ties with Bill Clinton, and subsequently with his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When the young Arkansas Governor told Rosen, in his Little Rock office over two decades ago, that he planned to run for president, Rosen found it hard to conceal his skepticism. “I remember asking him: ‘You know, you’ve got a lot of tough people to beat out there. How are you going to do that? After all you’re governor of Arkansas, and you don’t get a lot of branding in America being the governor of Arkansas.’
“He answered − and I didn’t really get it at the time − ‘Look, Jack, I’m the only one of those looking to run in the Democratic Party who can beat a Republican, because I grew up in redneck politics.’” Rosen wasn’t convinced, but he nonetheless allowed Clinton to use his private King Air turbojet “at a time when he couldn’t afford a taxi ride, let alone an airplane. Not because I ever thought he would win necessarily, but because he was a friend, and I just always thought that you take care of friends.”
This was the same airplane in which Rosen had frequently hosted the late Senator Edward Kennedy, and had placed at Kennedy’s disposal for political purposes but also so he could get away from the press and the paparazzi, as he did following his 1992 marriage to his second wife, Vicki.
“He asked for a certain kind of wine,” Rosen recalls, “and the pilot called me up from the wine store, worried, saying he couldn’t find a bottle of it that was over $12. I said that was ridiculous and asked to talk to the wine store owner, who confirmed. So that’s how I found out that the famous Kennedy likes cheap wine.”
Rosen’s private plane was a rare commodity back then, before they became such a hot item among the nation’s rich and famous, and before political campaigns were awash in enough money to hire a whole fleet. By being generous with his King Air, Rosen not only earned the gratitude of politicians, but often spent many intimate hours with them in the aircraft’s small passenger cabin. He and his wife Phyllis became family friends of the Kennedys. Kennedy attended the Rosens’ son’s Bar Mitzvah at New York’s Park East Synagogue, and Rosen and his wife were often invited to parties and get-togethers at the Kennedys’ home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, where Rosen would mingle with other leading Democratic and political powerbrokers. He became a man with connections, money, interesting stories and a private plane, and in due course Clinton reached out to him.
“He was a smart and capable guy, for sure,” Rosen says, “but no one thought he could beat George Bush Sr. after the first Iraq war. It was difficult to even get people to meet him.” So Rosen did for Clinton “little things,” as he describes them, including fund-raising events that he hosted at his home and flying people out in his plane to Little Rock, to meet with the ambitious governor.
Dinner with Castro
After Clinton was elected, Rosen recalls that he “called a good Republican friend, Tom Donohue, who now heads the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce. I said ‘I know the next president coming in pretty well.’ His response was: ‘I don’t know what that means. One thing I can assure you − he’s not going to answer your calls like he used to. I suggest you get a job down in Washington.’”
But Rosen didn’t want to give up his day job as a real estate mogul in Manhattan, though he did agree to become chairman of the Finance Council of the Democratic National Committee, a position he held until 1997, when he was appointed president of the then ailing American Jewish Congress. Among other things, the Congress provided Rosen with a new platform for pursuing his interest in nurturing ties with foreign countries and their leaders. One of his new friends was Cuban leader Fidel Castro. On one of his trips, he wanted to bring matzot and kosher wine to the Jewish community for Passover, but was told that he would need Castro’s approval. “So when I met him I brought it up, and I remember walking down a hallway with him when he turned to me and asked: ‘What is kosher wine, anyway?’ So I told him I’d send him some to taste. When my plane came back from Miami, it brought the provisions for the community as well as a case of kosher wine which I sent him.”
At Hanukkah in 1998, Rosen also persuaded Castro to hold his first-ever visit to the Jewish community − but his role was far from limited to matzot and Hanukkah candles. In February 1996, Rosen had found himself in the middle of a serious international incident after Cuban MiG fighters shot down two private planes belonging to the anti-Castro organization Brothers to the Rescue, killing four Cuban-Americans. Public opinion in the U.S. was outraged. The next day, Rosen received a phone call from then Cuban Ambassador to the UN, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, now the country’s foreign minister, who asked for an urgent private meeting at Rosen’s New York home.
Speaking through an interpreter, even though he knew perfect English, Rodríguez Parrilla asked Rosen to convey a private message from Castro to Clinton saying, “I did not give the order to shoot the planes down.” Clinton writes about the message in his book, describing Rosen only as “a private citizen.”
What was your impression of Castro?
“Castro needed to keep his propaganda going. So he wasn’t going to tell me anything different. But you got the sense that there was another side to a lot of the stories, as we knew them. He certainly was not as anti-American as his public statements over the years. You got the impression that he was pushed into making decisions to solidify his position and make his communist system work. And America wasn’t going to give him the support he wanted. It’s hard to be a dictator 100 miles from America.”
This leads Rosen to recount a similar point made by another one of his friends, former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, now President Putin’s Chief of Staff. “I once asked him why the Russians sell weapons to the Syrians, and his response was: ‘If America would let us sell weapons to others in the region, maybe we wouldn’t have to sell them to Syria. So you leave us with the bad guys.’ Castro also gave the impression that he was pushed into a relationship outside of America, and the Russian thing just evolved.”
Rosen and Castro would have long, six-hour-long meals in Havana, often feasting on Castro’s favorite dish, lobster, which Castro cooked himself and for which he had a special recipe that was, Rosen says, “pretty good.” Castro once offered Rosen Cuban lobsters to take home, and even though Rosen reminded him that he could not legally bring them back to the United States, when he returned to the airport, his pilot informed him that boxes of lobsters had been loaded on the plane. Rosen decided that he could not return them, for fear of insulting Castro. When the customs agent in Miami approached him about it, he said he was president of the American Jewish Congress and had returned from bringing medicine to the Cuban Jewish community. “And then he turns to me − true story − breaks out in a smile and says, ‘Well, I am a born-again Christian and I love Jews,’ and he let me go.”
Nonetheless, the lobster story did not end well. When Rosen got home, his wife informed him she would not eat Castro’s lobsters. “I don’t know why they were given and where they came from,” she said. So, Rosen threw out the lobsters, “after all this struggle.”
Rosen’s connections are by no means limited to the Western Hemisphere. He is a close friend, for example, of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whom he convinced to give a first-ever address to a Jewish organization in a speech before the American Jewish Congress in New York, in 2005. Israeli Foreign Ministry sources say that Rosen was the instigator and go-between for a series of clandestine meetings held that same year in Turkey, between then Foreign Ministry director general Ron Prosor, now Ambassador to the UN, and his Pakistani counterpart, which in turn led to a truly historic public meeting in Istanbul between the two countries’ foreign ministers.
Rosen also has ties with senior officials in Malaysia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. He has visited North Korea twice, conveying messages to and from Pyongyang to both Washington and Jerusalem, including a North Korean request for agricultural training in Israel − which came to naught. He is in close contact with several African leaders, including the President of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, whom he helped persuade to support sanctions on Iran at a time when Gabon had a seat on the UN Security Council. Rosen promised Bongo Ondimba that Hillary Clinton would speak to him personally, which, of course, she did.
He is also friends with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and was the only Jew at the sheikh’s son’s wedding, which, Rosen says, “was just like Jewish weddings: too many people, too much food.”
In addition to the private plane, his generous campaign contributions and his expanding business interests, one of Rosen’s most effective means of cultivating ties is his dinner table. He frequently hosts presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and other political bigwigs, along with those who are keen to meet them. Rosen is the go-between, the mediator, the contact, the man to whom one turns to meet Ivory Coast’s foreign minister or the defense minister of Russia, or the secretary of state of the United States.
Rosen’s story, if you will, is a synthesis of post-Holocaust Jewish revival intertwined with America, the land of endless possibility. The man who now whispers in the ears of some of the world’s most influential movers and shakers was born after World War II in a displaced persons camp in occupied Germany to Polish Holocaust survivors. His mother spent four years in Nazi labor camps, and his father survived Auschwitz. When he was five, Rosen’s parents immigrated to America and settled in The Bronx.
His parents, like many survivors, refused to talk about their experiences with their two boys, Jack and his brother Joseph. It was left to their own children to reveal, after many years had gone by, that the third Shabbat candle his mother lit every Friday was in memory of the baby she gave birth to in the camp, which was immediately taken away from her. And it was many years before Jack heard the story of his father’s gold coins, which can serve as a potent psychological symbol for Rosen’s own drive and success in later life.
“When he was taken away, my father took a bag of gold coins with him, with which he would pay off the German and Polish guards to look after my mother, as well as his sister and mother, who were in a nearby camp. But when he went to Auschwitz, he knew he would have to strip, so he swallowed the coins and continued to use them. At the end of the war, he had only one coin left, which he later gave to me. He hid it in his shoe when he was forced to go on the infamous Auschwitz death march. It still has the nail marks in it.”
Rosen studied mathematics at the City University of New York (CUNY) and called himself a scientist for a few years. But he soon decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and go into real estate. He started from scratch, but success soon followed. “I have always had an instinct for business,” he says, “I enjoy making the deal.” He refuses to say how much he’s worth − noting dryly that “no one in the family is complaining” − but he does volunteer that his company owns “over 6,000 apartments” in the New York area. And a hotel near Columbus Circle. And projects in China, including construction of a seaport and a new Westin Hotel near Shanghai, plus investments in telecommunications, banking and high-tech companies around the globe, including several Israeli start-ups. And several multimillion dollar health care firms, which, Rosen notes, were the first to offer “infusion therapy” for intravenous medication in patients’ homes.
Rosen has partnered with Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman, who, according to press reports, is investing $1 billion in American real estate through Rosen’s company (and who denies press reports that his Alfa-Bank is dealing with Iran). Rosen is also close to London-based billionaire Len Blavatnik, owner of Access Industries, which includes the Warner Music Group. Blavatnik is a leading philanthropist and recently purchased Israel’s Clal Industries.
Rosen has been active in Israel-related activities, in recent years through the American Council for World Jewry, which he heads. Every year, he brings a delegation of mayors to visit Israel and meet with its top politicians. He is also promoting what he calls “science diplomacy” to utilize Israel’s scientific know-how and technological prowess to foster ties with other countries. Recently, he agreed to a suggestion made by Ido Aharoni, Israeli consul general in New York, to help set up an “Einstein Department,” dedicated to studies at Beijing University, where Rosen regularly lectures.
Rosen has ties with many Israeli politicians, including Ehud Olmert, Avigdor Lieberman, Danny Ayalon, Tzipi Livni, and especially Prime Minister Netanyahu. The top official at his Council is Zeev Rubinstein, a former director general of Birthright-Taglit and one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants. Even though Rubinstein works for Rosen, he volunteers tips and advice to Netanyahu (and his wife, Sara) and lends a helping hand in organizing events when the two visit New York. Rosen won’t comment on a suggestion that he is perfectly placed to serve as a go-between for discreet messages between Netanyahu and Obama.
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Among Jewish professionals and the recognized leadership of the organized Jewish community, Rosen elicits mixed reactions. While some commend his activities, others belittle his influence, describing Rosen as an “opportunist” who often mixes his business interests with activities on behalf of the Jewish people. He was subjected to harsh public criticism, especially in the New York paper The Jewish Week, for what was described as his heavy-handed presidency at the American Jewish Congress. Five years after Rosen’s departure, the AJC fired most of its employees, mainly because it lost most of its money to the convicted swindler Bernard Madoff, who once served as the organization’s treasurer.
“Particularly sad is that while the Congress was known for championing the underdog and standing up to intimidation, it in recent years fell victim to dominant leadership from within its own organization,” an editorial in The Jewish Week noted in 2010. “Jack Rosen, a successful businessman, became president of the group in the mid-1990s, when it had fallen on hard financial times. He promised to bail the organization out, and did. But insiders say he was an autocratic leader who filled the board with family members and friends, and began to focus increasingly on foreign affairs through the Council for World Jewry, an offshoot of the Congress that he created and still leads, now as an independent organization.”
Rosen angrily rejects the accusations, ascribing them to “disgruntled employees” and “frustrated rivals.” The problem with the American Jewish Congress, he says − besides the Madoff scandal − is that “the world had changed, but they refused to change with it. They had a structure that just wasn’t workable. They had a grassroots organization with membership fees and branches throughout the country, which became less and less relevant. They dealt in issues which didn’t interest anyone anymore. People want to be in touch with decision makers, to have influence, but the management of the Congress was comprised of very bright Talmudist scholars who wanted to engage in endless discussions. They didn’t want to change, which is what happens to organizations that have been successful for a long time – like the railroad guys who sat around and said “we do trains, we don’t do airplanes.”
Rosen also rejects claims that both the Congress and his current Council for World Jewry are one-man shows. “When you look at the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, you see Malcolm Hoenlein − who knows the other 50 presidents? When you look at the ADL, all you see is Abe Foxman. When you look at the American Jewish Committee − it’s David Harris. Everyone assumes we’re control freaks. This is nonsense. How many people in one organization can have ties with presidents and prime ministers?”
Rosen gets visibly upset when I tell him that some people take a dim view of his activities. “I think Jews ought to stop complaining about other Jews. It makes no sense to me. I wake up every day, somebody’s got some theory about what I’m trying to do; trying to tear down this, build that. I’m trying to do some good. I spend a lot of time doing it, and I spend a lot of money. It takes away from business opportunities. I think many of the leaders I come across recognize that.”
Rosen believes Israel should recognize that the United States is not a solo player on the world stage anymore and engage more actively with Russia, China, India and multilateral organizations, especially the UN. He says the same about Jewish communities around the world, noting that they are in a far better position to influence their countries’ leaders. “They can visit Putin,” he says of the Russian Jewish community, “and they will have much greater impact than we Americans. They talk to their leaders, and we” − he may be employing the “royal we” here − “have the ability to communicate with leaders in Washington.”
That, of course, is an understatement. With Hillary Clinton, for example – whom Rosen met when he was helping her husband – Rosen now enjoys close relations, the origins of which are eerily similar to his current ties with Obama. When Clinton announced her decision to run for the New York Senate seat, she was out of favor with many Jews, mainly because of the kiss she bestowed on Suha Arafat in November 1999, after a speech in which Mrs. Arafat had accused Israel of using poison gas against Palestinian children. Polls had Clinton garnering less than 50 percent of the Jewish vote, an untenable position for a Democrat in New York.
So Rosen did what he does best − he invited Clinton and a select group of Jewish leaders for dinner at his home. “It did warm things up. Everyone understood each other and got to know one another a little better. It’s hard to know what would have happened had the dinner not taken place.”
Ever since then, he says, “she comes to dinner every year, and we work on issues together, and I’ve gotten to know her pretty well. I’ve been in touch with her at the State Department, and we talk every so often.” Once, when Rosen was in Moscow, Clinton phoned him at three in the morning and woke him up. Recalling her 2008 anti-Obama campaign commercial, which asked, “Who do you want answering the phone?” − Rosen laughed and said: “Madam Secretary, are you testing me?”
In 2007, Rosen contributed to Clinton’s run for the presidency. But after she lost the Democratic nomination, he contributed some more to Obama’s campaign and met him several times before their fateful November rendezvous.
“Whether you agree with him or not,” Rosen says of that dinner, “you walked away from that meeting thinking that he understood the security risks for Israel and that he was determined to do something about it. He has done better than other presidents, in fact, mainly on Iran, because he has got the support of the world, which Bush couldn’t. He has a different point of view on settlements, that’s true, and he thinks we should just sit down and negotiate.”
But why do so many Jews not trust him, and why do so many dislike him so virulently?
“First, because we didn’t know him when he became president. He was only a senator for a few years, and he didn’t have the cadre of Jewish leaders around him that most presidential contenders have. He wasn’t that familiar in the centers of Jewish gravity − Los Angeles and New York. And people start to wonder: If you’re going to be president, why aren’t you the best friend of a thousand Jews? Why didn’t you do a better job of getting engaged with us?
“I also think that he tends to have an intellectual rather than a political approach, and he tends to be overly honest about his policies. We’re not used to that. He went to Cairo to give his speech and he said to himself − I’m assuming − My middle name is Hussein, I can reach out to the Muslim world, which is the source of many of today’s problems. Why go to Jerusalem, which will lessen the impact of the speech? Of course, we didn’t like that.
Perhaps it’s his middle name − and his color...
“You’re getting into sensitive territory, but indeed, it doesn’t make any sense not to understand that having the middle name Hussein, having a father who was Muslim, as well as the color of his skin − all of these make various communities, including the Jewish community, question who he is and why he does what he’s doing. But having said that, we should remember that the Jewish community overwhelmingly voted for the guy with the middle name Hussein, whose father was a Muslim, and whose skin was darker.”
Rosen recalls a conversation with his friend, Sheikh Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, about the uproar caused by the UAE’s refusal in 2009, later reversed, to deny entry to Shahar Peer to play in the women’s tennis tournament in Dubai. “The uproar isn’t because of some Jewish-controlled media,” Rosen told the sheikh. “I’m fairly confident that Jews aren’t all that upset because most of them don’t expect you to let an Israeli tennis player play. It’s the Americans who are causing the trouble. You can’t mess with American values. We are a crazy country. Every 10 years we get into a war, a thousand people die, and we yawn. But mess with women’s rights or family values or religious values, and you have a serious problem.”
“What other country in the world,” Rosen asked Mohammed, “would elect a head of state that is at least perceived by many to be a foreigner? Where else? It would be like you naming me Sheikh Yaakov.”
“‘Is that your Hebrew name?” I ask. When he confirms it, I add: “It’s actually quite an apt title for you, Sheikh Yaakov.”